Another Week Ends

1. Today the fourteenth issue of the magazine goes to print, and so it’s only […]

1. Today the fourteenth issue of the magazine goes to print, and so it’s only appropriate that we open this weekender with one of our issue’s featured interviewees (and conference speaker!), Alfie Kohn. In our Family Issue, Alfie and I talked about parenting and education, and how kids (and the people who raise them) are entrenched in understanding acceptance only in terms of scarcity, and love only in terms of conditionality. In this most recent New York Times op-ed, he talks about how that same variable of scarcity in American schools, where acceptance is garnered through “rigorous” assessment, and acceptance is only available for a few. Kohn invites us on a thought experiment:

Suppose that next year virtually every student passed the tests. What would the reaction be from politicians, businesspeople, the media? Would these people shake their heads in admiration and say, “Damn, those teachers must be good!”?

Of course not. Such remarkable success would be cited as evidence that the tests were too easy. In the real world, when scores have improved sharply, this has indeed been the reaction. For example, when results on New York’s math exam rose in 2009, the chancellor of the state’s Board of Regents said, “What today’s scores tell me is not that we should be celebrating,” but instead “that New York State needs to raise its standards.”

For Kohn, this stems from a primarily American notion that acceptance is rendered null and void if it is offered wholesale. The Laws of Excellence must, by definition, exclude. Acceptance must be won by accumulating a variety of “noteworthy” achievements, and most importantly, beating all the other guys after the same thing.

Framing excellence in these competitive terms doesn’t lead to improvements in performance. Indeed, a consistent body of social science research shows that competition tends to hold us back from doing our best. It creates an adversarial mentality that makes productive collaboration less likely, encourages gaming of the system and leads all concerned to focus not on meaningful improvement but on trying to outdo (and perhaps undermine) everyone else. Most of all, it encourages the false belief that excellence is a zero-sum game. It would be both more sensible and more democratic to rescue the essence of the concept: Everyone may not succeed, but at least in theory all of us could.

While “excellence” is not a term we talk about much, this would be a textbook example of how the Law kills, how a field like education—which is by nature meant to inspire curiosity, collaboration, inventiveness, and play—becomes to look like its opposite: lifelessly regimented and greedily suspicious. From that shift, “excellence” begins to take on much scarier characteristics.

2. While we’re on the subject of things looking weirdly like their opposite, let’s talk about the #loveambitionist. You may have already heard about Marissa Fuchs. She’s the “Fashion Ambistionist” social media influencer, who this week choreographed, branded, and Instagram “short-filmed” her entire 48-hour “proposal experience,” which took her and her boyfriend from the Hamptons to Miami to NYC to Paris and back. The skewers came out as soon as people found out that she (or her fiance or her marketing team) had pre-emptively sent a “pitch deck” to marketing agencies all over the world, lining up the itinerary for various photoshoots she would be doing. Sadly, people weren’t so baffled that such an experience could be commodified:

But the viral proposal stunt also exposes another growing rift in the public’s perception of influencers. This week, the New York Times wrote about couples who’d spent their entire honeymoons making the trip look amazing on social media for their audiences at the expense of actually enjoying themselves. One former groom described his honeymoon as a “sunset nightmare,” “stressful,” and “torturous.” The great irony of building an aspirational-looking life on social media is that it requires a lot of extremely not-aspirational activities. Forcing someone to take a million photos of you is inherently kind of embarrassing, but that’s not the part of their lives most influencers choose to show, even though it presumably makes up a great deal of it.

Underlying the eerie, Black Mirror limitlessness of profitable self-promotion is the fact of how incompatible that world is with the inevitable sacrifices and vulnerabilities of loving another human being, not to mention marrying them. And while you might be justified that “Flytographers” and on-demand beauty supplies are appealing only for a generation of narcissists and frauds, Instagram celebrities are only hyper-accentuating what’s truly difficult about the nature of acceptance: that while there’s a love we all crave, there’s also a ridiculous list of prerequisites we’re sure we need to get it.

And speaking of the costs of perfectionism, this one from Daly founder Alex Daly is an honest reflection on what it’s like living life with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

3. A couple sleep-related funny ones. First, from McSweeney’s: “My Three-Month-Old’s Guide to Sleep Training Your Parents.” And second, from Reductress: “How To Stay Up Really Late For No Other Reason Than Ruining Tomorrow.” From which I quote:

Do exhaustive, irrelevant research on nothing important. Don’t skip this step! Do your own exhaustive research that bears no relevance to anything at all. Start by reading the “Early Life” section of Rachel Weisz’s Wikipedia page, then forget what you read and randomly click your way onto a BBC article about parakeet flight patterns. As the sun rises, foray into chia seed pudding recipes. Tomorrow will eventually be ruined by your decisions, but at least you’ll be an expert on female saints of Medieval Ireland!

