For Whom Do Colleges Exist?

Seth Roberts poses a fantastic question:

I had never heard it put so clearly. We can ask if governments exist: 1. To improve the lives of the governed. 2. To employ the governors. 3. To help other governments. Similarly, we can ask if colleges exist: 1. To teach the students. 2. To employ the teachers. 3. To help businesses who will eventually employ the students (the signalling function of college).

Suppose we believe that the main function of colleges is to teach the students. How, then, should we improve colleges? By giving mini-grants to teachers (as is done at UC Berkeley, where I teach)? By giving awards to the best teachers (as is done at UC Berkeley)? Or by doing something quite different?

Reminds me of the provocative book What Does It Mean to Be Well Educated?.

Our Education System: A Big Waste of Time and Money?

Bryan Caplan thinks so. Writing as an academic to whom "the education system has been quite good" I suspect his book-in-progress will be even more provocative. I've said before that our public education system today is one giant trainwreck. Practical or not, it's still fun to debate "big ideas" and giant reform around education. I look forward to what Bryan prescribes. From his page one:

[T]hree decades of experience, combined with two decades of reading and reflection, have convinced me that our educational system is a big waste of time and money. Practically every politician vows to spend more on education, and as an insider, I can't helping asking "Why? Do you want us to waste even more?"

Most people who criticize our education system complain that we aren't spending our money in the right way, or that ideologues-in-teachers'-clothes are leading our nation's children down a dark path. While I mildly sympathize with some of these complaints, they often contradict what I see as the real problem with our educational system: There's simply far too much education going on. The typical student burns up thousands of hours of his time learning about things that neither raise his productivity nor enrich his life. And of course, a student can't waste thousands of hours of his time without real estate to do it in, or experts to show him how.

Five Things Wrong With Universities Today

Here are five problem areas that come to mind when I think of higher ed in America. Any others? Or better yet, solutions?

1. Emphasis on Knowledge Over Experiences -- The system is still set up to reflect the old days when knowledge was concentrated in libraries and classrooms. Now, knowledge isn't scarce; it's abundant, and mostly free. Experiences which contexualize and bring to life your knowledge are more difficult to obtain.

2. Undergraduate Education in Research Universities -- A friend of a friend recently transferred from Amherst College to Stanford to be closer to home. He says he is appalled at the quality of his new teachers: they are grad students. Large universities offer significant benefits, but focused undergraduate teaching usually isn't one of them.

3. Creativity and Individuality -- Two ideas here. First, as Seth Roberts of UC Berkeley recently noted, there is little personalization in the classroom. All 200 (or 800) students in the room have to learn exactly the same thing:

Forcing all of them to learn the exactly same stuff is like forcing all of them to wear exactly the same clothes. It can be done, especially if rewards and punishments (i.e., grades) are used, but it’s unwise. Just as feeding children a poor diet stunts physical growth, forcing college students to imitate their professors, instead of letting them (or even better, helping them) grow in all directions, stunts intellectual growth.

Second, our school system can squelch creativity and individual expression in the name of bureaucracy and structure.

4. Tenure -- Just plain stupid incentive structure for professors.

5. Economic Diversity -- This is a bigger problem than racial diversity. Simply put, elite universities and colleges are more than ever out of reach for lower-income families. At Claremont, for example, only 12% of the student body is eligible for Pell Grants (household income less than $40k), the most widely used indicator for low-income student body.

Will Our School System Survive Transition to the Creative Age?

I'm fairly radical when it comes to education reform. I just think formal education as it's known today is massively screwed up. I'm fortunate I made it out of four years of intensely rigorous and formal high school education without losing my creative / entrepreneurial / free-agent instinct. And I'm hopeful that, as education reform becomes more topical due to the hyperventilation over China, alternative approaches to education will be part of the mainstream picture and not reserved just for kids who "don't fit in."

Edutopia has a fascinating interview with Alvin Toffler in which he thinks we should "shut down the public school system". Toffler says our current system was built for "industrial discipline" (assembly lines or farming). He paraphrases Bill Gates by saying we need to replace, not reform.

Richard Florida adds interesting thoughts worth reading slowly:

The school system we have now will not survive the transition to the Creative Age...

The Industrial Age because of its underlying logic (Marx) gave rise to large-scale vertical bureaucracy (Weber). It also suppressed human self-expression and initiative in favor of control (Freud). Our school systems, like our factories, large scale organizations, and governments are in effect structures ("prisons?)" for bureaucratic control.

The Creative Age logic requires something very different - self-expression, flexibility, and individual initiative....

