Category Archives: Opinion

And?

ambition__media_cycleAnyone who has run competitively knows what it means to press. Exertion edges past comfort, and you pray for some pleasure in punishment, or at least you hope for an outcome erasing the torture whispering in your brain. When the voice grows loud and insistent, you tell yourself you’re a better person for enduring it, embracing it.

But you don’t need to run to know what pressing is. Some of the things you’re sure you want, you don’t want… and vice versa. You know—because you’ve been told—choosing to travel downstream means never seeing the mountains. If you do more than you think possible, you’ll redefine what possible is.

What does not destroy you… oh, you know the rest.

Yet my most rare pleasure is doing what occurs to me. I’m surprised when I find myself enjoying, without guilt or self-recrimination, some activity I wandered into. I’m happy for each break from thought and action. As a child I occupied time, and not in the way I use that expression now—as expending or wasting time before important events—but in the gentler sense of dwelling in and on the present’s comforts.

The line between relentless determination and masochism grows fuzzy. In the marshmallow test, the contest goes to the child who leaves the first sweet alone in anticipation of two later. The children who only want one, we’re told, go on to lives of mediocrity. Yet, the test seems biased. What if there truly is no time like the present? By what measure of success are the satisfied unsuccessful? What if contentedness is the ultimate success?

Today, like every day, I’ve jotted a list of what must be done. The day’s value comes from the number of check marks added to that list. Anything else distracts. Three phone calls, emails to answer, and every variety of follow-ups await me. Even this post makes the list—creativity becomes production. Because moving is crucial, every minute demands gripping the road, making progress on projects… whatever “progress” and “project” mean.

Though I recognize forces of instant gratification working in the world too, I’m of the bigger-better-faster generation. We’ve been conditioned to distrust comfort and complacency. We’ve been led to believe we’re useful only when we expend breakneck effort. Anything easy, my parents taught me, is not worth having, and, hence, I’ve come to believe less (and less) in accomplishments. Once attained, they tell me I’ve aimed too low.

Having makes me wonder about something more, harder, more worthy.

I’m not alone. We’ve forgotten how to rest. We want to devise, institute, adjust, amend, alter, generate, or overturn. Our phones are out and we’re doing and doing. We nurture hope the next moment will be better (or at least different). The present is perpetually incomplete. No subject or object can be left alone. Because we’re a half-turn from bringing everything into a more fulfilling alignment, we spin and spin.

I worry our addictions to novelty and progress will disqualify the value of the past. We seldom, if ever, consider what we give up. We miss the repeated lesson that heedless innovation produces unanticipated, often complicated and ambiguous, results. Despite our technology and sophistication, we remain animals who so fear being prey they don’t dare pause. We exhaust ourselves to attain some safe state of relaxation that never arrives.

Herds of lemmings, I understand, don’t really rush off cliffs… but we may if we whip ourselves into a dead run where we’re frantic, exhausted, and addled. Satisfaction and consummation obsesses us, but when do we have enough?

Some ambition is necessary—we have problems to solve, and that takes dedication. And I’m not against a runner’s type of pressing if your motive is to test your capacities, exercise your talents, generally revel in the blessings of being alive and strong. I’m all for the glory of that sort of effort. Yet, past a point I wish I could better define, ambition begins to look like compulsion, the twitching of a rabid mammal.

Can’t resting be glorious too?

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What—Me Worry?

CL50915When the person likely to be the next U.S. Senate Environmental Committee chair wrote a book called The Great Hoax denying global climate change, maybe it’s time to address a new strain of anti-intellectualism… delusion.

American ambivalence about intellect isn’t new. From the beginning Americans have favored plain-speech and uncomplicated thinking. They’ve always believed in simple answers to every complex problem. Trusting in fresh perspectives, putting aside received truths to encounter issues anew, that produces answers. The utopian “City on the Hill” faith in the possibility of starting over created the constitution.

However, the founding fathers, for all their flaws, were no dummies. They were subtle men whose elegant (and inelegant) solutions arose from rumination, deliberation, persuasion, and resourcefulness. They embraced complexity and kept up with the political science and regular science of their day.

They did not, as some do now, solve problems by denying they exist and vilifying any “overthinker” or “alarmist” who looks too closely.

