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GP 28 November 2007: Getting out of the Hothouse

Elizabeth Learns to Read.  A good friend who knows of our admiration for Alan Bennett put his latest The Uncommon Reader in our hands last week.  We devoured it at one sitting.  Bennett, it seems to us, is England’s finest writer and playwright at the moment, and we will have much more to say about him in future letters.

In this yarn, Queen Elizabeth, quite by accident, suddenly falls in love with reading.  It sweeps her off her feet and threatens to re-arrange her kingdom.  Suddenly a life that has become robotic takes on meaning, gets infected by irony, and achieves enough breadth to start growing again.  This turn of events started at the curb of the castle, a mobile lending library having strayed into her ken:

The Queen hesitated, because to tell the truth she wasn’t sure.  She’d never taken much interest in reading.  She read, of course, as one did, but liking books was something she left to other people.  It was a hobby and it was in the nature of her job that she didn’t have hobbies….  No. Hobbies involved preferences and preferences had to be avoided….  Her job was to take an interest, not be interested herself.  And besides, reading wasn’t doing.  She was a doer.  So she gazed round the booklined van and played for time.

Of a sudden, she became detached from sound bites and snapshots, from the modern world where one is not allowed to have enduring experience. Reading put an extra dimension onto her personality.  She began to set her own pace, no longer the creature of events.

The 4-Hour Workweek.  A bestseller of the moment which we won’t be reading is The 4-Hour Workweek by Timothy Ferriss.  It’s a self-help tome, another effort that could easily be summed up in four paragraphs that somehow got turned into 100- page catechism.  Ironically all of these books that pretend to make our lives better ramble on and on in a disconnected fashion, perfect fodder for distracted minds.  Basically, or so we hear, it’s about tuning out.  Escaping the hundreds of emails that come one’s way.  Turning off the cellphone.  Doing without Blackberries and notebook computers.  Condensing all the frenzy that has been inserted into modern work.  As we learn about Ferriss, however, we discover he still leads a hectic schedule, filling up his time with lots of stuff.  Not reading.  So his prescription, as revealed in “Too Much Information? Ignore It,” New York Times, November 11, 2007, p. ST1-2, is simply to block out digital junk, not to take up the contemplative life.  Actually it is not altogether certain his life is much better than it was.

Yoga in Needham.  Paul Richards, principal of Needham High School outside Boston, understands that the good life comes not from knocking out a few emails, but from replacing dross with substance.  “This term, Mr. Richards is talking up the yoga classes that are required of all seniors.”  See “Less Homework, More Yoga, From a Principal Who Hates Stress,” New York Times, October 29, 2007, pp. A1 and A16.  “He has asked teachers to schedule homework-free weekends, and holidays.”  “Mr. Richards is just one principal in the vanguard of a movement to push back against an ethos of super-achievement in affluent suburban high schools amid the extreme competition over college admissions.”  He has joined with principals, mainly at San Francisco schools, but also at 40 schools across the country in S.O.S. (Stressed Out Students).  This group was founded by Denise Pope, a lecturer at Stanford and author of Doing School: How We are Creating a Generation of Stressed Out, Materialistic and Miseducated Students.

“Needham began an intense self-examination a couple of years ago—after four of its young people … committed suicide.”  It is apparent that our push to do more and go higher has often become a losing game, where systems, parents, teachers, students, and institutions implode.  In some later issue of this letter, we will further argue that a society on the run is no different from the tortoise and the hare: the tortoise gets where he is going faster.

Pit Stop.  The evidence seems pretty clear that a society in which adults and students race around, with only occasional stops for a bite of fast food, is bound to crash and burn now and again.  One suspects that this unbearable intensity has a great deal to do with the mounting rates of depression throughout the developed world, which are rising so fast as to be termed epidemic.  Suffice to say, the National College Health Assessment, a broad-based survey done since 2000, reveals high levels of stress and depression in college populations, such that a number of students even contemplate suicide at least once during the college year.  On the one hand, this survey would suggest we are burning-out our students even before they get started in life.  On the other, it helps us understand that it is hard for them to get a real education when they feel emotionally wasted so much of the time.  The long term costs of this pointless exertion to our economy and to our health boggle the imagination.

Rebellious Mothers.  We have reported elsewhere that there are citizens who are fed up.  Like Howard Beale from the movie Network, they’re ready to shout, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore.”  Over-scheduling, homework for homework’s sake, relentless preparation for tests and more tests, grade competition that has led to a great deal of cheating, and a grim tendency in sports on winning the game at all costs that has culminated in unsportsmanlike behavior by coaches and students—all this has made a few people mad.  Here and there some parents have taken a stand against too much homework.  There’s a group pushing for more rational homework loads, as it becomes apparent to some that too much homework often leads to poor test results and other bad outcomes.  The State of Virginia now has a law making recesses mandatory in its schools.

