Archive for the ‘CNAD’ Category

The Next Frontier

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It gets a little closer every day. We’ve started checking the 529 balances will a little more diligence, shopping the programs and options with a little more attention to detail. It’s coming.

We are running out of high-school content runway for E.

What comes next? Not sure. She’ll probably be 13 when it’s time to go, and I can’t send a 13-year-old off to Kegstand U. There’s no shortage of good options – distance programs, hybrid programs, dual-enrollment programs – and I don’t really worry that we’ll find a setting that works for her. What I worry about more is the message I send to them regarding the future of higher education, and how they might best leverage that future to build a future of their own.

What lies ahead for college, as most of us knew it, is unclear. For-profits like Phoenix have hopelessly diluted the value of an undergraduate degree. Tuition costs have gone through the roof. The globalization of middle-class labor means that there will inevitably be fewer such jobs available for them, and more and greater differentiation of skillsets will be necessary to hold onto dependable earning power. MOOCs will change things; they’ll become proctored more closely, accredited more quickly, accepted more easily, in their lifetimes. There will be a growing difference among words like education, knowledge, wisdom and experience. 

I can’t see the future – and it’s changing fast. That makes it difficult to help them design an educational experience that’s going to work for their lives. I may not have all the right answers, but I have a pretty good feeling what I think is going to happen – and, based on that, here is what I would tell them in terms of designing the next frontier of education in their lives.

Your learning will be a lifelong process. Today, an average worker remains in a job for an average of 4.4 years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But that’s a figure for all current workers; the newest members of the workforce average about half that. Do the math: that means that Millennials will have 15 to 20 jobs over the course of their working lives. Jobs are increasingly becoming gigs, and gigs are multiplying and diversifying quickly while traditional job growth remains stuck in neutral. You will be learning, unlearning, relearning your entire life – so don’t walk into this process with the expectation that a single undergraduate degree is going to take you everywhere you need to go. Keep your knees bent, from an educational perspective, and keep a MOOC account open at all times.

The system is gaming you. Game it back. Here’s the core of the game: college graduates earn more over the course of their lives than non-graduates, yet college tuition is growing faster than any other product or service inflation rate in the country. Did you see what I just did there? I created inelastic demand for something with one hand and introduced supernormal price growth with the other. If you have to have it – and you’re told every day in traditional school that you do – you’ll pay anything to get it. But wait – there’s more! For the first two years of that undergraduate experience, you’re going to be shunted off to adjuncts, TAs, grad students – anyone the university can enlist to lower the cost of delivering your education. Well, there’s a trick to countering that. Do two years at a community college (don’t tell anyone, but a CC adjunct is often just as good as, or even better than, a tenure-track adjunct), transfer your credits, cut your cost (nearly) in half, and graduate with the same degree – and, probably, equivalent or even better education. 

Learning is an investment – so buy low and sell high. The next trick is to learn a core discipline and begin differentiating your own experience by bringing in perspectives and capabilities you ‘bought’ on the cheap. I’m a finance guy by undergraduate training, a marketer by first graduate training, and an anthropologist by second. I’ve since then added some capabilities – R, Hadoop, Scrum, etc. – through layers of education bought at ever-decreasing cost (R was free). If I cost-averaged those layers of education, though, I need a higher wage to make good on my investment than someone else would with the same set of skills. So buy an unassailable core discipline, like business, engineering, law, science, or language. Then start building a diversified, extended framework of skills and abilities for nothing, and go secure a job no one else can do at a cost no one else can touch.

Learn. Make. Earn. Repeat. The era of ‘hire me, I have a degree’ is coming to an end. Tests like the CLA are only going to increase in importance over the next decade, and there’s going to be a watershed day when a major company evaluates two candidates with identical CLA scores – one straight out of Traditional U, the other off the non-traditional education track – and picks the latter. Businesses don’t want credentials; they want results. That’s going to tilt the competitive playing field in favor of makers – those that are doing what potential employers want right now – rather than test-takers. So here’s my final piece of advice: learn a new skill. Make something out of it – an app, a blog, a patent, a seminar. Anything. Leverage that to increase your earning power, either at your current employer or in a business of your own. Then do it again. And keep doing it.

Questioning the status quo led us to bring our kids home to learn with us in the first place – so I’m not surprised that we’ve begun to question other educational ‘sacred cows,’ like traditional college, too. We’re going to be encountering this particular bovine a little earlier than we thought we would, but we’re taking the same approach to sacred cow interaction we always have – namely, out here on the next frontier, the grill’s hot and the beer’s cold.

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Turkey, Interrupted

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I’d be hard pressed to tell you what year it is in our family room right now.

