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The Sonny Bono Paradigm

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So.   The term is over, and I’m calmer than  I was a couple of weeks ago.   It’s the start of what looks like a long, bad week-end of nasty weather.  I’ve got enough food in the house to not care, and my older son is home for the vacation, which means I’ve got somebody who shovels snow reliably. 

I’m left thinking of what has been a recurring, and intensfying theme among my students lately, both the remedial ones and the regular ones when I have them.

If you ask my students what they think they deserve for a grade, and why, what you get is something like this:  I deserve an A, because I came to every class and handed in all my papers on time, and I worked very hard in this course.

Or you get  I deserve a B, because  I know I was late on a bunch of stuff and there was that period when I didn’t get to class as much as I could have, but I really tried hard. 

I could go on at length about the fact that nobody ever thinks they deserve less than a B,  and maybe I will, at some point.  I could go on, too, about the assumption that there is no such thing as standards, that just “trying” is all that’s necessary.

But it’s been occuring to me that this particular set of assumptions is a very bad preparation for real life, because in real life, there are people with talent.

Whether we like it or not, there are people in this world who are good at some things not because they’ve worked at them, but just because they are.  If they do work at them, they get better.  And if there are other people in the world with the same level of inborn talent, they’ll have to work at them to prevail over the  others, or just to compete with them.

But the simple fact is that hard work will n ot always make you succeed, and lack of hard work won’t always make you fail. And some people can work night and day for lifetimes and still not achieve some goal or the other that they truly want. 

Institutional settings almost require a concentration on hard work over talent, because talent is inherently anarchic.  I used to have a thing I said all the time–school rewards conformity, life rewards creativity.

People would get upset with me over that and say that life rewards conformity, too.  And of course it does, at certain levels of employment and skill, it does.  If you want to be a bookkeeper or a banker or a garage mechanic or a teacher, conformity is definitely the way to go.

If you want to be Steven Spielberg, however, or Bill Gates–well, that’s another thing.  Practically everybody I can think of who has made a significant national or international success, or who has changed the world in a visible way,  seems to have a life story that relies more on talent than conformity. 

A lot of these people–including Albert Einstein–simply weren’t very good at school.  Some of them flunked out.  Some of them dropped out.  Some of them meandered through without paying much attention.

And in some fields–the arts especially–it’s practically a truism that people who do well at school-based “Courses” in the field are virtually never the ones who make an actual success in the field in later life. 

That is the explanation, I think, for why the contemporary “literary” novel is what it is.  It’s n ot an art form any more.  It’s not even a subgenre of one.  It’s an academic exercise.  People like Jonathan Franzen and Ann  Beattie write what the MFA programs teach.  Sometimes they teach in those  very same programs.

Whatever gave us the idea that we could teach anything that human beings could do?  Composition programs these days teach “writing as a process,” but it’s not a process that any actual working writer I know of has ever used. 

I’d go absolutely nuts trying to write anything the way the “process” says I should.  The truth is that we don’t know why some people write well and some people  write badly.  Once we get beyond the basic mechanics–grammar, punctuation, spelling–we haven’t a clue.

We don’t know what makes some people write like Mozart and others write like Tiny Tim, either. Tiptoe through the tulips…

You’ve got to wonder what it is about this society this m inute that we have such a mania to produce school courses in everything.  Want to be a garage mechanic?  The Connecticut community college system offers an “associates degree” in that.  You can get master’s degrees in things like creative writing and dance performance.

Maybe I shoul dhave called this post “the trouble with a meritocracy,” because I think that’s at the root of it all.  Meritocracy depends for its legitimacy on the assumption that all of us who aren’t actively brain damaged are, in all essential ways, born equal, even if it is demonstrable that we are not. 

Really, okay, not a good term.  And now I’ve got two feet of snow coming.

Written by janeh

December 19th, 2009 at 12:49 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'The Sonny Bono Paradigm'

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  1. Off in so many directions.

