On privilege and meritocracy (again)

the-american-dreamAnthropologist, writer and intellectual giantess Sarah Kendzior recently published an astute analysis of why those born in the 1970s or later are basically fucked as in a climate of widening inequality, winner takes all.

Although she is referring to the American context, the pattern also applies more generally to the western world. Broadly, she asserts that the baby boomers had it relatively easy and now getting a decent education and job are much more difficult for those of us under forty.

In her words: “In America, education has become a prize for people who have already won. Those with money, connections, and access to technology travel a path that starts with private preschools, continues through SAT tutors and exorbitant enrichment activities, and culminates in college that costs more than the national median income.”

She points out that the notion of the United States being a meritocracy is no longer valid. Back in the day when the boomers were coming of age, a good, affordable education was more accessible and decent jobs more plentiful. However, now  the springboard into a solid middle class existence comes with a much heftier price tag. According to Kendzior, “The fate of the next generation…relies on how heavily parents are able to invest in the expensive credentials now required to purchase a professional future.”

She terms this an “entrenched meritocracy” – “one structured on what sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called ‘the social alchemy that turns class privilege into merit.’ In an entrenched meritocracy, advantages conferred by birth are marketed as achievements, but these achievements – a good education, a prestigious-but-unpaid or low-paying entry-level job – are only possible for those who have the means to afford them. The cycle repeats itself, with a wealthy and educated elite conferring their own advantages onto their children.”

Kendzior goes on to assert that, “opportunity hoarding has become the pastime of the elite, with education used as a proxy for rejection based on ‘merit,’ and ‘merit’ redefined as how many prestigious accolades one is able to purchase to gain access to education. This process begins at birth, where quality of school is determined by parental income bracket, but is shown most clearly in higher education, where the cost of tuition increased 1120 percent between 1982 and 2012.”

So where does this leave us? It’s clear that Gen Y and millennials, the offspring of the baby boomers are struggling. They struggle with paying for education, housing, finding suitable and well-paying work. While some of it is their own fault (let’s face it, they can be a bit entitled and narcissistic), economic immobility is spreading like a disease, education becoming more and more for the elite, like back in the old days, leaving a very uncertain future indeed. If things continue as they are, it will only get worse, and slowly but surely, the American dream is turning into a nightmare.

How to be a smarty-pants

albert-einstein-theoretical-physicist-and-philosopher-1680x1050It can no longer be denied that education needs to be rethought and reformed. The viral TED talk by Ken Robinson says it all really. On a more nuanced level, we need to consider how the education system can teach us to think in ways that are useful for the rest of our lives, not just get us into college, or graduate, or find a job.

I came across this little gem of an article by the BBC that addresses in detail this issue. It quotes an American academic, Robert Sternberg who had a low IQ at school and his teachers thought he wouldn’t amount to much, but thanks to a mentor who taught him new ways of thinking beyond abstract concepts, he’s now a professor at Cornell University.  According to Sternberg, “The tests we use – the SATs or A-levels in England – are very modest predictors of anything besides school grades…You see people who get very good grades, and then they suck at leadership. They are good technicians with no common sense, and no ethics. They get to be the president or vice-president of corporations and societies and they are massively incompetent.”

It sounds obvious that we should be taught from a young age how to think more effectively, but it’s not so easy to consider how exactly this should be done. Sternberg and others on his bandwagon are advocating for tweaking our thinking based on five insights:

1. Recognise your blind spots

As noted in the article, everybody suffers from some subconscious biases which distort our views and decision making. In fact, there are dozens of biases that we fall prey to. Luckily, the field of psychology is showing more and more evidence that we can be trained to spot them.

2. Be ready to eat humble pie

Sounds obvious, but we can become more effective thinkers if we can learn to deal with uncertainty and are open to changing our minds quickly based on new information and evidence. For this to occur, we have to be open to admitting we were wrong. Essentially, we should cultivate our ability to question the limits of our knowledge. As stated in the article, “On what assumptions are you basing your decision? How verifiable are they? What additional information should you hunt out to make a more balanced viewpoint?”

3. Argue with yourself – and don’t pull the punches

This strategy involves putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, seeing things from another perspective. Take the opposite view and argue against your convictions.

4. Imagine “what if…”

Sternberg would love it if the education system placed more emphasis on teaching how to think more practically and creatively. As stated in the article, “Even if we aren’t schooled through rote memorisation any more, many teachers still don’t necessarily train the kind of flexibility needed in most of real life.” One solution could be to re-imagine key events in history, framing it with ‘what if’. The purpose is to consider different outcomes and form hypotheses.