My wife is seated on a couch we purchased in 2005, piecing together a thousand-piece Christmas jigsaw puzzle based on a painting from 1958. My daughter is reading a book published in 1980 on a Kindle Paperwhite from 2012. I’m writing this on a 2013 laptop straight from the Dell box, a long-overdue tech refresh, while listening to music from the Montpelier Codex, a 13th-century book of vocal music, on an album released in 1994 and available to me through 2012 tech Spotify.

Oh, and by the way: we’re doing all of this in the wake of putting another cultural touchstone to the test, because none of us can stand turkey.

“Are you grateful for turkey?” I asked them this year. Heads shake in mute dissent. “Then why don’t we eat something we’re grateful for?”

“I thought we were supposed to eat turkey for Thanksgiving.”

“We’re not. We’re supposed to be grateful. If tryptophan stimulates your gratitude synapses, great. Otherwise, why don’t we come up with a meal featuring foods that do trigger those synapses? Why don’t we eat something we can chew and taste and swallow with a smile?” The resulting table did not look much like a Norman Rockwell print, but we were grateful for the food we ate, for the time we spent together cooking and baking it, and the fact that we focused the holiday on the mindset, rather than the meal.

This is the sort of thing that begins to happen with more regularity when you start homeschooling full time: everything falls under the lens of re-examination, and not all of it emerges on the other side. The way it’s always been done ceases to have a great deal of meaning when you’re forging entire curricula anew. Their scholarly time begins to migrate from the compliant – I need to finish multiplying these mixed numbers, Dad! – to the critical: when do I use this? What problems are relevant for this theorem? Is there a better way? And along the way, we discover – often, together – that the status quo is just bullshit. We are, in many ways, like the drunk looking for his keys under the streetlamp – not because that’s where we dropped them,  but because the light is better there.

Now, I hesitate to teach them that all that has gone before them is bullshit, because that tends toward a certain cultural nihilism that leaves them with a blank (and bleak) page to fill in on their own. But I also find myself with a responsibility to let them question the status quo and make their own decisions, and so with that in mind, we went in search of whether we were discarding a deep and historically relevant tradition, or another made-up Hallmark holiday. They’re always deeply disturbed to find out how recent all of this modern American culture is, and to be honest, so am I. Thanksgiving as a concept is an old holiday, dating to 1863, but it has only been since 1939 that the holiday has been celebrated in anything like its modern form, and only since 1947 that turkey became the gustatory meme of the season.  Nor did the Pilgrims likely eat turkey as the centerpiece of the meal; that would have been venison, courtesy of the Wampanoag (who were not, in fact, invited to dine with the Pilgrims, but simply happened by and felt bad that such a large number of people were eating eels and radishes and parsnips and liverwort). So we’re neither celebrating the original eely, parsnip-y Thanksgiving, nor are we honoring any sort of centuries-old tradition, either. But doesn’t it feel that way?

Weirder yet, most of our major holidays have comparatively recent scaffolding to them, at least in their secular forms. Santa in his current jolly red-and-white form dates to about 1906 (not the 1930 Coca-Cola myth, but not a great deal earlier, either.) Trick-or-treating only became a national holiday convention in the late 1940s, having begun in the Western U.S. and Canada and then stalled in its eastward expansion by wartime sugar rationing. What our kids tend to think of as timeless staples of holiday activity were relatively new to my own parents, and by the time I came along, many had been in place only for a few decades.

Weird, isn’t it? But these and other ‘givens,’ I teach them, are anything but. Credit cards in their current form were first issued in 1958. Automobile leasing – now considered just one among many acquisition options – was unheard of prior to the prime lending rate reaching 21.5% in December of 1980. Modern consumer advertising had its origins with the growth of television and suburban commuter populations in the late 1950s (and we’ve watched it grow up, in infinity-lens fashion, through Mad Men.) We tend to treat virtually anything that existed prior to our birth as belonging to a timeless, eternal continuum, but in reality, our own parents saw customs, goods, services, and cultural tropes born during their own lifetimes. So have we, and it seems normal to us, but to my children, life before the Internet must have been unthinkably primitive and bizarre.

From literature to mathematics to civics to science, we teach a common mantra: take from what has been done before, but never accept it as a flawless and unassailable brushed-steel given. In our house, we tend to borrow the best and question the rest, much like the crazy quilt of centuries in my living room right now. ‘Because we’ve always done it that way’ is a wobbly, worm-eaten plank at best – and we’ve found it to make fine firewood, the better to finish a jigsaw puzzle by.

Millennial Spearhunting

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An atlatl is a remarkable thing.