    So all your students begin by asking for an A or B. This could be the Lake Woebegon Effect of course–all children above average–but where do you start negotiations on salaries and advances? I’m told some people in the Middle West and New York start out asking for a little more than they’re willing to settle for, but perhaps things are different in New England.

    I think the grim pursuit of credentials may relate to anti-discrimination laws, a tendency to sue over disappointments and, perhaps most importantly, organizations so large that the people who actually hire, fire and promote don’t know any of the people involved. George Marshal had a notebook in which he recorded what he knew or had heard of Army officers, and appointed them accordingly when he became Chief of Staff. It seems to have worked well, but I doubt the entire officer corps was 5,000 men in 1940. It was in the vastly expanded Cold War army one first hears of “ticket punching.” Perhaps things are not so vastly different in the civil service or large corporations.

    Hard work. I keep going back to Clausewitz. He keeps saying “act quickly and with energy; concentrate on the objective; don’t disperse your forces.” He NEVER says “do this and you will win.” He says “do this and to the extent your opponent doesn’t, you’ll do better than you would have otherwise.” Clausewitz drew the short straw often enough during the Napoleonic Wars to cure him of any notion that life was fair.

    And the general principle holds for almost everything. If I lost weight and ran ten miles every day (again) I still wouldn’t be a good runner. But I’d be a better runner than I would be otherwise. I’d beat those of equal potential who didn’t work at it, and maybe some of greater potential if they were careless or neglectful enough.

    Indeed, I can’t think of a real gamechanger who didn’t have both talent and hard work going for him. Hard work–training, practice, taking pains–makes a good, solid professional. Sometimes in an organization this is all that’s really needed. Sheer genius without discipline produces meteors–the sort of people who feature prominently in “Whatever happened to?” articles and programs.

    But in situations where doing things “by the book” just means you’ll lose slowly, and you need someone to kick over the table and invent a new game, you need the sort of genius Malcolm Gladwell described in Outliers–natural talent plus about 10,000 hours of training and practice. For starters.

    I used to know a little about WWI fighter pilots–the very embodiment of “live fast and die young.” Competition was fierce and deadly, and equipment frequently unreliable. They were all very young with sharp eyes and good reflexes, and most of they spent their evenings with the traditional wine, women and song. The highest “ranked” American was Eddy Rickenbaker. He spent HIS evenings going over every round of ammunition his machine guns would fire the next day looking for defective rounds. He may not have had the sharpest eyes and the fastest reflexes, though he was obviously good enough. He WAS the pilot whose machine guns never jammed, and consequently one of the ones who lived through the war.

    Some people are lucky like that.


    19 Dec 09 at 4:28 pm

  2. Creative writing programs have blunted fiction for a number of decades. In the many writer bios I come across in reading reviews, ” . . . MFA from the Iowa Writer’s workshop,” “make me roll my eyes, even make me grit my teeth” as somebody once sang.


    19 Dec 09 at 10:03 pm

  3. Robert, I don’t think they are starting negotiations. I think they really believe they deserve that grade. I seldom teach undergraduates any more, but at the graduate level I have had students privately cry in my office over an A-. For many of our students, it is their first experience getting anything but an A.

    I teach very technical skills, and I am very clear in my requirements and point values for what etc., so I don’t get a lot of it. But there are more subjective pieces that can be discussed.

    One of my students came to me with a short essay on which she had earned 9 out of 10 points (in my grading system, that would be 1% off out of 100% for the total class), and demanded to know what she could have done differently for that 1%. What could I say except that it was well written and clear but not outstanding. Yes, you did exactly what I asked for, you did it well, but some folks in the class went beyond that–they drew from other classes or life experiences to illuminate their points.

    I think a perfect score should be exemplary in the most literal sense. When a student does that, I ask permission to use their paper as an example in later classes.

    Here is what I love about grad school, though. The first time a student completely disagrees with me and makes an excellent argument backed up with research–and not only gets an A, but usually a joyful call-out in class. That’s when they blossom into real grad students.



    21 Dec 09 at 11:12 am

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