5. Don’t underestimate the checklist

It has been pointed out and backed up with solid evidence that a simple checklist can save lives in fields as diverse as medicine and aviation. Technology and skill just aren’t enough – consider the fallout of a surgeon neglecting to wash their hands before surgery, or a nurse forgetting to change a bandage.

As Sternberg concludes, “Intelligence isn’t a score on an IQ test – it’s the ability to figure what you want in life and finding ways to achieve that.” One day I hope that education can broaden its notion of intelligence. Imagine what a better place the world would be if people could be more self-aware and think effectively.

“Education is not for everyone.”

Brain_on_Fire_Susannah_CahalanA few months ago I read the remarkable autobiography by Susannah Cahalan called Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness. It’s a well-written and riveting account of her foray through the best clinics and hospitals in New York after experiencing an array of severe and unusual symptoms. After a series of misdiagnoses, she is finally diagnosed with the extremely rare auto-immune affliction of encephalitis. While the book in its entirety is excellent, there is one section that has remained with me and that I often think about.

The doctor who helps Susannah the most is from Syria and has quite a remarkable story of his own to tell. They become close as he becomes committed to helping her (“He had an intense sympathy for the weak and powerless”), and in the process Susannah learns a lot about him and his past.

I can’t tell the story better, so I’m going to quote verbatim from the passage that struck me most:

“[Dr. Najjar] had done poorly in school, and his parents and teachers had considered him lazy. When he was ten, after he failed test after test in his private Catholic school, his principal had told his parents that he was beyond help: ‘Education is not for everyone. Maybe it would be best for him to learn a trade.’ Angry as he was, his father didn’t want to stop his schooling – education was far too important – so although he didn’t have high hopes, he put his son in public school instead.

During his first year at public school, one teacher took a special interest in the boy and often made a point to praise him for his work, slowly raising his confidence. By the end of that year, he came home with a glowing, straight A report card. His father was apoplectic. ‘You cheated,’ Salim said, raising his hand to punish his son. The next morning, his parents confronted the teacher. ‘My son doesn’t get these types of grades. He must be cheating.’

‘No, he’s not cheating. I can assure you of that.’

‘Then what kind of school are you running here, where a boy like Souhel can get these kinds of grades?’

The teacher paused before speaking again. ‘Did you ever think that you might actually have a smart son? I think you need to believe in him.’

Dr. Najjar would eventually graduate at the top of his class in medical school and immigrate to the United Sates, where he not only became an esteemed neurologist but also an epileptologist and neuropathologist. His own story carried with it a moral that applied to all of his patients: he was determined never to give up on any of them.”

I don’t need to point out why this passage is so uplifting (but I’m going to anyway): the important role teachers and positive role models can play, the need to have someone believe in you, the crucial role of confidence, never giving up and the premise that, education is, indeed, for everyone.

Birth & Death

fern-frond-223I was so happy to receive an email this week announcing that a dear friend of mine had given birth. In fact, I didn’t even know she was pregnant. As part of a backlash against Facebook, the happy couple made sure not to announce any baby-related news via social media. They are a fabulous couple and although I only met J. a few times, he restored my faith in men a little as he held up a large cardboard sign at the port of Yokohama as our ship set sail around the world that stated, loud and clear, ‘I LOVE YOU’ as Miss A wiped tears from her eyes. I was lucky enough to spend three months traveling with her  and getting to know an incredibly strong and wonderfully irreverent woman. And now, years later, they share a past that includes living in Japan, Canada and now England together, a year long adventure through South America while supporting each other through their various career changes (Her: human rights volunteer to NGO account manager, Him: engineer to lawyer). Now they have created a human life, currently known as ‘Peanut.’ He is truly blessed to have such wonderful parents, even if they can’t think of a real name for him.