I’ve actually held one of the earliest known examples in my hands (with latex gloves), and while I know I’m probably ascribing otherworldly qualities to it, the thing just exuded confidence. It had been held, and flicked, thousands of times at a very early, distant point in human prehistory. At one point, this device I now held had made all the difference for one hunting family. Using it had changed everything about their spear throws – velocity, accuracy, and, ultimately, killing power. Once the atlatl appeared on the scene in the Combe Sauniere in France, it spread like wildfire, throughout Europe and over the Bering land bridge into North America, for one simple reason. It was a transformational piece of hunting technology, made effective through training and practice. To hunt without it was to go forth at a severe competitive disadvantage in sourcing food: overnight, the playing field for daily nutrition changed, all because of one simple device.

Why do I bring this up? Because my kids are going to have one – the modern version, anyway – and they’re going to learn to use it, right by my side. Your kids might; given that you’re reading our blog, their chances are excellent. Most kids in public school won’t – and the ultimate outcome for them doesn’t look pretty. This fact is driven by two emerging fractures in modern education, which are collectively driving a widening wedge between school and life.

The first fracture is technological. A little backstory: in 1977, my father brought home one of the earliest dedicated word processors, a great big humming machine the size of a filing cabinet, complete with eight-inch floppy disks. It was pretty amazing at the time, and he even let me do a little schoolwork on it – against Caterpillar corporate policy, I’m sure, but whatever. I found it thoroughly fascinating. For the first time, documents could be stored digitally and edited endlessly before committing them to paper. But despite how revolutionary this moment was, just three years later, our family owned its functional equivalent, in the form of an Apple II. Two years after that, Apple IIs showed up in our junior high computer lab. Total elapsed time from my first look at the technology to its public-school adoption: five years.

Cue the starry-eyed optimism of the 1980s. At the time, we really thought that this process would only accelerate over time, to the point where schools would adopt real-world work processes and technologies faster and faster, until they virtually mirrored each other. But, in retrospect, it’s pretty clear that patient zero, in the form of the Apple II, was really as good as it ever got – and then only because Apple was shoving dollars at the educational market as fast as they could be spent. Over time, what was in public-school computer labs fell further and further behind what was being used in business; even Apple abandoned its educational mission, in large part. Today, I walk into our public school, and there are some of the last CRT-based, 1024×768 tube monitors on Earth. You couldn’t go out and buy a CRT monitor today if you wanted to.

The contrast between school and homeschool is pretty stark. We don’t even use flatscreen monitors exclusively in homeschooling any more. The iPad’s become our go-to tech of choice in our house, for everything from Dragonbox to Khan Academy videos to Algebra Touch. For more advanced work that does involve monitor time, we’re aiming for a directly transparent relationship between what we use professionally (Mathematica, SPSS, Google Docs/Word/Excel, Photoshop, Illustrator, SlideRocket) and what they learn to use at home. Because this is what we hunt with. These products are the atlatls of our day. In ten years, our daughters will be out on the veldt of the modern labor market, armed only with what we’ve given them – and it’s our job to make sure they’re ready.

The second fracture is sociological, and I reference it, increasingly, to explain why I’m involved in homeschooling as a father. It’s simple: we’ve become confused about what the ancestral role of a father is, and what the alternative role is.  Ten thousand years ago, the only fathers who didn’t take their sons (and daughters!) hunting were crippled or dead – and even then, their children went forth with uncles and cousins and grandfathers. This was done for one simple reason: there is no way to learn to hunt in the abstract. It’s not something you could read up on (not that hunting techniques were being documented beyond the wishful) or discuss into skilfulness around the campfire. Hunting, like so many things, was learned by doing. Fathers took their children hunting, because to do so was to teach them how to survive in the world1.

And then – rather suddenly on the scale of history – fathers (in particular) grew comfortable with outsourcing those tasks. That began as the Industrial Revolution took hold and showed us a world in which children could learn life skills en masse, just like the products being produced in the factories of the day. It’s no coincidence that the rise of industrial America from 1876 – 1900 overlapped with the beginning of the Progressive Movement in education, spanning from the 1890s to the 1930s. During that time, the United States saw a dramatic expansion in the number of schools and students served, especially in the fast-growing metropolitan cities. Learning became an assembly-line task, and just as the education of any one child became unimportant compared to the need to educate large volumes of children, so too did the need for a family member to teach fall by the wayside. The tasks to be mastered were common to all, and so the process of teaching became one that a third party could take on. At the same time, the ability of parents to involve their children in their work vanished, shattered on the factory floors of the age. For every family, at some point in history, there was a singular moment when work and education split: fathers went off to work one morning, and children to school, the two divided along a fracture between the real world and the educational system’s abstraction of that world.