4. Another great one from our man Oliver Burkeman in the Guardian, who takes on the oft-repeated claim that certain bad ideas will land people “on the wrong side of history.” It shouldn’t be so shocking, but Burkeman says we actually don’t know who will fall on the wrong side of history, because—gasp!—we don’t often know if we’re wrong. “Appealing to the judgment of history involves consulting a bunch of imaginary people from the future, so it’s hardly a surprise when they turn out to agree with whoever is doing the consulting.” As Burkeman says, those wise elders of the future tend to disagree completely with those bastards you hate. And they also protect you from the very precarious and unsexy position of humility.

The real hazard, though, comes when the idea is used by contemporary pontificators to avoid confronting the possibility that they, themselves, might be wrong. Once you’re confident of history’s position, you needn’t ask whether your critics might have a point; you can dismiss them as anachronistic fuddy-duddies who haven’t caught up with the latest advance toward moral truth. The irony is that it is a good idea to reflect on the judgment of history – not to reinforce your opinions, but rather to unsettle them, and infuse them with a dose of humility. The past is full of periods when people endorsed ridiculous or horrifying views, but they evidently didn’t think so at the time. Why should any of us be immune, just because our time happens to be now?

5. Suicide numbers have increased, especially among teenagers, and middle-aged white men. Rolling Stone reporter Stephen Rodrick traveled out West, where lone-cowboy, bootstraps mythology first surfaced, and where suicides have been the most prominent. 

“There was hope that ‘OK, as the economy recovers, boy, it’s going to be nice to see that suicide rate go down,’ ” says Dr. Jane Pearson, a suicide expert at the National Institute of Mental Health. “And there’s a lot of us really frustrated that didn’t happen. We’re asking, ‘What is going on?’”…The impact of hard times can linger long after the stock market recovers. A sense of community can disintegrate in lean years, a deadly factor when it comes to men separating themselves from their friends and family and stepping alone into the darkness.

“There’s been an increase in the ‘every-man-for-himself mentality,’ ” says Dr. Craig Bryan, who studies military and rural suicide at the University of Utah. “There doesn’t seem to be as strong a sense of ‘We’re all in this together.’ It’s much more ‘Hey, don’t infringe upon me. You’re on your own, and let me do my own thing.’ 

6. Adding one to the Seculosity of Food file, this one comes from the Atlantic, about the Law of the Lunch Decision in every workplace.  

Dieting and the workplace aren’t traditionally joined in the American consciousness, but often when people talk about how they’ve encountered ideas about diet and exercise, they talk about their co-workers. Although they happen in every type of workplace, these conversations can be most visible in media circles. Recently, in a New York Times op-ed excoriating the wellness industry’s dire effect on women’s well-being, the author Jessica Knoll related an experience at a Hollywood business lunch in which her companions bonded by talking cruelly about their own bodies. Last week, GQ named its head fact-checker as the magazine’s “fittest” staffer, casually detailing the extreme diet and exercise practices that got him there.

7. And why not end on one from another contributor to The Family Issue? This is a classic from Chad Bird, and I recommend you read it all here, about what life might be like if we heard more about David-Bathsheba David than David-Goliath David.

Over the last ten years or so, I’ve looked very little at the story of David and Goliath. I’ve often wished that during my Sunday School days, I’d have learned the other stories about David. The embarrassing stories. The narratives of moral failure. The sordid details of lives that come unraveled when men and women show their true colors. When their lust and selfishness and greed and hunger for power knock them off their self-made thrones into deep and dank piles of dung.

I wish I’d absorbed those stories in my youth. When I needed them, they were not yet my stories. I lived them, then I read them. And as I read them, I saw my own narrative bleeding between the lines of these OT saints who were sinful to the core, just like me.


Dan Van Voorhis on the genius of Pascal

More heart comes with Toy Story 4

Ancient Bagels

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One response to “Another Week Ends: School Performance, Workplace Food, Cowboy Suicides, Love Ambitionists, and the Wrong Side of History”

  1. Adam Morton says:

    Re: the ancient bagels. I’ve seen the like of these before, up close, at a museum in Germany. The inhabitants of pre-Roman Trier would make them, and I seem to recall they were made in Gaul as well. So there you go.

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