Social scientists can offer decades of research on interdependent causes of poverty, and still some Americans cut through “all the crap” with the real truth—that some people don’t take advantage of opportunity. Graphs depicting the imbalanced distribution of wealth inspire yet another rags-to-riches tale, and, if social scientists unfavorably compare economic mobility in America to almost everywhere else, someone will assert the possibility, no matter how remote, is all that’s important. And, because if you work hard you should get ahead, those left behind must not have worked hard enough. They ought to blame themselves, the thinking goes, so helping them, giving them “handouts,” only saps their will to try harder. Cite economists who explain the mechanisms of inherited wealth and the game of musical chairs everyone else plays, and you’ll be accused of fomenting class warfare, plotting to rob the deserving, being a socialist. The deserving believe in “the market,” as a counterbalance to (and not a manifestation of) human greed—no regulation or redress is necessary.

Americans untroubled by economic inequality are equally prepared to discount social inequality as a vestige of bad old days now gone. The mountain of statistical and anecdotal evidence demonstrating white privilege, they judge, only rationalizes indolence. Some go as far as to say the problem of race in America is solved, and any talk about persistent intolerance—surrounding class, creed, and sexual orientation—only reignites dead flames. It seems as long as you believe you are not personally (or at least not obviously) racist, sexist, and bigoted, these issues don’t exist. And expressing desire for equity elicits petulance. Pundits cry they’re not only blameless but also oppressed.

Though in scientific circles, human causes for climate change are rarely debated, some Americans choose to believe we know nothing and can know nothing about greenhouse gasses and the melting ice caps. They treat scientists with disdain, either correcting them (very slowly, as they would a child) with fundamentally flawed conceptions of the physical world or, alternately, declare, “I’m not a scientist” to turn ignorance to their advantage. Both responses share a view of science as evil and/or unintelligible—sorcery, not one of humanity’s best methods of seeking truth.

The catalog could go on: Gun control, environmental regulations, banking abuses, corporate tax loopholes, and healthcare divide along similar lines with some seeking to study problems and devise solutions and others carping there IS no problem. If anything needs to be done, the carpers say, it’s rolling back the meager amelioration managed so far.

To be fair, sanctimony exists on both ends of the political spectrum. The left dismisses opposition as much as the right. Neither listens to the other. Most Americans, left or right, read and watch only what echoes their viewpoint, facts be damned. Worse, Americans’ healthy appetite for drama has inspired the creation of loud and insistent megaphones to shout half-truths and whole lies. Subtlety and intellectual rigor aren’t, everyone knows, very sexy.

The conservatives’ position seems more dangerous, however. It’s much too easy for them to get away without persuasion or policy. In making ignorance and denial viable political stances, they’ve institutionalized distrust of scientists, economists, environmental experts, social scientists, and intellectuals devoted to study, discovery, and—let’s be direct—reality.

And, in the process, their delusion has infected the general electorate with a nearly nihilist sense of hopelessness. How do you argue with someone who believes there’s nothing to argue, who vows nothing is known conclusively, who says nothing can be done, and, moreover, should be done?

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Critiquing the Critic

MTE5NTU2MzE1ODYyNjMxOTQ3I value critics, but some take the job—and themselves—so seriously they go beyond illuminating their subject. Instead, they hint at their superior understanding. They assume awareness greater than those they criticize. They sound smug or condescending or dismissive and thus elicit criticism themselves.

In these publicity-hungry, hot-headed times, we’re accustomed to vehement critics. How valuable can a half-hearted viewpoint be, after all? Yet egotism often poisons criticism. Confidence helps, but self-assurance without self-awareness reveals ignorance akin to the cluelessness it denounces. Instead of discernment, the critic’s motives come first. Yet fighting over rectitude rarely convinces anyone. It rarely exposes something hidden and important. I wish all our social critics were a little less vociferous, but I prefer Jon Stewart’s dissections to Sean Hannity, Bill Mahr and Bill O’Reilly’s rants.