In the earliest days, that fracture was small, or even – for those children who left school in the afternoon and went directly to work in a factory or on a farm – nonexistent. But over time, it’s widened, exacerbated by the technological divide. With each passing year, school has fallen further and further behind the realities of modern working life; today our kids are learning roughly all the same things they learned in 1980. There’s Palmer-method cursive to be practiced and wedding-cake long division to be waded through and a seemingly never-ending fountain of facts to be memorized – despite the fact that we live in an era of texting and Evernote and ubiquitous calculators and a human knowledge base exploding exponentially year by year2. These kids are heaving spears by hand in the atlatl age.

Worse, we’re not talking just about the fracture between our public-school education and the working world in our own nation: we’re talking about the fracture between our public-school education and the preparation necessary to compete in a global economy. Being from a Cat family, I distinctly remember the arrival of that word processor coinciding with my father’s grim pronouncement that Cat had lost a deal to Komatsu for the first time. It made an impression on me at the time: new thinking and new tech will be necessary now. The good news? We had an atlatl. The bad news? Everyone else had one, too. Yet, in the intervening decades, we haven’t taken the globalized economy seriously in the most important of venues – our educational system – and as a result, we fall further and further behind every year. And we just don’t care. If we did, we’d be doing something about it. 

Once upon a time, the risk of having an obsolete survival skillset was simply too great to take on, and mothers and fathers taught their children. It’s our belief that we are there once again, on the cusp of a great disjunction in how they are to make their way in this rapidly-evolving world, and that parents – fathers and mothers alike – need to face that fact head-on. Public education is providing neither the tools nor the training necessary to hunt effectively – so we’ve taken it upon ourselves to do so. To the extent possible, they see what we use to make a life for ourselves: coding languages and wireless hotspots and knowledge management systems and tablet tech. I let them watch me work up client market pursuit models and brand positioning plans and collateral deployment schedules. They ask questions, and I answer them directly.

If we’d lived ten thousands years ago, those questions would’ve frightened away something large and tasty that we as a family probably needed for the night’s repast. I’d have to caution them, then; questions have their place and time, and crouched in the brush, atlatl in hand, is not the time. Is hunting with my children alongside me as efficient as hunting alone? No, it’s not; anyone who’s ever visited Costco alone, or with kids in tow, knows this difference intimately. But by hunting with them, I show them the skills that they need to learn, and in the end, we all eat – together.

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1 The original ‘quality time.’ 

2Yes, I know that the counterargument is that human knowledge has always exceeded the learning and retention capacity of any one individual. That old saw gets wheeled out every time this datapoint is mentioned. But that argument starts to lose its weight when the exponential nature of ongoing knowledge growth is considered. It’s like saying that there’s no need to worry about a coming hundred-year tsunami based on experience managing a few inches of water in a post-thunderstorm flooded basement.

The Long Run

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H and E are en route to the mountains today with their grandparents, leaving us with A in what we occasionally refer to as the ‘only-child simulator.’ (The DINK simulator is when all three are gone. Once we’ve had even fifteen minutes of solitude in the DINK simulator, we want to slap the living shit out of our endlessly-complaining childless friends.) I’m in the second-cup-of-coffee zone, where life slows down from permanent-moving-sidewalk speed to something like our old version of normal. It’s spring break week here in Colorado; I’m not planning out homeschooling tasks, and so our homeschooling center1 has fallen quiet. The alarm clock has been silenced, too, and I realize something odd: with Kathy working a flexible schedule like mine, and the girls homeschooling in the morning, we’re only getting up at ungodly hours for A. That’ll change, too, in the fall, so I’m looking forward to a week-long preview of what it would be like to get up at seven o’clock every day.

At the same time our home life is slowing down for a week, the local school system is revving up. They’re talking about all kinds of new options for gifted education, and some – like the promise of cluster grouping, at long last – look interesting. Ability grouping would have worked fantastically for H, who needed roughly a grade to a grade-and-a-half worth of acceleration in reading and writing, and the reverse for math. If it had been available sooner, I might have looked at it as an option – but with only sixth grade left in Colorado elementary school, we’re thinking that we may not want to trial the first year of a new teaching methodology for her. Perhaps, down the line, it might be a good choice, but we’re both pretty adamant that middle school’s a waste of time, and by the time she reaches high school, they may have moved on to something else entirely.

Regardless, it can’t really launch until 2015, which is the earliest our school system will have the tech in place to support it. That leaves H and E out of the elementary school ability grouping discussion, and even A would be in fifth grade by the time it goes live. It’s a future solution, but I’ve got ‘now’ decisions to make, so we’re now on the outside of flux and change, looking in. At some point, it’s likely that our kids’ classmates will be going back to an entirely different world, while ours will be staying roughly the same. That juxtaposition – ‘alternative’ schooling within the perceived stability of public education, and stability within the ‘alternative’ state of homeschooling, has me thinking about the long run today. (Like I said, I’m in second-cup-of-coffee world.) In specific, how are our kids going to view school when it comes time for them to think about educational options for their own children?

