Saturday, August 21, 2010

What to do when history is not on your side?

I can’t believe we’re going through this again.

In January 2005, Time magazine featured on its cover a photo of a young man in a shirt and dress slacks sitting in a sandbox. The headline: “They Just Won’t Grow Up.” The article featured the research of one Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, PhD, a developmental psychologist who coined the term “emerging adulthood” to explain these puzzling, infantilized adults.

The cover story of the New York Times Magazine this weekend, already situated snugly at the top of the Most-Emailed List, is a near-exact repeat of this story from 5 years ago, this time asking “What is it About Twenty-Somethings?” Again Arnett is the resident featured expert. The Times’ only innovation, besides the slightly higher quality of the writing and the greater length, is tarting up the article with lots of sexy pictures of 20somethings (“I’m lying on my bed, all angsty! Look down my shirt!”) so readers can lust after them while simultaneously shaking their heads.

[. . .]

There is no mysterious collective 20something malaise. The poor position of our nation’s future workforce is the outgrowth of decades of economic policy–the growth of consumer and national debt and the deterioration of the American job market, the protection of old-people programs like Social Security and Medicare and the faltering of opportunity-creating programs like education and health care for all. Maybe the Times should be talking to its own Paul Krugman, not a psychologist. (Anya Kamenentz, “What’s up with Twentysomethings? In a Word, Economics,” DIY U, 19 August 2010)

I think that the economy has certainly helped ensure a “delayed transition,” but it isn’t the cause of it. The cause is whatever was on the minds of adults that ensured that they (note: not greedy elites) created a world that would leave their children scrambling to convince themselves they’ll ever be as adult – as mature — as their own parents were/are. If your own parents kind of like the idea of their kids being unlikely to ever effectively warrant their holding presumptive moral authority over them, kind of like the idea of a world that ensures that their kids will never quite feel secure and safe enough to roam too far from their own expectations / wishes of them, then you’re fighting against a lot that might keep you from feeling trenchantly independent, even if you were to score a franchise of husband-wife, career, house, children by the age of 25 (accoutrements, of course, that demonstrate you are living the life others expect of you — that you are playing along: there is no escape). There are people hovering over you, of the type that (increasingly — maybe not even) covertly partake in the seemingly now guilt-free opportunity to peer down your shirt that your blameworthy / childish / bad-lingering has somehow freely opened up for them, while overtly sighing and wishing you would finally grow up: they’re clearly ones to enjoy the fruits of a situation they are pretending only to decry. If you’ve spent your youth amongst parents/elders like that, long experiencing unresolvable, contradictory expectations from you– in what R.D. Laing once determined as a schizophrenia-inducing kind of environment — you haven’t the sanity or the stuff to create your own 60s to clear your way free of your parent’s intention to always be your overlords. Rather, there will be something in you working away until you yourself are convinced you are as lazy and indulgent as your parents perceive you as — whatever the state of economy, how impossible an environment you’ve been given to prove you’re up to snuff. Repeatedly through history, but a good while back, this kind of horrific, impossible environment drew many to eagerly sign up for war. Instantly, they were war heroes, ready to demonstrate their in fact existing virtue in their willingness to play to the sacrificial wishes of their mother-country. A shorter while back, we remember Faramir sacrificing himself so his disapproving steward father would finally for once “think better of him,” and how an audience engaged with what was on screen, with what they felt inside themselves.

The 60s generation made their way free because after the mass sacrifice of WW2, allowance / permission (even if at first, cautious) had power over restriction / punishment — hemming parents were pit not so much against their children as against historical law, and surely felt and maybe knew their fate was to be neutralized until their own children had franchised themselves to the point that they were now ready to statue their slowly crumbling parents as the Greatest Generation. There is no such great wind behind the backs of today’s millenials; their best bet is if some of them — despite Reagan, 80s on — actually have the self-assurance / self-esteem they keep being credited for possessing: with that they might smartly placate, but never dumbly play into, the desires of an older populace, increasingly intent on ensuring that the one thing kids do not do is lead / possess their own independent lives.

Note: If charged, emotive talk of mass child-sacrifice seems out of place in an economic discussion, please skip Paul Krugman’s most recent NYT article. Mind you, since he’s moved from repeatedly calling current economic policies “cruel” to thinking of them as willed blood-lettings of the-mad-but-in-charge, I’m not quite sure how long Krugman will keep his hold “as a man to be reckoned with.” What do you do with a man who once routinely offered sober reasonings but now finds explanations in strange analogies, runes and animal guts?