Printers’ Row, the book supplement associated with The Chicago Tribune, recently started a new feature called “Time Machine” offering old Tribune reviews of famous books. The first entry was H. L. Mencken’s response to The Great Gatsby, which I encountered with some skepticism. I mostly admire Fitzgerald and the novel, and the little I’ve read from and about Mencken fills me with ambivalence. Sometimes he’s witty, incisive, and unstinting. Sometimes he’s sarcastic, biting, and petty. And this review evoked both reactions—demonstrating, for me, when criticism does and doesn’t work.

In this case, I should say, “Doesn’t and does,” for Mencken swings his sword wildly in his opening before calming down to say something valuable. He calls the novel “No more than a glorified anecdote,” and writes off Gatsby as “a clown” and the other characters as “marionettes—often astonishingly lifelike, but nevertheless not quite alive.” In the end, he says, “The immense house of the Great Gatsby stands idle, its bedrooms given over to the bat and the owl, its cocktail shakers dry. The curtain lurches down.”

Maybe Mencken wanted to launch with a blast of his characteristic vitriol, but he seems so self-satisfied. As muscular as Mencken’s prose is and as much as I get his perspective, he speaks to those who enjoy (as Warren Buffet put it), “Interpreting all new information so that their prior conclusions remain intact.”

Granted, that’s most humans, but you either revel in his savagery or put the review aside immediately. If you’ve read the novel and agree, fine. If you haven’t, the critic’s snark is all you get. Illustrating broad proclamations is tricky, nigh impossible. Yet, if proof is impractical and explanation superfluous, only empty assertions remain.

Many of our pundits, politicians, and television personalities operate similarly. No longer inhabiting a three or four network world, we all have our shows. Whether to the left or right side of blue or red, you need never challenge prior conclusions. You can luxuriate in the affirmation of your disgust. Meanwhile, thought and self- examination suffer. Mencken described the U.S. as a “boobocracy,”  ruled by the uninformed. We’re no longer quite that (because it’s hard to be uninformed in a nation saturated with media), but we can bask in the sneering certainty of the critics we accept, which may be worse.

Mencken’s appraisal of Fitzgerald improves after his initial salvo, not because he begins to give the book some credit—Mencken continues to assert rather than demonstrate or prove—but because he uses the book to address the practice of writing, a subject bigger than the author, the novel, and the critic.

At first, Fitzgerald chiefly receives faint praise for improvement. According to Mencken, Fitzgerald’s earlier writing was “Slipshod—at times almost illiterate” and “devoid of any feeling for the color and savor of words.” Then, however, Mencken stops punching Fitzgerald, whose progress is, to Mencken, “Of an order not witnessed in American writers; and seldom, indeed, in those who start out with popular success.” Mencken’s point also stops being personal. It tackles artistry and success, how the latter blunts the ambition of the former. The popular author who has “Struck the bull’s-eye once” may stop learning new techniques, Mencken says, and undergo, “a gradual degeneration of whatever talent he had at the beginning. He begins to imitate himself. He peters out.”

Which seems, to me, wise and well-put. Mencken is no longer talking about Fitzgerald at all, but about the temptations and pitfalls of popular fiction. Fitzgerald is the opposite of Mencken’s scenario, a talentless author who achieves success and then labors to improve. He is the exception to a rule. Having dropped insults, Mencken also abandons dismissing The Great Gatsby and turns to what’s in it. He notes Fitzgerald’s interest in the elite’s “Idiotic pursuit of sensation, their almost incredible stupidity and triviality.” Mencken’s statement that “These are the things that go into his [Fitzgerald’s] notebook,” marks a shift toward description and criticism’s real power, its capacity for careful observation and valuable distinctions.

I wish all criticism were so thoughtful as those last few paragraphs and that all critics might leave off hollering to speak in more audible tones. I know that’s less entertaining, and maybe it’s our nature to slip into ad hominem. Yet, to me, criticism seems most effective when it’s respectful. Critics don’t have to love everything—that’d be a different evil—but it’d be nice if they made their work about their subject and not about self-righteousness.

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Greetings From Austenland

388px-Jane_Austen_coloured_versionAs an English teacher and someone who devotes considerable time to writing, I’m always interpreting and positioning words. Every day, I look for (and create) patterns, searching for fresh and resourceful arrangements that communicate thoughts separate from my physical setting. I suspect my world is different from some people’s. At least, I hope they experience life more directly—without so much analysis, commentary, or judgment.