I grew up with something of an inner fire for educational transformation – a strong desire to do things differently for my own kids. I suppose we all did: who didn’t stare down another SRA card2, or face off against the mind-numbing horror of fifth-period study hall, and think to themselves, “it’s going to be different for my kids”? But despite doodling the destruction of our schools at the hands of an invading robot army, many of us ended up right back where it all began, shipping our kids off to public school to endure all the same trials and travails. The process has been dressed up a bit now; gifted kids have ALPs, and 2e kids get IEPs, and there are more opportunities for enrichment  – when the Sauron eye of standardized testing is looking elsewhere, that is. Nevertheless, at the end of the day, it’s a different flavor of the same old, same old.

It’s been that awareness, that experience, that’s driven much of what Kathy and I have done in changing up our careers and lifestyles and responsibilities. These haven’t been easy or simple or even societally-accepted choices to make, but we made them anyway, in large part because we’d seen the alternative up close. We talk frequently about the need to run toward a desired end state, rather than run from an unwanted intermediate state. Even so, we have moments in which we acknowledge that there is some running from in this equation. It’s unavoidable, given that it is our own personal experiences that have framed these choices, and we’re living with that fact. What about their experience, though? Without flamethrowing-robot doodles or study-hall spitballs or other formative moments, will they have the same passion for homeschooling we do? They’ve had a taste spoon of public ed, but certainly not enough to rile them up the way I was. I wonder whether that’s going to color their perspective as the decision draws near for their own families. How do you rationally evaluate something you’ve scarcely had to put up with?

Perhaps it’ll be a more difficult decision for them. Perhaps school will become something truly different by 2028, or 2038, or whenever they start their own families. I’d like to think that real transformation is coming for the public education system in this nation, but I’m a realist, too. Things haven’t changed much since I was in elementary school in the 1970s, and that was thirty-five years ago; do I really think things will improve dramatically in the next fifteen? There’s a part of me that hopes that school will be a genuine option when they begin examining educational options for their families. But based on the glacial pace of progress in our own school system, I’m not entirely convinced that things will be any different then.

That may leave them in a strange position, at least from my perspective: unconvinced that school is a sound choice for educating their children, but lacking the traditional-schooling experience that would fuel their commitment to homeschooling. When the time comes, will they have the same determination to do what’s necessary for their own children? I like to think that they will, and that they’ll be choosing for the healthiest of reasons: namely, that they’ll be running toward what they grew up with themselves – what worked, and what they knew to be right for them, and what they’d like their own kids to experience, too.

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1 I know, it looks like a dining room, but it’s a homeschooling center. Trust me on this.

2 I think I actually got hives when H told me she was doing SRA cards in school. Really? 25 years later, we’re still doing SRA cards?

Eminence Front

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em·i·nence

/ˈemənəns/

Noun
  1. Fame or recognized superiority, esp. within a particular sphere or profession: “her eminence in cinematography”.
  2. An important or distinguished person: “the Attorney General canvassed the views of various legal eminences”.

Eminence is everywhere in articles on giftedness of late. It’s arrived hand-in-glove with the Talentists, that group that seeks to broaden the definition of giftedness to include just about anything a human being can possibly do differently than other human beings1. The new way of thinking centers on the idea that gifted education should foster and encourage those most capable of – and I quote – “path breaking, field-altering discoveries and creative contributions by their products, innovations, and performances.” Thus, by the strictest definition of the term, noted above, gifted people are to be famous people. Important people. Superior people.

Look, I’m not offended by the idea that an intelligent person can work hard and be recognized for excellence in his or her chosen field. Far from it. What I do find disturbing is the expectation that everyone is a prodigy in a specific and defined field. Eminence suggests that we all somehow sharpen to a single point of brilliance, one which efficiently yields up the fruits of our giftedness to society in a quantifiable way. It all sounds very pleasant and logical, and at the same time, it makes me think I’m being rendered down for my mineral salts. More disturbingly, literature in the field is starting to suggest that giftedness + diligence = eminence, as a rigidly defined equation. It might; there’s certainly no shortage of examples out there. But it also feeds the gifted-as-output engine, and that can end up with terrible results – even for those that do become eminent. After all, if I rearrange that equation algebraically, I can also produce giftedness – eminence = – diligence; “if I’m smart but not famous, I clearly didn’t work hard enough.”2  That’s a horrific message to send to gifted children. Eminence is a delightful concept for those of us who single-mindedly pursue fields that offer the possibility of large-scale acknowledgment and the possibility of ‘recognized superiority.’ What are the rest of us? Failed experiments? Intellectual detritus? Cautionary tales?