Put that all together and you can see the need for a very different system for learning, one that optimizes flexibility over control, intrinsic reward over extrinsic (grading), lets talent thrive instead of squelching it, allows self-expression to flourish, challenges students, and lets them learn asynchronously, on their own time-scale and work flexibly.  The excuse is that schools are a place for "socialization" is just that - an excuse.  Most people can socialize in much more effective ways than pep rallies, ball games, the prom committee, or yearbook planning (but I digress). The community, broadly defined, can do that much better anyway ala Jane Jacobs.  It already does, as parents seek to supplement what their kids aren't getting from schools with all sorts of extra-curricular interactions from play-dates and tutors to rock school. Most of the good stuff already happens at the margins. Gates and Dell both dropped out of college to build their companies in their dorm rooms.  Wonder why. 

Our schools are the opposite of what is needed: hierarchical, mind-numbing, creativity-squelching machines. So the need for transformation: But, what exactly comes next? Toffler is right. We need to shut the whole thing down. Let's no longer confuse real estate, our current education factories/warehouses with learning. 

It's hard to sketch the system out in advance, but the core principles to build around are readily apparent: a shared curriculum on a technology platform that enables flexible and asynchronous learning anywhere, anyplace, anytime;  challenge and intrinsic reward over grades (and ridiculous standardized tests); community based engagement and socialization;  and a wide range of ala carte instructional offerings. This kind of system is one that simultaneously empowers and enriches students, parents and teachers.

College Theme Party: South of the Border

I guess nude-themed parties are so yesterday in American college life. Santa Clara University students, according to the L.A. Times, had a new idea: "South of the Border" party.

A "South of the Border" theme party has stirred outrage at a Jesuit university in Silicon Valley after students showed up at the bash dressed as Latino janitors, gardeners, gang members and pregnant teens...

One image shows a partygoer with a balloon stuffed under her shirt, making her appear pregnant.

In another, a woman wears pink rubber cleaning gloves and carries a feather duster.

Rest assured that the community is coming together to hold a forum to discuss diversity, tolerance, and all the other issues that animate American higher ed. What's new?

Revenge of the Liberal Arts Graduates?

Geoffrey Moore, author of the pathbreaking and essential business book Crossing the Chasm, just blogged about the Davos '07 theme "The Shifting Power Equation." Moore says:

The shift from computing to communications also has profound implications for the redistribution of power. As the Internet continues to work its transformation of the globe, the single most powerful force it is unleashing is memes, that class of ideas that are uniquely able to capture people’s imaginations and shape their behavior. Some of these memes are inspiring and uplifting (think spirituality and altruism), some are crass and banal (advertising and, yes, much blogging), and others are dark and pernicious (sexual exploitation and suicide bombing). All are vying for a commitment from each of us, and when we give that commitment, we give it for free and put all our life energy behind it. That is what makes memes so powerful.

The ability both to create and promulgate such memes and to recognize when a meme is acting upon you or one of your constituents is core to being effective in this new reality. A connected world places an enormous premium on people who are fluent in communications: expressing ideas, positioning offers, inferring power relationships, decoding nuances, deflecting the manipulations of others. We are witnessing the rise of the articulate and the marginalization of the inarticulate, whether in our political and business leaders or in our leading brands and most favored Internet sites.

 

In sume, if the past few decades were heralded as the revenge of the nerds, the next few will be the revenge of the liberal arts graduates.

I basically agree.


As a side note, however, I do believe that notwithstanding "this new reality," as Moore says, liberal arts degrees are not for everyone. Despite the fact that my entire family has been educated at liberal arts colleges, and I myself am heading for one, I still am a fan of vocational schools and specialized degrees. The fact is a lot of people would be better off if they went to a vocational school after high school instead of straight into the workforce. Unfortunately, vocational schools are often demeaned, especially by intellectuals. This Wall Street Journal op/ed notes:

A reality about the job market must eventually begin to affect the valuation of a college education: The spread of wealth at the top of American society has created an explosive increase in the demand for craftsmen. Finding a good lawyer or physician is easy. Finding a good carpenter, painter, electrician, plumber, glazier, mason--the list goes on and on--is difficult, and it is a seller's market. Journeymen craftsmen routinely make incomes in the top half of the income distribution while master craftsmen can make six figures. They have work even in a soft economy. Their jobs cannot be outsourced to India. And the craftsman's job provides wonderful intrinsic rewards that come from mastery of a challenging skill that produces tangible results. How many white-collar jobs provide nearly as much satisfaction?

This is similar in theme to the wonderful essay called "Shopclass as Soulcraft," (called one of the best essays of the year by David Brooks) which is about a guy who left his job at a think tank to be a car mechanic -- and found it more stimulating and challenging on every front.

How Does Nudeness Affect Human Behavior?

While reading Sunday's New York Times at Starbucks on Pearl Street here in Boulder, I smiled at the article declaring toga-themed college parties "old news." Apparently, "nude" is the hot new theme. No clothes, and you're in the door.