Reading Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park hasn’t been good for me. Austen’s hikes through internal landscapes make mine look like speedboat tours. Ten minutes of Fanny Price’s thinking—roughly four pages—considers seven angles on one aspect of Mr. Crawford’s reaction to her body language after his failed proposal. Sir Thomas says six words before the 500 addressing their meaning to him, the situation, relationships (past, present and future), and the nature of social interaction in general.

I’m barely exaggerating. Austen’s prose evokes thoughts and emotions so subtle I start to feel like a cartoon chameleon crossing plaid. It’s hard to keep up.

Early on in life we’re taught to anticipate, rewarded for guessing, and urged to see beyond this moment. History and current events interpret more than they report, and we assess now by comparing it to our expectations. Partly, that’s what humans do. Our survival relies on seeing some distance. Yet many religious traditions—particularly Buddhism—encourage us to “be here now,” to allow “present” to live up to its name.

Austen would make a lousy Buddhist. After reading Mansfield Park, I step out of the novel as off a treadmill. The world won’t be still. The implications of every moment outrace time, and everything is more (and less) than it seems. Here’s Edmund Bertram telling Fanny about his angsty courtship of Miss Crawford:

I know her disposition as sweet and faultless as your own, but the influence of the former companions makes her seem—gives to her conversation, to her professed opinions, sometimes a tinge of wrong. She does not think evil, but she speaks it, speaks it in playfulness; and though I know it to be playfulness, it grieves me to the soul.

Meaning slips and slides all over the page as Edmund asserts what he knows (but clearly doesn’t, or he wouldn’t need to speak) and then unravels it in repeated reclassification and qualification (her professed opinions, echoed from former companions, to her conversation, sometimes, a tinge, speaking but not thinking, only playfully). What do you grip here?

Before Edmund begins the attempted explanation above, he tells Fanny he “Can’t get the better of ” his thoughts, and, the trouble is, neither can I. What’s actual and imagined switches places constantly. Austen loves characters who build reality from ideas that carry them far away from here-and-now. I go with them.

The 2013 movie Austenland (based on the novel by Shannon Hale) describes Jane Hayes’ (Kerri Russell) visit to a theme park based on Austen’s novels. She spills her savings to go, and (without spoiling too much for you) discovers only the fruition of Austen’s stories satisfy. The rest—murky motives, couched comments, pretense that isn’t really but could be, and notions of yourself and others neither you nor any other person can pin down—all that is a special sort of agony, a ring of hell Austen’s romantic reputation doesn’t advertise.

For me, Samuel Becket has nothing on Jane Austen. He may give a reader little to assemble into meaning, but she gives so much that, at least until the last few chapters, won’t assemble. No surprise, then, when Jane of Austenland decides, “I don’t want to play anymore… I want something real.” That’s my reaction too.

Don’t get me wrong. Austen’s effect does her credit. I admire her artistry. Sometimes, I just wish she weren’t so good, so in sync with the way I perceive, think, feel, and live. She makes me hungry for moments my mind quiets, the positions, angles, and relations of objects become plain, the scene around me solidifies, and the sun discovers a room more real than my mind’s wanderings.

I think, “Hey, it’s pretty nice here. I really should get out of my head more.”

 

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No Us Without Them (and vice versa)

771px-Pieter_Bruegel_the_Elder_-_The_Tower_of_Babel_(detail)_-_Google_Art_ProjectThe best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago. The second best time is now.

–Chinese Proverb

This morning, I bought a French Press coffee maker and wondered at the many tongues of its instructions. Some future alien archeologist might find the guide useful… and not just to make coffee. The Rosetta Stone seems mundane in comparison.

“How far we’ve come!” I’d like to crow—barely a word remains untranslated, and humans have rendered thoughts in scores of languages. I wish I felt as good about understanding, which lags so conspicuously. We trade words in one tongue for another—what was meant, and whether we hear and accept it, are bigger issues.

I’ve read science fiction centered on the impossibility of understanding between earth and extraterrestrials, but I always regarded that as speculation—writers ask, “What if frames of reference were so different as to be irreconcilable?” More and more, however, that what-if seems allegorical, not theoretical.

