Quote(s) of the Day II

Every now and then you will read something that just hits home. The text bristles with shards of truth, piercing your heart and mind. So it was with me as I stumbled upon an essay — The Disadvantages of an Elite Education — by William Deresiewicz, a writer, literary critic and Yale alumnus. The article offers an eloquent, biting critique of elite education (specifically Yale and Ivy League but generalisable to other countries). In my first ever post, I reflected on my years at Sydney Law School and wholeheartedly concluded that it was an experience worth having. Nevertheless, I do have strong reservations about our elitism — particularly in light of what many grads in my cohort are now doing and in light of the up-and-comers who seem more convinced than ever that doing law at Sydney is just the ticket for success in life.

Dr Deresiewicz has a lot to say about elite education, but if I had to distil down to his core points, it would be these:

1. It makes us think we’re superior people

One of the great errors of an elite education, then, is that it teaches you to think that measures of intelligence and academic achievement are measures of value in some moral or metaphysical sense. But they’re not. Graduates of elite schools are not more valuable than stupid people, or talentless people, or even lazy people. Their pain does not hurt more. Their souls do not weigh more. If I were religious, I would say, God does not love them more.

Yes, someone who gets extremely high marks in the university entrance exams might be ‘better’ than others in the very narrow sense of being more book smart. The danger is to let this mindset seep into other areas of thinking. We begin to feel entitled, that we deserve better because we’ve worked so hard and we’re so bright. If another person is not doing well it’s because s/he is lazy and dumb and they deserve less.

2. It constricts what we do with our lives

An elite education gives you the chance to be rich—which is, after all, what we’re talking about—but it takes away the chance not to be.

Some people started off wanting to be rich and successful, so they decided on the ‘best’ course at the ‘best’ uni to maximise their shot at riches and success. Some people didn’t have a clear idea of what they wanted to do after finishing high school, but they were book smart so they did well in tests and fell in to the best course at the best uni. I am in the second category. The danger with the second group is that we know better but we still go down that path. We don’t have that ruthless streak. We are probably disdainful of those who are pushing pushing pushing for better marks, better job, better pay. But nevertheless we go through the those same motions, jump through the same hoops.

I have several theories as to why. Perhaps because we’re unsure of what we want, we take our cues from what society regards as successful. Perhaps we’re stubborn and decide to stick with the law school —> corporate route because we’ve invested so much time and effort into our degrees that we might as well do it (see: sunk cost fallacy). Or perhaps we’re so afraid of failure (see next point) that we don’t think we can go off the well-worn track, and that we’ll be perceived as such if we do so.

In any case, simply having an elite education makes it that much harder to contemplate, let alone pursue, a path that may be more suitable for us.

3. We become terrified of failure

Because students from elite schools expect success, and expect it now. They have, by definition, never experienced anything else, and their sense of self has been built around their ability to succeed. The idea of not being successful terrifies them, disorients them, defeats them. They’ve been driven their whole lives by a fear of failure—often, in the first instance, by their parents’ fear of failure.

I don’t have much to add, except to say that from personal experience this absolutely rings true. Once you’re on the ‘elite’ path, there is a great expectation and desire to perform. It may sound ridiculous, but I was terrified of getting anything less than a Distinction in my subjects. That fear pushed me forwards, and now looking back the most significant thing I got out of it was a set of pretty numbers.

4. It goes against the true spirit of education: to teach us to think

But if you’re afraid to fail, you’re afraid to take risks, which begins to explain the final and most damning disadvantage of an elite education: that it is profoundly anti-intellectual.
[The kids] are products of a system that rarely asked them to think about something bigger than the next assignment. The system forgot to teach them, along the way to the prestige admissions and the lucrative jobs, that the most important achievements can’t be measured by a letter or a number or a name. It forgot that the true purpose of education is to make minds, not careers.

This one is the killer. While I did comment favourably on legal education in my first post, I believe what I gained was quite particular: analytical skills. The essay also alludes to this, with elite schools placing a premium on the analytic over other valuable facets of intelligence: for example social intelligence, emotional intelligence and creative ability.