As importantly, mothers with a holistic view of child rearing are looking at how things are done by at home and school in a commonsense way.  For instance, two Boston moms, Katherine Robinson and Alex Russell, have just started a website called Hothouse Moms.  They are aware “that we are running the risk of eclipsing their imaginations with the demands we put on them for performance, and that we are inadvertently muting their sense of responsibility for themselves by managing their every move.”  On the one hand, we push kids for high scores at school and for high jumps on the playing field.  And, on the other hand, we treat them like cosseted Olympic athletes where they are surrounded by indulgence and where they never learn to take out the trash.  These moms know their kids need something more down to earth.  For more of their thoughts about bringing normalcy into children’s lives, read “Are You Raising a Hothouse Kid,” The Boston Parents’ Paper, November 2007.  Of course, parents themselves must ask whether their own relentlessly competitive, upward-thrusting lives have created the atmosphere in which kids perceive life as constant battle.

Gross National Happiness.  At the end of the Vietnam War and again at the end of the Cold War, perceptible amounts of economic and geopolitical power shifted away from the major countries of the West, both to the Orient and into many of the developing countries of the world.  We were no longer king of the mountain.  Suddenly we were in a global rat race.  For our middle classes this has meant running harder simply to stay in place—two parents at the office, a workday that never ends, children scrambling to be in the top 10% of almost everything.  The thought has been that if we do more—quantity-wise—that we will win the race of life.  That has become less clear, as we simply all wear out.  Gradually a handful here and there are understanding that ‘more’ won’t do it:  the task is to do a few things better, with more creativity, and more perspective.

As lawyers practicing in New York City throw it all over and start an import wine business based in an upstate rural community, as a peripatetic high-tech salesman from Massachusetts disappears for four months a year in northern Thailand, or a Harvard-trained principal in Needham says, “Enough, already,” the challenge and opportunity in America will be to infuse our daily regime with great quantities of meaning, just like the mythical queen in Bennett’s Uncommon Reader.   More and more people are pushing back against the relentless pressures of our times, and ‘quality of life products and services,’ where we do well with a lot less, will become one of our biggest growth markets.  By this, of course, we mean much more than luxury spas to which one speeds on a frenetic flight across the Continent.  We are sort of thinking about activities where you sit back in an easy chair and put your feet up on a stool.  Far off Bhutan seems to have the right idea, its goal being Gross National Happiness.  A smart investor will now be on the lookout for ‘quality of life’ stocks that serve people’s aspirations and turn the page on desperation.

P.S.  Should you visit reasonably progressive colleges and universities, you will find that they have quadrupled the numbers of psychologists and counselors in their health departments over the last 10 years.  Even in southern states with thin healthcare budgets, one discovers tranches of psychiatrists and social workers in community agencies trying to rub balm on the lives of troubled high school students.

P.P.S.  Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, both the play and the movie, have been happy successes on both sides of the Atlantic.  Of course, the audience for this sort of thing is always a bit small, but very enthusiastic.  This work has several threads, exploring, for instance, the teaching of history as a chronicle, as a means for getting into the university, and as an introduction to the love of learning.  While it’s clear that one has to learn the pat answers and techniques that will get one through an entrance exam, it is also clear that a history course can be full of life and just plain fun.

P.P.P.S.  Ours has become a predominantly service economy, although we are actually producing more than ever.  Service is poorly understood, rendered, organized, and the like.  We suffer from the cruel irony that service organizations are cutting out the service even as they brag about their wares: banks and telephone companies and catalog houses taking human beings out of their transactions, and substituting robotic computer voices that cannot correctly take our order or answer our questions. In other words, the hallmark of our service economy is much less service.  Above all, the pacing of service is an art yet to be learned.  We don’t want to be rushed through our dinner at a restaurant, but then we don’t want to wait 15 minutes for a check either.  A hyper-performance society is somewhat at odds with the rhythm of a service culture.  We have only been into one restaurant in the last 2 years that orchestrates service correctly. Perhaps it is time to bring back butlers.

P.P.P.P.S.  Yoga has been breaking out in schools hither and thither since the beginning of this century.  Grade-school yoga, sighted in San Francisco, has also sprung up in several less trendy parts of the country.  California has a need: it used to be laid back, but has since become even more wired than other tense parts of the country.

P.P.P.P.P.S.  The Queen is not the only one who had little time for books.  Will Fitzhugh of the Concord Review nicely comments on the latest survey that finds middle schoolers cannot jam in any reading.  Catch up with him in “Memory’s Forgotten Daughter.”

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