Consider war and what atrocity might be happening right this instant at the point of a knife sharpened too keenly or a gun loaded and unsafetied, its very existence daring its user to pull a trigger manufactured for that specified purpose, to impose some perceived right.

Humans are awful to one another, too stubborn to admit being one species. Maybe we are capable of just as much love, empathy, and understanding as hate. Maybe I should overlook our appalling cruelties and look for common kindness and common courage.

Sincerely, I’d rather believe in humanity, but resentment seems to matter most these days—along with selfishness, lack of foresight, deliberate denial of alternate perspectives, inexhaustible efforts to preserve self-regard, and the hegemony of our own type. Some say, “I want to change the world,” “I want to love everyone,” and “I want to help.” Meanwhile others live according to “We have ours (or want ours). The rest be damned.”

And, as much as I’d rather not, I participate. The other day, visiting with a like-minded friend, I waded knee-deep in bile and heard myself railing against corporate culture. “They don’t acknowledge anything but profit!” I said, and, “How can they be so focused on abstractions and ignore the real and genuine people—with families—standing right there?”

Luckily, I had no rock, club, or bazooka. I’m not above indulging in antagonism, humanity’s true universal trait. Like everyone else, I’d love to claim the title, “The Good Guy,” but that’d be self-serving.

In our overheated media greenhouse, it’s hard not to be contentious, and crowding has us fighting over resources and territory and—especially—rectitude, the space we want most. We crave reassurance we can’t exist without defeating or denying someone else. Anything considered “A common cause” or “mutually beneficial” drowns in skepticism and laughter.

We cry, “Beneficial to whom?” and too often mean, “How does that benefit me?”

The only solution I see is another science fiction plot—reversing Babel and plunging the planet into amnesia so profound that—even if we can’t overlook visible and audible divisions of language and geography and race and bent—we could reconsider everything that, right now, feels too important to put aside… sometimes seemingly virtually everything. Then we might restart. But I’m not sure how the story would end. Forgetfulness and forgiveness aren’t human gifts.

Idealists—how I wish I were one!—will say love is potent, equally embedded in every human heart. I’m optimist enough to yearn they’re right, but, after our well-recorded and well-noted history of animosities, oppressions, class warfare, bigotry, and grand (plus petty) violence, how do we make today new?

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The Cyber-Me

imagesLast Christmas, idly thinking about artificial trees, I did some online screen shopping. Now artificial trees stalk me. Google, Facebook, and my email sites remind me, “Hey, what about us fake trees? Remember us?”

To watch any video on YouTube, I must first pass through a forest of phony balsam and syrupy sentimental music… at least until “SKIP AD” appears.

While no one is invading my privacy exactly, it makes me wonder what I am to the internet, what identity cyberbots have decided upon. They may know I’m male. They might have triangulated my investigation of recliners (on my mother’s behalf), a lingering visit to mental exercise site, and my interest in the death of a certain vintage of television celebrities in order to approximate my age. Perhaps they know I buy less fashionable jeans and shoes. They certainly seem to peg me as “Wealth management material” (though I have no wealth) and “Democrat” (though I’m closer to Marxist), and—based on what’s proffered by “Stumble Upon”—I’m an aesthete (though really sometimes I’m so tired I only want to look at the pictures).

Part of me wants to cry out, “Hey, you don’t know me!” but the internet clearly isn’t taking so personal an interest. It means to sell, and every iota of evidence contributes to a vision of me as a consumer.

Am I only a consumer? I want to say “no” but probably “yes.” Though I wish to be more than I buy, the internet—and maybe our society as a whole—defines “buying” so broadly it encompasses more than cash. It doesn’t take much to be a marketer these days, and, given the effort marketers apply to their tasks, some meaning we’d like to deny resides in our classification as mostly this or mostly that. We hope to be more than we use, but—maybe not today or tomorrow and for the rest of our lives—we chase identity into cash.

Some years ago, I read a science fiction novel called Feed, and nearly every character in the book accepted a brain-internet interface to enhance their everyday experience. They sought it. They accepted every absurd intrusion—say “Coke” five times in the next five minutes and we will give you a virtual coupon for a six pack!—not to be left out or, more accurately, to take their place in some group, any group. No one wanted to be solitary.