I consider myself fortunate to have had the foresight to combine my Law degree with an Arts degree which allowed me to dabble in the humanities, particularly philosophy. I was able to think, to question, to ponder. My fear is that as tertiary education becomes ever more ‘professionalised’ — lawyers, accountants, engineers, computer technicians, etc — less and less students are willing or able to pursue learning for its own sake, thinking for its own sake.

Could this just be the cry of a pompous Arts student? Maybe. I think the professionalisation of tertiary education is more a reflection of how society is transforming, rather than an indictment of the students themselves (who, after all, are responding to what society says is important). Are the Humanities dying a slow death? Now there’s something I can spend a good 1000 words on.

Book Review: Reframe

My friend Rob has a brother called Eric. Eric Knight is one of those high-achieving types. Sydney Law School, Rhodes Scholar, economics consultant to the OECD and the World Bank, media commentator and now the author of a book called Reframe: How to Solve the World’s Trickiest Problems.

Aside from the content, which I will get to shortly, perhaps the best thing about the book is its readability. Eric doesn’t make any assumptions about his readers. Any experiments or historical events he recounts are clearly explained, and his anecdotes are interesting and pertinent. He constantly asks the reader to reflect on the themes of the book and he neatly summarises the story so far at the end of each chapter.

So what is the book about? The title is quite self-explanatory, although Eric writes about something that is often neglected when we are confronted with world problems. He argues that “the most common mistake is to search for answers in the wrong place without thinking to adjust our point of view.” The chapters are organised thematically and each serves to highlight that particular point: from a financial institution seeking to beat the market, to the US Government fighting terrorists and dealing with illegal immigration, to the vexed questions of the politics and economics of climate change.

Fundamentally, as Eric himself notes, it is a book about human psychology. Humankind has a wonderful capacity for intellect and achievement. However, our minds have limitations — we have a tendency to fixate on one thing (or a limited range of things), thereby preventing us from seeing the bigger picture. This is what Eric calls the magnifying glass trap. For example, when US authorities during the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan focused on defeating the people with guns, they became embroiled in a military quagmire. Over time, the commanders realised they needed to take a step back and view it as more than just a clash of weapons. Conflicts have a number of different dimensions: cultural, political, economic. In broadening the scope and viewing each dimension as a problem to be solved — eg, befriending the local populace, leveraging political connections — the military goals became much more achievable.

Reframe resonated with me because it is a deeply pragmatic book. It is not a book that leans on a particular ideology or agenda. Eric is genuinely passionate about the ability of people to solve problems grassroots style (localism), citing many examples, and seems wary of top-down government (cue cheers from libertarians and capital-C conservatives). On the other hand, when it comes to investment in certain markets (such as health and clean-tech), it is clear that he is not a proponent of the idea that government intervention is always bad bad bad. This is something that is very appealing to me. I’ve said before, generally the optimal level of something lies somewhere in the middle of a continuum — in this case, government investment in technology. While it won’t be the simple black-and-white that people instinctively feel for, as Eric notes: “[it’s] a messier process but one more in tune with the economy’s inherent complexity.”

In reflecting on Eric’s conclusion (that if we would take a deep breath, step back, examine the big picture, examine the complexities and not-so-obvious things, we’re able to make changes for the better), I have one concern with it. My beef is not with any shortcomings in the book per se but rather my pessimism at humankind’s limited thinking abilities. Eric writes in a very optimistic manner and I absolutely commend him for that (I wish I could remain as optimistic as he is when I’m 28!). However, practically speaking, I don’t know how possible it is for the message to get out and make a sustained difference to people’s thinking that is necessary to tackle the greatest challenges facing us.

For example, Eric very astutely observes that in the climate change debacle debate, the issue is not whether we’ve had a blisteringly hot week or a once-in-a-generation winter cold snap. It is not about weather, but climate. And none of us (meaning the general populace) are qualified to answer the question “is our climate changing.” So the real question becomes “whose expert opinion is worth listening to?” The answer to me is a no-brainer: actual climate scientists (or more accurately, their consensus view). Eric then throws another curve ball: there is a difference between science (how the world works) and politics (what we should do about it). He queries whether scientists (with their consensus view being that the climate is warming) should be giving their opinion on non-scientific matters. For example, what about people who believe it is too costly to take action, or who would rather just accept the inevitability of a warming planet?

