Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Sidney Awards

David Brooks every December lists the best essays of the year. Three of them were so great I had to re-re-link them.

"The End of Men" is a so-true-it-hurts account of the rise of women in the American economy and higher education.

Two quotes in particular, I think, exactly capture the source of the shift. A college admissions officer says "A typical female applicant, she said, manages the process herself—lines up the interviews, sets up a campus visit, requests a visit with faculty members. But the college has seen more than one male applicant 'sit back on the couch, sometimes with their eyes closed, while their mom tells them where to go and what to do.'" Later, a student body president says "Guys high-five each other when they get a C, while girls beat themselves up over a B-minus. Guys play video games in each other’s rooms, while girls crowd the study hall. Girls get their degrees with no drama, while guys seem always in danger of drifting away." Oh how true, how true...

In the past, more jobs depended on brawn or creativity and extreme risk-taking. Men tend to be good at those things. Now, career success depends on getting an education, which depends on being diligent and driven from a young age, and assiduous (and good at doing what people tell you to do...) for many years after while climbing up the ladder. Girls, who mature earlier and are much more 'careful' (ie self-motivated, over-prepared, ahead of deadlines, etc), are thriving in that environment.

The sad thing is, I don't think this is inevitable at all. I think it's a result of kids meeting expectations, and expectations meeting reality, in a self-reinforcing cycle. Boys used to "act like men" from early elementary school. Their job was to work hard and build a career that could support their future families. Now you only hear "boys will be boys" as mothers sigh about their sons' apathetic obliviousness to the realities of survival. Meanwhile, since women have entered the workforce en masse, expectations for what they can juggle and accomplish have skyrocketed, and girls in middle school are already worrying about how they can jumpstart their career in time to have enough job security to raise a family, and how they can earn enough money to provide a middle-class lifestyle for them (...who can depend on men to pick up the slack, after all?)

Moving on, "Solitude and Leadership" is a fantastic commencement address at West Point by William Deresiewicz (who also wrote the wonderful essay "The Disadvantages of an Elite Education" which makes me profoundly grateful that I somehow escaped all that college-prep pressure in high school and went to a decidedly unpompous, quirky, intense, tech school instead of a stuffy pat-ourselves-on-the-back Ivy.) The message is that to be a true leader, you need to think for yourself, which requires concentration in solitude.

The third is "The Inequality that Matters" by MR's Tyler Cowen. This is the most level-headed and honest discussion of income inequality in the U.S. that I've ever read, and anyone who likes to rant about the issue on any side should read it.

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