Wit & Wisdom

Game Changers & Tales of Triumph and Woe

Welcome, Professional Students . . . to the Hunger Games, er, we mean School

CJ Westerberg, July 16, 2013 11:19 AM

hunger games.jpg

A classic post from The Daily Riff

"First, students have to jump through
ever-more demanding, preassigned academic hoops.
Instead of developing a passion for one subject,
they're rewarded for becoming professional students,
getting great grades across all subjects,
regardless of their intrinsic interests.
- David Brooks, The Creative Monopoly, The New York Times

by C.J. Westerberg

Conservative columnist, David Brooks, makes some points which are spot-on about the confusion between competition and capitalism and relates them to education in the post, The Creative Monopoly.  He begins with a quick back-story of Peter Thiel, founder of PayPal and early investor of Facebook, leading to this opening:

One of his core points is that we tend to confuse capitalism with competition.
We tend to think that whoever competes best comes out ahead.

In the race to be more competitive, we sometimes confuse what is hard
with what is valuable
The intensity of competition becomes a proxy for value.

Thiel is also teaching a course at the Stanford Computer Science School:

His lecture points to a provocative possibility: that the competitive spirit capitalism engenders can sometimes inhibit the creativity it requires.

Brooks lays the groundwork describing the roots of creativity:

Think about the traits that creative people possess. Creative people don't follow the crowds; they seek out the blank spots on the map. Creative people wander through faraway and forgotten traditions and then integrate marginal perspectives back to the mainstream. Instead of being fastest around the tracks everybody knows, creative people move adaptively through wildernesses nobody knows.

Then comes one of the money quotes:

Now think about the competitive environment that confronts the most fortunate people today and how it undermines those mind-sets.

The school and education connection is brilliantly laid out here.  Parents and students will relate to the insanity we have created in schools all in the name of rigor, while killing other essentials along the way, as a part of the "game" of school:

First, students have to jump through ever-more demanding, preassigned academic hoops. Instead of developing a passion for one subject, they're rewarded for becoming professional students, getting great grades across all subjects, regardless of their intrinsic interests. Instead of wandering across strange domains, they have to prudentially apportion their time, making productive use of each hour.

Then they move into a ranking system in which the most competitive college, program and employment opportunity is deemed to be the best. There is a status funnel pointing to the most competitive colleges and banks and companies, regardless of their appropriateness.

This value-system is a long-term problem that manifests itself into other silos and morphs into a stronger life-form called politics, media, banking, and . . . :

Then they move into businesses in which the main point is to beat the competition, in which the competitive juices take control and gradually obliterate other goals. I see this in politics all the time. Candidates enter politics wanting to be authentic and change things. But once the candidates enter the campaign, they stop focusing on how to be change-agents. They and their staff spend all their time focusing on beating the other guy. They hone the skills of one-upsmanship. They get engulfed in a tit-for-tat competition to win the news cycle. Instead of being new and authentic, they become artificial mirror opposites of their opponents. Instead of providing the value voters want - change - they become canned tacticians, hoping to eke out a slight win over the other side.

Competition has trumped value-creation. In this and other ways, the competitive arena undermines innovation.

Brooks continues by saying that we are looking at the the wrong problem and it is not America competitiveness but our ability to be . . . monopolists.  Argh.  While loving this article, he lost me a bit here, maybe because the word has such an unseemly negative connotation unless you further explain it.  Okay, one slip, a poor choice of word, but he redeems himself with quotable quotes, such as one of my favorites, "You don't have to compete; you can invent."
(Note: For those who regularly read my posts, you will know I am not against competition in its right place.  However, learning is not a sport; much has to do with the right kind of motivation.) 

He then lays out the skills of competitiveness - rigor, discipline, and reliability - as if they were mutually exclusive from the skills needed to be innovative (aka monopolist).  I think not, even though they may manifest and appear differently.  I don't think Thomas Edison or Steve Jobs lacked rigor, discipline, or reliability but it just wasn't your professorial Ph.D version.  Creativity and innovation are not synonymous with random throwing paint on the wall.  As abstract artist Jean-Michel Basquiat once said, "Believe it or not. I can actually draw."

Unfortunately, another disappointment by Brooks in this potentially full-power piece were the "traits of monopolists," which were simplistically reduced to three abstract, light-weight sounding skills (especially when compared to those he connected to competition!) that were elegantly referred to earlier in the piece: alertness, independence and the ability to reclaim forgotten traditions. It's as if he ran out of steam in the end which is too bad because he really was on a roll.

David, check out these skills that are inextricably connected to creativity and innovation.
And, what about doing the right thing?


Related The Daily Riff:

The oil spill: Is our education system creating a culture promoting every-person-for-himself?

Charlie Rose:  The Creative Brain

Are We Creating Innovators?  22 Insights - C.J. Westerberg reviews Tony Wagner's new book

Is Learning a Sport?

Do Schools Kill Creativity?  A new conversation with Sir Ken Robinson

And the beat goes on  Cheating scandal       

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It had long since come to my attention that people of accomplishment rarely sat back and let things happen to them. They went out and happened to things.
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