This logic also doesn’t necessarily work for polymaths. I have terrible news for the Eminence Front; I’m not eminent. Not by the strictest definition of the word. I’m not technically a famous author; there’s a pretty tightly-defined slice of the gifted young adult population that likes my work, but they’re not New York Times bestsellers, and it’s unlikely that my books are going to be turned into godawful movies anytime soon. I’m not technically a famous guitarist, either, although there are those who will shout requests for songs I’ve written. I’m not technically a famous archaeologist, but one of my finds is on display in a cultural museum in Cortez, Colorado. I’m not technically a famous entrepreneur – but there are people who rely on the services my company provides every day to make the right decisions for their companies. I’m a better author than most entrepreneurs I know, and a better guitarist than most archaeologists. But the ideologues of the Eminence Front don’t value polymathic output; only prodigious output.

More importantly, though, these are the activities for which I’m even able to measure that output – the activities I’d have a chance of becoming eminent in. I’m not even really considering the things I can’t technically be famous for. Am I a famous father? (I do have a very, um, distinguished ‘Dad of the Year’ plaque on my desk.) Has my husband-ing ever been recognized for its superiority? Is it possible to be distinguished while I’m plunging a toilet or grilling hamburgers or taking the trash to the curb? Then there’s homeschooling, which – by definition – is an act that runs directly counter to the concept of eminence. Kathy and I have both made the very conscious decision to limit our career workload so that we can focus more closely on the education of our children. If eminence was ever camped out in my cul-de-sac, it likely packed its bags the day we made that decision. I’m OK with that, and so is she, but what are we telling our own kids when we tell them that eminence is everything?

That. in turn, raises the following question: where, in this equation, is the word happiness? How about fulfillment? Self-actualization? And which component of the definition of eminence are we supposed to be following? Is it more crucial to the essence of eminence to be important or famous? Famous or superior? Superior or distinguished? Ke$ha’s a famous person, but she’s not important. Zoe Keating is probably the anti-Ke$ha – important, but not famous. She’s got a lot of company. Miguel Alcubierre might end up becoming the most important man in scientific history – but he’s not famous. (Yet.) Brian Greene and Rodolfo Gambini are important, but not famous, and neither can yet demonstrate superiority over the other; in fact, one is likely to be dead wrong, and his error is going to prove to be immensely valuable to physicists. We can’t all be Neil deGrasse Tyson3.

What I’m going to tell my children is the following: follow your passion in life. It might be looping the cello, or developing warp-drive engines, or painting with oils in a sunny back yard. Following your passions might ensure you fame, or – ahem – “importance”(whatever that means), or being ‘recognized for your superiority.’ Or it might not. What it will bring you is meaning, and joy, and a direct conduit between the fire in your soul and the work beneath your hands. There is no more “important” goal than that in this life. They might find themselves famous, or “important,” as a result of their passions – but the converse is unlikely to be true.

As for the ‘Eminence Front?’ Someone fairly famous in his own right once informed me that it’s a put-on.

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1 You’re welcome.

2 giftedness = eminence – diligence somehow falls out of this, too. Go figure.

3 Yes, I’m counting the vests in the ‘distinguished’ column.

Sam Elliott’s Cheatin’-Heart, Gas-Pressure Problem Blues

A few years back, I had occasion to rent a car for a day. My own car needed maintenance, the kind you can’t just do the one-day dropoff/pickup for, and I had a client meeting in downtown Denver that I needed transportation to. So I dutifully called a Major Car Rental Place1 and reserved a midsized sedan for the day. My friendly reservation clerk took my information, asked me if a Toyota Camry would be all right, and I told her that it would. “Great,” she said. “You’re all set.”

The next week, when I showed up to claim my car, there were exactly two cars on the lot. One was a Toyota Yaris, a vehicle that’s barely a car; I was forced to rent one in Phoenix once, and I was stunned to find that it might be the only car left in the world with true rolldown windows. The other was an elephantine pickup truck, the kind you can’t help but hear Sam Elliott’s voice as you climb into. My heart sank, but I went inside anyway to talk to the clerk, hoping that perhaps my Camry was being held in heated storage somewhere.

Nope. They fucked me. It was going to be a choice between the Yaris and the Sam. With snow in the forecast for the day – and some decidedly sketchy-looking tires on the Yaris – I took the Sam, cursing the rental company with each gas-guzzling mile, praying that I wouldn’t be subjected to client guffaws and questions about where my gun rack was2. When I returned, the desk clerk asked me what I would rate my car-rental experience out of ten.

“Four,” I told him. “And that’s only because I was actually provided something with a motor. But you ought to be goddamned ashamed of yourselves. You had a WEEK to get a Camry here, and you didn’t. You also didn’t call me last night to warn me that you hadn’t.”

He paled at that, and replied, “Is there something we can do to change your mind about your rating? I can’t put down a four.”

