Sunday, November 14, 2010

The industry of worldly wisdom

Algis Valiunas considers the "...vast apparatus of uplift and solicitude [that] services Americans’ longings for ­success and happiness. Self-help, ­positive thinking, actualization, ­motivation, empowerment: the industry of worldly wisdom whirs on like a perpetual-motion dynamo, powered by the consumers’ insatiable compulsion to have it all and to feel good about themselves, and by the purveyors’ confidence that they, at any rate, can indeed have it all, by turning out swill by the boatload and feeding the cravings of the perennially feckless." He does, however, find one school of "self-help" that offers value:
Amid the blather, hokum, and trumpery, there is a sub-genre of self-help lit that represents the traditional granite in the American character, and which proffers hope that not all of our countrymen in a generation or two will be sops or ninnies. For some, the pursuit of happiness remains above all the pursuit of excellence. Three recent books, Geoff Colvin’s Talent Is Overrated, Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code, and Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, examine high achievement — literary, musical, business, sporting — down the ages, in the light of recent discoveries in psychology and neurology. What all three writers agree on, despite some obvious ideological differences, is that hard work, so-called deliberate or deep practice, extremely intense and pursued over many years, makes the difference between the remarkable and the less accomplished. Inborn genius, to which we commonly attribute success, is in fact so rare that it doesn’t really figure in the calculations. ....
Valiunas concentrates his attention on Coyle's work and, after a description of its empirical basis, cites a practical application in education:
.... America today tolerates so glaring a disparity between our best schools and our worst largely because we have written off a large portion of our population as too dumb to learn. Underneath an avalanche of cynical excuses for educational failure lies the tacit assumption — left over from the eugenic fantasies of such moral luminaries as Margaret Sanger, Walter Lippmann, and Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes — that generations of inbreeding among the poorest of the poor have produced an inherently unintelligent underclass that will never have what it takes to rise from its misery. Coyle’s most moving chapter describes how this line of thinking has been proved wrong by the astonishing success of the Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP, founded in 1993 by a couple of frustrated young teachers, Michael Feinberg and David Levin, in Houston’s inner-city schools. By 2008 there were sixty-six KIPP schools coast to coast, with 16,000 students. KIPP takes children who seem headed for mediocrity or failure — who have little or no hope of ever making it out of the slums — and turns them into exemplary scholars with bright futures.

Generous severity and loving regimentation work wonders. The school day lasts from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., with additional classes every other Saturday. The KIPP school is what Coyle calls “a bastion of deep practice. [Teachers] constantly remind KIPP students that their brains are muscles: the more they work them, the smarter they will get — and there’s plenty of work to do. Two hours of homework a night is standard; worksheets number in the hundreds; the day is filled with stretches of intense silent work.”

KIPP operates on the principle — reinforced by the research findings of Martin Seligman — that self-discipline is more important than IQ in determining academic performance. There is strict instruction in just about everything you can think of: how loudly to talk, how to sit while listening, how to carry your notebook, how much toilet paper to use. Students are brought to understand that they can make their way confidently in the strange world beyond the hood. “College is the spiritus sancti that is invoked hundreds of times each day, not so much as a place as a glowing ideal.” From the lowest rungs of elementary school, KIPP students pay campus visits to colleges, where KIPP alumni offer advice and inspiration. Eighty percent of KIPP students go on to college. Along the way, they learn how to be courteous, considerate young men and women. ....
From Valiunas's concluding paragraph:
In the absence of something better, one appreciates the recent books on achievement, but one wishes for a modern primer in high achievement for the end most worth achieving: a noble character. .... To revive the ancient spirit of competitiveness with regard to high things would be a worthy goal for the American literature of worldly counsel. For now, however, even the best purveyors of functional wisdom offer less than we really need. And as for the rest, there is pap from sea to shining sea, of wanton avarice, or diaphanous lunacy, or simpleton dullness. One fears for a nation awash in this drivel. One longs for a practical democratic philosopher to save us from drowning in it. [more]
The New Atlantis » The Science of Self-Help