And in the same week, I was saddened to learn of the death of one of the most influential people in my youth, my wonderfully eccentric and caring drama teacher. She died after a long battle with cancer, just months after she finally retired and also was formally recognized by the country for all her support and contribution to the performing arts and young people in NZ. I was fortunate enough to travel to the U.S. with her when I was just a 16 year old whippersnapper, and because of her, I had one of the most memorable and incredible experiences of my life. It wasn’t long ago that I wrote a letter to her, congratulating her on her retirement. And now she is gone. Many years ago, she used to start sentences with ‘When I retire…’ It’s sad that she didn’t have much time to enjoy it. And while she loved what she did (it would be impossible to be that dedicated if your heart wasn’t in it), she must’ve left this world with some unfulfilled dreams. She will always hold an important place in my heart and I will always be grateful to her as a mentor and role model. As I age physically and grow mentally and emotionally, I realize more and more how formative she was to my life. Her very untimely death serves as a reminder to live our lives to the fullest, to seize the day, because tomorrow we might not be here. May you rest in peace, Miss Walsh.


Are Teachers Undervalued?

educateI recently enjoyed watching this talk given by New Zealander Dr. Kerry Spackman. I find his work very interesting because as a kind of Renaissance man, he understands society from different perspectives and has written compellingly about the complexities of what it means to be human, from each individual’s subjective reality (from the perspective of a neuroscientist) to the wider structural dynamics of society (as a philosopher). Oh, and he can earn up to $20,000 a day coaching elite athletes. And he led the All Blacks to their last World Cup win. Also, some of his writing on the human condition got me through some dark times. So, yeah, when he talks, I listen.

As a ‘big picture’ thinker myself, I was intrigued by the vision he puts forth of how society can better function. While it’s too complex to repeat here in any depth, he highlights the ways in which contemporary capitalist society is messed up – the giant gaps between rich and poor, the inequalities and injustices this fosters. He also bemoans our lack of moral education (not to be confused with religion). I have been particularly drawn to his thoughts on education as an institution because I agree with many of his observations and ideas.

Back to his talk. In response to a question about how education in New Zealand can attract the best people, he relays an anecdote about  being a teacher many years ago at one of New Zealand’s most prestigious and poshest schools.

“I think our teaching profession is grossly undervalued. I really do. When I was young I had a couple of years teaching at Auckland Grammar School, physics and math…I couldn’t sustain more than two years. It’s a tough job to do well. It really is.”

(And really, if someone with his incredible capabilities and educational pedigree had such a hard time at one of the best schools in the country, how is it for those working in schools where kids come to school everyday hungry and without any books.)

This is the part I like:

“If you take a society like the Greeks, who were at the top? The philosophers, the teachers were the most valued people in society. They were at the top. I look at the money paid to doctors and the money paid to teachers. Completely different. And yet, for me, who has the most impact on society? Who, if they’re really skillful, does the best job? For me, it’s teachers. A skillful teacher doesn’t just teach Pythagoras or the capital of Australia. A skillful teacher awakens a sense of passion and enthusiasm in their students. The curriculum is cluttered. There is pressure to meet all sorts of objectives. I understand all of that.”

He also writes about this theme in one of his books which is about the nature of truth and reality.

“We definitely need to reward successful teachers and give them higher status in society than we currently do. It is the old story: you get what you pay for. And if we don’t value our teachers as highly as our sports stars or medical doctors then it should come as no surprise to us that the moral health of the next generation is going to be poor.”

In his talk, he concludes that:

“A billion dollars is spent on jails. Just jails. Imagine if we had a billion dollars for teachers, what we could do?”


Also, no rant about education or teachers would be complete without mentioning Finland, a kind of educational utopia.

As one Finnish expert wrote in the Washington Post:

“Finland is not a fan of standardization in education. However, teacher education in Finland is carefully standardized.  All teachers must earn a master’s degree at one of the country’s research universities. Competition to get into these teacher education programs is tough; only “the best and the brightest” are accepted. As a consequence, teaching is regarded as an esteemed profession, on par with medicine, law or engineering. There is another “teacher quality” checkpoint at graduation from School of Education in Finland. Students are not allowed to earn degrees to teach unless they demonstrate that they possess knowledge, skills and morals necessary to be a successful teacher.”

This would go a long way to improving the state of the teaching profession in NZ where many teachers burn out after five years or the really talented, capable ones reach their pay cap quickly, and are lured by more prestigious and lucrative careers.

Anyone who has had to wade into the murky depths of education data relating to student learning, teacher effectiveness etc. knows that it is far too messy to be able to make any solid conclusions. There are too many variables and what works in one setting doesn’t usually work in another. South Korea looks good on paper, but students are under immense stress to perform and achieve in this hyper-competitive society. To the point that there are spats of suicides every year by young people who buckle under the stress or fear disappointing their parents.

Perhaps if we got our education system right, we wouldn’t need all that money of for the jails.