“Why? No single-digit numbers on your keyboard?” I shot back.

“No, we get in trouble if we don’t record all 10s.”

“But I didn’t have a 10 experience,” I explained. “I just didn’t.”

He went on to offer me all manner of grease to get me to rave about my J.R. Ewing driving experience, and I refused to budge; what was he going to offer me, a free pickup truck rental? So we parted ways, he with his four and impending butthurt, me with my lame car-rental experience, and I got to thinking what a strange exchange it had been; can’t anyone well and truly err anymore? Have we become a society of substanceless ‘tens’ at any cost?

I was reminded of that experience as I read Cheating Upwards recently, the gist of which is that, as a society, we’re installing ever more educationally-onerous standardized tests, which students are ever more inclined to cheat on, wasting everyone’s time involved. (And, from prior readings, I know that the assessors of those standardized tests are also essentially wasting their time). We’ve also lowered standards so that schools can appear to be performing well, balming parental concerns, ensuring that teachers keep their jobs, and giving us an increasingly-delusional sense of our place in the world. In a world where everyone aces their Regent’s examinations – as the, um, protagonist of “Cheating Upwards” did – are we really surprised that some of our students end up behind car-rental counters, begging for perfect customer experience scores?

Moreover, where does all of this jiggery-pokery go? How willing are we, as a society, to accelerate down this highway of bullshit to a state in which every car-rental experience and every Regent’s examination score is perfect – even though everything beneath those veneers is rotten? So Naseem gets into the good school; then what? At some point, exposure is inevitable; this is a cycle without a happy ending, for anyone involved – and, in the long term, for our nation.

We’ve had standardized tests in place, in one form or another, in elementary and secondary education since the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 required standardized testing in public schools. And yet we’re still falling further behind with every passing year.  Some of it, I think, is our nation’s insistence that our children get As, regardless of whether those As are connected to any rational form of grading whatsoever. We’re content to take the yearly standardized test findings and set expectations based on where the bulk of our students perform, much like painting red and white target circles around wherever the hell our arrows land. That’s not assessment, and it’s not progress; it’s self-delusion. Worse, we’re wasting the time of everyone involved, and crushing out creativity as we go.

So where do we go from here? Well, for starters, we should probably stop wasting time on tests that aren’t connected to any objective, global reality, and start instituting more PISA-driven testing. But even then – and I’m certainly joining a loud throng in saying so, but I’ll add my voice – we should probably stop wasting  time on testing as it’s currently constituted, period.

I’m not even just talking about elementary and secondary education, either. E recently took both the EXPLORE and the ACT within the span of a month, so I’m fairly steeped in upper-middle school/college prep exams right now, as we worked through a bunch of the ACT prep material together. At one point, I noticed her getting very frustrated with the timed practice test, and after the section was complete, I called proceedings to a brief halt.

“What’s up?” I asked.

“If this is what college is like,” she replied – bless her heart – “I don’t think I want to go.”

So I had to explain that, no, college wasn’t really like this. The math section does resemble a typical timed college exam, only you’re not trying to retrieve four years’ worth of concepts at one time. Not much of the rest has anything to do with day-to-day college, other than the Writing section. Reading does have some applicability in building comprehension skills, and it’s good to build a robust reading rate in life anyway, but I never saw commonplace work anything like the Reading section in terms of time pressure once I got to college (and before you dismiss Reading out of hand…it’s not as easy as you might be thinking.) Science is easily the least valuable of the sections, hurling huge volumes of data at the test-taker and demanding that he or she solve temperature and gas pressure problems in a matter of seconds. It would be great training if you were contemplating becoming an astronaut, but – as we’ve argued elsewhere with estimation – there are precious few situations in professional life that demand complexity, accuracy, and (ridiculous) speed of execution all at the same time.

Do I have a substitute ready for all of this aging, creaky testing infrastructure? I don’t. But I do have the pragmatic Midwestern philosophy of ‘it really doesn’t matter how big or imposing it is – if it’s broken, and it can’t be easily fixed, then back up the truck, ’cause it’s going to the dump.’ And this, my friends, is a situation that is calling for the truck.

Paging Sam Elliott.

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1 I won’t name it here, but in pop culture, it had a five-year mission to explore strange new worlds.

2 I know everyone thinks that each Colorado citizen is issued a truck, a gun rack, and a pair of skis at the state line, but we’ve evolved a bit. Call us…semi…politan.

The Joneses’ Coke Zero-Stuffed Abyss

I call it the Death Star Trench.

I drive it around once a week, visiting a good friend who lives in one of Colorado suburbia’s typical planned-community enclaves, and every single time, it confounds and confuses me. The Death Star Trench, you see, is a normal suburban residential street lined with nicely-landscaped homes, most of which have three-car garages – and every single car is parked in a driveway or on the street. Filling both sides of this street with cars – nice cars, at that – makes for something of a rural-road tractor dynamic; two cars can’t really occupy the choked-down center of the street, so there’s a system of nods and waves that has grown up around driving through the subdivision.