Krugman link:

Friday, August 20, 2010

Thoughts on "The Switch"

(Originally posted at

Wallie tries to explain to Cassie what he had done, essentially immediately after he recalls his having made the switch 6 years before. Cold sober, chilled but vividly intent, he is well on the way to explaining ... and then the movie takes his moment away from him. Very evident that he is in the effort of trying to say something of huge import that he fears will damage both of their lives thereafter, that could ruin everything they shared between one another before then, the movie has her recoil away when her own embarrassing admission "demands" she suddenly stop him in his effort and squirrel back inside her apartment. Better, the movie seems to think, that he make his sin clear at a moment when it would look more last-straw and inadequate, which would allow her to announce that future contact would be under her terms and you wouldn't feel that she would even in this still be reckoning with someone with real "sand." She relents because he's there for him, and he's a good guy, not because she found herself struck, shaken in his unmistakably having moved beyond being a best friend you could presume upon. There was touch here of a bracing, but ultimately more here of the "Marley and Me" -- I'm compromised but (apparently, actually, quite depending on this) still happy -- new man. Outstanding.

Xbox your movie

Xbox your movie

3D will interest when it seems linked to an argument that the whole experience of BEING TOLD a story for two hours straight needs explanation, when the possibility might be opened up that you could rather play a part in the movie-world you've "entered." Right now, we're on the wall somewhere -- a camera, a microphone. Attending, listening -- not a chance to further participate until the movie-world shuts down and we're talking about it a reality away. If 3D takes us more transparently into the world, maybe we'll soon insist on having a voice there as well. But if this isn't already our inkling, 3D alone won't take us there, though. You're more immersed, but still straight-jacketed. Even if it comes to the art film, this may not be progress.

How might we redeem the turn from watching a film to actively living / experiencing / determining a new reality -- making it reality -- so that it doesn't seem a freedom craved only by the finger-twitching XBOX sort?

Link: 3-D filmmaking's radical, revolutionary potential

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

When people are porn

My story has occasioned a healthy amount of reaction around the web, including from TED and Chris Anderson himself.

First, the snark: Maura at The Awl (a commentary site run by ex-Gawkers) calls the story “breathless” and “smug”. Most of the commentators admit that they enjoy watching TED talks anyway. I batted back with some snark of my own but also tried to answer what i took as her serious point, which was that TED seems just as elitist as the old-line institutions it’s being compared with:

“I actually think we have similar concerns about elitism vs. openness.

My contention is that many of the cool things that TED does spread more widely than the cool things that Harvard does, because of its attitude toward openness and its use of social media.
Harvard has a crappy open courseware site–it’s very difficult to find and view many Harvard lectures online. MIT has the best open courseware site, but even the most-watched video lectures have been watched a few hundred K times, while the most watched TED talks have been viewed over 6 million times.

Lectures are admittedly a small percentage of the benefit offered by either TED or Harvard, but they’re not nothing. The spread of the TEDx platform with over 600 events worldwide offers a way for ever-more people to participate, often for free, in a much closer approximation to the TED experience. I would love to see Harvard & Yale try something like that.”

Open Culture, a cultural blog, took umbrage too: “Will watching 18 minute lectures – ones that barely scratch the surface of an expert’s knowledge – really teach you much? And when the 18 minutes are over, will the experts stick around and help you become a critical thinker, which is the main undertaking of the modern university after all?”

I responded: “I never claimed that watching TED talks=attending Harvard. If you read the article closely, I’m asking if *participating in* TED–and to a lesser but broader extent, TEDx–-confers a lot of the benefits of attending Harvard, albeit in abbreviated (and much cheaper) form. That means talking about the ideas with the presenters, including asking questions; forming relationships with fellow TEDsters; and having TED on your resume, which can open all kinds of doors.

In addition, I’m asking if there’s any way that Harvard and other universities can follow TED’s lead and open up to more people. When a single Harvard lecture has been viewed 5 million + times on YouTube, this goal will be closer to being reached.

[. . .]

Finally, TED’s Chris Anderson seems to be getting concerned that TED is being accused of overreaching. When the article came out, he Tweeted “Fast Company have just published
a truly amazing feature on #TED. Wow.”