Coming back to my pessimism: to the extent that people realise it is a question of whose opinion is worth listening to (they have properly reframed) and they choose the non-expert opinion (ie, fixating on radio shock jocks, loud denialists, selective data, ‘false emails’), my concerns are highlighted. Furthermore, I take issue with a neat dichotomy between scientific and political matters. Sometimes the science is so compelling that it can and should dictate what action our society takes. For example, there is compelling science that says exposure to alcohol during childhood and adolescence is extremely bad, with the damage rising in proportion to level of exposure, and governments respond accordingly with rules and regulations. Analogously, why shouldn’t scientists help identify the upper danger limit of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, as Eric recounts? If they can roughly show that at such-and-such level, there will be increasing (and irreversible) incidents of wild weather occurrences, rising sea levels, desertification, loss of water, loss of biodiversity, etc etc, is this not just a scientific measure but a social problem? And, for those who don’t disbelieve the science but rather claim that their democratic freedom to choose a dangerous future is being infringed, should we really take these people seriously?

There are times when reframing the problem isn’t enough. In the end we have to examine the deeper sources of people’s beliefs and motivations. Often (as is the case with climate change), our conception of and response to the problem is shaped by our own self-interest (“if we do something and others don’t, we’ll be at a disadvantage!”), our greed (“it’s too costly to act!”) and our failure/refusal to sacrifice short-term pain for long-term gain. They are quintessentially human traits and will bedevil any effort to effect meaningful change.

However, none of my pessimistic ruminations should take away from what Eric has done. The magnifying glass trap problem he identifies is a pertinent one. I applaud him for writing a book about the processes of solving a problem — the how as opposed to the what. It is something everyone needs to think more about. Now if only we can also get people to think about their internal motivations and prod them into being less self-focused and more others-focused. Then I’ll be a happy chappy.

A Voice of Reason

If you’re even remotely interested in economics, you need to read this speech by Dr Paul Krugman, the nobel-prize winner and economist/columnist at the New York Times. This is Dr Krugman at his best, presenting a clear and thoughtful picture of what is wrong with the state of economics today while calling out those Very Serious People who through self-interest and/or self-denial have fled reality and are now making terrible, horrible, no good, very bad decisions, consequential decisions, for the developed economies of the world.

I, For One, Welcome Our New Online Overlords

I was sitting at dinner the other night with some workmates (our background is in the legal/privacy fields) and the topic of conversation turned to Facebook. One of them posited that Facebook could potentially end up like Friendster or Myspace — sites that grew spectacularly but failed to capitalise on their success before dying a slow, wasting death. Several others concurred. I wasn’t so sure.

Facebook has become ubiquitous. There is a defiant minority who refuse to get sucked in (and who miss out on all the events now that they’re all organised through FB) and a small churn of people who quit, but they are not important (no offence). As much as we speak of a virtual space or virtual playground, this is it. It is where people gather to chat, to debate, to share, to join causes, to advocate, etc etc. It is the marketplace/forum of the 21st century.

With this online infrastructure in place, and with so many people heavily invested in it, I just cannot see Facebook ever going away. Yes, Facebook has copped flak for some of its egregious violations of privacy and yes, it really is creepy how it is seeking to become the centre of our lives, to know everything about us and collect every morsel of information that it can — our contact details and personal information, our location, our photos, our chat logs, our browser history (don’t click “like” on a non-Facebook website…). However, I just don’t think there’s much we can do about it, except keeping our privacy settings at a high level and get used to the targeted ads that are sure to come our way.

Sometimes I encounter arguments that go along the lines of: “if you don’t like what Facebook is doing, then don’t join it in the first place.” Proponents think that it is a magical cure-all. Actually, it is an extremely impractical and short-sighted solution. It is analogous to saying “if you don’t want to get run over then don’t cross any roads.” Sure, it is possible to live your entire life staying away from roads. It is possible to live your life barred from the online world that is Facebook. But anyone who does so would be severely socially handicapping themselves, just as anyone who avoided roads would find their life needlessly difficult.

For better and worse, Facebook is our new reality. All things considered (and with an eye to my privacy settings), I, for one, welcome our new online overlords.

Says it all really.