A main character, the child of hippy parents, didn’t accept the feed until her adolescence and, even then, chose to goof on commercial forces by staring overlong at farm equipment. Her reward was the same as mine, a nearly perpetual barrage from predators bent on making her interest material.

I’m feeling along a dark wall in search of a way out, but perhaps we can escape our time no more than a serf or a slave might. I wish for the courage to resist, but my resistance might be subject to interpretation too. I’d become part of a group left out, and, surely, there’s something to be sold to them.

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Finnish Envy

a_wteachers_hammond_0225Reading about reforms in US education, you’re bound to run into the term “Finnish Envy.” Until recently, Finland led the world in nearly all the categories of the PISA test designed to measure educational success, and—by any measure and despite any drop—their 30 year program to reform schooling has been remarkably successful.

In contrast, Americans, who dislike being second at anything, rank seventeenth in reading, twentieth in science, and twenty-seventh in mathematics among the thirty-four participating countries, a drop from 2009, when the US placed fourteenth in reading, seventeenth in science, and twenty-fifth in mathematics.

Particularly galling about these results is that Finland does everything the US does not. They reject tracking and elite, charter-style schooling and put their euros into failing schools instead of successful ones. Rather than financially rewarding successful schools as we do in the US, the Finnish system grows alarmed when one school attracts more students than another and seeks to make every school desirable.

What’s more—and perhaps more significant—they create a culture of reverence for teachers. Finland believes not everyone has the talent to be a teacher, so few people get to be teachers in Finland, only the best. On a relative scale, teachers in Finland are paid—on average—less than US teachers, but they’re expected to engage in continual professional development. With no merit pay, they seek long careers in hopes of experiencing the steady and dramatic raises their system promises. In short, teachers are elite, just as lawyers and doctors are in other nations and, as such, receive accolades denied American teachers who—let’s face it—often garner more contempt than admiration. From the average American’s perspective, who couldn’t teach? We know better what good teaching is because we all went to school, and, besides, those who can, do… those who cannot… well, you know the rest.

The US spends a third more than Finland on a child’s K-12 education, but a larger percentage of American funding goes into “administrative costs.”

For Americans, the most baffling aspect of Finnish education is that teacher unions are particularly influential. With 96% of in the union, teachers have much more to say about what schools should do, whereas documentaries like Waiting for Superman villainize unions as the chief cause for American education’s failures. In Finland, administrations regard teachers’ advice as knowing and central, and many of the reforms suggested by teachers—less homework and more play during the day, more cooperative learning and less competition and assessment—contribute significantly to students’ progress. Those who administer and those who teach cooperate through a common purpose without becoming defensive or adversarial.

And the Finnish are uninterested in testing. They give one test, when a student graduates, just to see what’s happened. Americans’ mania for testing seeks constant feedback, constant evidence of progress, but Finnish teachers and administrators regard scores as data to consider, one numerical version of accomplishment.

To Americans, Finnish education seems too relaxed. No one really starts schooling until seven, and high school students take vocational classes and sometimes eschew calculus in favor or cooking, bookkeeping in favor of AP Microeconomics or reading over literature. Of course, you can take those classes if you desire but only if you desire. Desire is paramount, not extrinsic necessity or guessing about future demands on students or craven computation of what stamp will credential graduates.

Critics of Finnish Envy say Finland’s solutions are unsuited to American culture, where the premium is on ambition, getting ahead, not settling into vocational training but seeking excellence over the bottom line. Americans like to believe there’s more room at the top in American education for those who have the desire and drive and aggression to take advantage. Yet, among developing nations, Finland ranks in the top three for the greatest intra-generational boost in income between birth and adult life , despite their extraordinary number of immigrants and refugees.

The US leads the world in perception of individual progress but, in fact, ranks last in actual social mobility.

Still, for a system so lauded for success, Finland seems nonplussed. “Whatever it takes” is their motto. They only desire learning and put the political and ephemeral and ostentatious aside in favor of one end, giving everyone access to an equal education.

Inspiring envy isn’t their aim but effectiveness. Trying smarter beats trying harder.

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