Today, he added, linking to Salam’s and Yglesias’s posts above, “For the record, we don’t for 1 min think “TED is
the new Harvard”! Backlash!“ (Anya Kamenentz, “Is TED the New Harvar? Reactions from around the web,” DIY U, 16 August 2010)

People seem irritated that your response wasn’t properly subdued (i.e., too breathless). Your real “problem” — as is true with other good people like Alfie Kohn — is that you truly understand that EDUCATION, LEARNING is the point, with how we get “there” a truly open possibility. The way you think is that if someone is educated, and you find out that this person got that way sans university but simply Goodwill Hunting-like through a library card, then you’re one to give the library full credence: “it” doesn’t first acknowledge the university (as) clear master before listing its strengths, but, through evidence, has proven it can stand fully equal to all. This isn’t what’s going on in other people’s minds, and to them it’s merely convenient that TED’s lectures are gratefully near-dismissably only 18 minutes long. What they’re thinking is that becoming educated is primarily about being educated, being acted upon, by someone else — being broken in. They dismiss TED for its apparent lack of interactivity, but what they hate about it is actually that it seems to privilege the individual’s right to be an active, choosing, fully-enabled “consumer” of education — what they see probably as its “fickleness.” In a way, to a certain extent, the web-browser becomes akin to empowered gentleman-amateur of the past, who would attend a professional’s lectures but never once feel his inferior: s/he has picked and chosen, sampled and savored, and became more worldly; the professional wallows in a technician’s expertise. People just now aren’t any longer allowed / permitted to think of themselves that way: the web has demonstrated that people are porn, not participants or prodigies. Itunes U (to them) is better, because it’s potentially more arduous — it’s not so much about entertaining, about lecturers finding ways to please your credit-worthy sensibilities, but about you developing the discipline, the seriousness, to best engage with them: they’re reaching out, but the signal will not be received unless you’re able to listen (a talent best nurtured, of course, after serious engagement with a physical university). The “they” I’m talking about are moving away from the more Romantic estimation of people as flowering best away from institutions, toward understanding them as requiring the breaking-in that institutions can still yet enable. Names like “Harvard,” “Princeton,” “MIT” are summoned not to be matched or breezed-by, but because the overall cacophony and indulgent behavior is such that it REQUIRES the attention, the schooling-down, of long-experienced 'wakening Kings.

Interactivity is being mentioned a lot. I’m with Stanley Greenspan (note: he’s as good as Kohn) in thinking that back-and-forth conversation is so all. But as the psychiatrist R.D. Laing made clear when he established how the wrong sorts of conversations can lead to the like of schizophrenia, further involvement isn’t always to be preferred to standing back, aloof, and in charge. Personally, I don’t much trust that interactivity in universities isn’t now more about a way to feel more securely enmeshed behind walls that are keeping the rabble at bay. Not about responsiveness for growth, but about further relinquishing for security and safety.

Link: Is TED the New Harvard? Reactions from around the web

How eager should we expect the civilized to be?

“The essence of learning is found neither inside nor outside the classroom, neither online nor offline. It’s in the flow from lived experience and practice, to listening, researching, and sharing the fruits of your work with a community and back out to the world again. Now that so much high-quality information is available for free–like the 1,900 courses on MIT Open Courseware–and platforms to allow people to exchange words, images and sound online are exploding in use, many of us are excited about the possibilities of self-organized education that is pared down to this essence, thus affordable, efficient and accessible. But whether or not you attend a traditional university, you will need to trace this path again and again, from experience to theory, from empirical to abstract, from action to reflection, from real to ideal, in order to keep learning throughout your life.

Today there’s a lot of emphasis on getting the best value for money in higher education. This is important. But the most important resource in higher education is free. That’s the motivated learner. That’s you.” (Anya Kamenentz, “DIY U in Forbes,” DIY U, 13 August, 2010)

Increasingly, the net is being conceived as an abode for loud, impulse-ridden losers. “We’ve given it it’s chance,” is what they say, “and even if there are gems amidst the slush … couldn’t they just tone it down some?” Owing to this, traditional universities aren’t seeming quite as ridiculous as they should for their stodginess. I would hazard a guess that the most important resource in higher education is now perhaps more the CIVILIZED learner (that is, the tamed-down one), more than it is the motivated (eager) one. Universities may be where people go to become gentlemen / ladies — if to an elite one, then up a notch to aristocrat. I’m noticing it more: it’s not so much what you have to say as how you say it (impatiently? excitedly? did you drool?). The winners may be those who say nothing much new, but do so becalmed, with consideration.

Link: DIY U

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