Every single time I make this particular run, the anthropologist in me picks up a mental sliver – an itchy little wedge of substance that refuses to be quieted or dismissed. And it’s a very simple question: what the fuck is in your garages?

I grew up in Venusian Central Illinois, where summer temperatures climbed to hellish, humid heights and winter temperatures plunged us into Stygian nights of frost-rimed gloom. Leave your car outside during the summer, and you’d cultivate third-degree burns on the backs of your thighs upon seating yourself within; leave your car outside during the winter, and odds are good it wouldn’t be starting for you in the morning. The random detritus every household accumulated got stored in the attic, or the unfinished section of the basement, or it got tossed – but it did not get stored in the garage, the sanctum sanctorum of motorized vehicles.

That’s what makes this particular sliver so intriguing. It’s clear that whatever occupies the garages of the Death Star Trench is immensely valuable – so valuable, in fact, that it has forced late-model automobiles and SUVs out onto the street. As I lay awake during one recent Colorado hailstorm (they’re pretty common here), my thoughts drifted to the DST. Were all those Infinitis and BMWs and Cadillacs really being pounded into cellulitic cottage cheese? Surely not. But my next trip up, there they were; claims adjusters by the dozens, nodding and smiling in pressed khakis and agency buttondowns as they took pictures of ruined cars and assured homeowners that help was on the way.

Just park your car in the goddamn garage, I thought. But apparently, this mystery bothered only me, as I found no urban-anthropology studies on the subject. This was, apparently, simply the lifestyle of the Jones, a measured ennui of affluence that I was supposed to be chasing – one in which my fabulous trove of Faberge eggs deserved a warm, enclosed home, while my luxury sedan shivered out in the cold. The Joneses, it seemed, were doing fine; so fine, in fact, that administrivia like the fate of a BMW in the elements were, at best, tertiary concerns.

Then I ran across this.

The Joneses, it seems, aren’t doing fine after all. They’re overworked, overwhelmed, and oversupplied; months of accumulative Costco runs have created the illusion of wealth, with flats of Sprite and tubs of Tide and crates of Cracklin’ Oat Bran piled to the garage rafters. The Joneses have it all – without the time to enjoy any of it. The money, it seems, should go somewhere tangible, somewhere visible, to feed back the value of too many hours spent at work; what better means to do so than to fill the garage with restaurant-sized sacks of coffee and boxes of Splenda? Yet there’s no time in this equation; the Joneses own a back yard they don’t visit, according to the study, and bring in cleaning teams weekly to dust and polish a dining table never occupied for a full family meal. The whole thing is eerily reminiscent of ‘There Will Come Soft Rains,’ of household features unused for a lack of human presence, and I felt sad reading Life in the Twenty-First Century; this is the ultimate outcome of a society driven to consumerist madness over the course of four decades, beginning with the advent of modern advertising.

It’s also everything the Center for a New American Dream opposes. CNAD would have us eat what’s left in the garage, then park the damned car inside. Come home from work at a sane time, cook a meal with fresh ingredients, and sit down to enjoy it together. Go for a bike ride after dinner – or enjoy the deck you built. Boss not thrilled with seeing you exit the building at 5? Find a new job with some work-life balance – and earn less. Then spend less. Costco will still be there when you need cereal and Tide and Coke Zero; it’s not necessary to build a private Costco in one’s own garage. Stockpile time instead of laundry detergent; fill your home with memories, instead of stuff. In the end, those memories will be all you have, the Cheerios long since eaten, the very clothes the Tide cleaned packed off to Goodwill as the kids grew up.

In our house, we have to be doubly cautious about accumulation; there are intensities living in here that get easily overwhelmed with too much stimulation and clutter. Which is not to say that we don’t have our share of things that need to be cleaned out. But intense kids are like pack rats: everything they come across has a deep meaning to them. So teaching them to let it go, or not acquire it in the first place, is a great life skill. This way, they’ll have the time they need to spend with their families, and probably be happier as a result.

I suppose the mystery is solved, and I don’t think I’ll wonder anymore what could possibly have squeezed so much costly automotive technology out onto the streets of the DST. It’s nothing nearly so imposing as I might have thought; it’s simply the lonely efforts of overclocked consumers driven to reassure themselves with great heaps of grocery stores. They’re modern-day Mayans, displaying their wealth in the form of resources. And like the Mayans, they are whistling past the graveyard – for surely the first act of any civilization facing impending shortages of resources is to convince themselves that the Coke Zero shall never, ever run out.