Just another college trick to make sexual exploration a little easier? That may be the intent, but the result, according to students, is more sophisticated and serious conversations. As the eminently sensible Tyler Cowen comments:

I would expect the [nude] parties to be more socially egalitarian, given that clothing cannot be used for social signalling, or for that matter for social concealing. I would expect less flirting, less drinking, less aggressive behavior, less lying, and more social seriousness. These effects should also wear off over time, as people get used to nudity and develop other means of signalling and concealing.

My Lecture Will Contain One Lie

Kai Chang mentioned this for the third time over noodles yesterday, so I'm glad he finally blogged this brilliant technique of one of his college professors:

"Now I know some of you have already heard of me, but for the benefit of those who are unfamiliar, let me explain how I teach. Between today until the class right before finals, it is my intention to work into each of my lectures ... one lie. Your job, as students, among other things, is to try and catch me in the Lie of the Day."

At the end of each class the students anxiously reviewed their lecture notes to see if they could spot the lie.

I can't think of a better way to impart the life lesson: "Think critically. Even if it comes from an expert".

East Coast Kids Tuck In Their Shirt

Last night I asked a couple friends who go to college in Hartford and New Haven, Connecticut, respectively, how the east coast fashion culture differs from what we're used to on the west coast. They said in unintended unison, "They tuck in their shirts!"

Most of us California folk who have never lived or studied in the east have a sense of shared fascination and horror at the ultra-preppiness that infects all private prep schools (and then the prestigious colleges and universities the prep-school kids attend).

While the fashion annoys me -- popped collars, Polo shirts, button down shirts, khakis, Brooks Brothers blazers -- I also hate the elitism / condensation that seems to come with it. I'm not sure which comes first: the clothes, then the attitude, or the attitude then the clothes. They feed on each other. It's hard to blame the student for coming out of a prep school with a pompous attitude. Can you imagine being sent away from home at 14, living with tons of other old money rich kids who want to know what your father does for a living, having to obey insane rules about when you can interact with someone of the opposite gender, and on top of it all, comply with the intense academic pressure these schools project?

I'm biased, but I much prefer the San Francisco high school style. First, it was extremely casual by east coast prep-school standards. With a few exceptions, no button down shirts or loafers, no perfectly combed hair and suave mannerisms. Sandals, shorts, and t-shirts ruled. Second, even though 75% of my junior and senior year teachers had PhDs, we still addressed them by their first names. Finally, since it was a day school, you really got to know the families of all your friends. This gives you a deeper sense of the person and the issues at home that animate their life. At boarding school, you have nothing to go on but your friend's performance in the high pressure environment of school.

I don't want to seem too heavy handed -- not all east coast prep school kids are fuck-ups. And surely there are good reasons to participate in an institution that has a long history and prestigious brand name. But I'm happy I'm headed to Southern California for college -- I do plan on living on the east for some part of my life, but not for college.

10 Ways to Hit on Girls in a Co-Ed Bathroom

My close friend Andy started as a freshman at Vassar College and has had some great posts on his blog. He just posted a hilarious Top 10 list for "How to hit on girls in co-ed bathrooms." Andy, how sophisticated you've become since entering the elite ranks of American higher ed, big man.

Money grafs:

10) Shave at least three times a day. Make sure that you are wearing minimal clothing while doing it. Remember to create serious tension on your pectoral muscles so that they look as defined as possible.

...

5) Sometimes, DON'T flush the toilet. Then, hang around the sinks, pretending to brush your teeth or even flossing if you feel like being really naughty. When the hot babe you wanna get with walks over and squeals audibly, that's when you make your move. Strut over to "see what the commotion was," express your outrage, and then be the champion stud that flushes the toilet for the fine doll. If you can somehow flex your biceps while doing this, that's mad respect and an obvious turn-on. If she still isn't feeling you up by this point, you can mention that you're going to "kick that fucker's ass real good," and show him, "how to treat a lady." You gotta be careful with this one, but when you pull it off, it's pretty pure.

..

4) Explain to her that there is a water shortage some South Asian country (it doesn't matter which one; feel free to be creative. Bonus points if it doesn't actually exist). Describe the conditions: infants dying of dehydration at a horribly innocent age, families not having enough water to wash their clothes, young children reaching for mugs that they think are full of water only to put it up to their lips and realize that there is nothing there. If you're particularly brave, act out each of these scenarios, and on the last one, make sure that you look tormented and confused upon realizing that your imaginary glass of water is empty. She should be crying by now if you have any semblance of skill. Swoop in, console, and admit that there is very little that "we" can do about it, but there is one simple way to save water that could one day be used in that country: sharing showers. Then grab your towel and suggestively look at the nearest shower. If you've made it this far, you're in.

What Is the Knowledge Most Worth Knowing?

This is a great post on Gideon's Blog about what should comprise a broad liberal arts education. Every pundit has their list of "essential knowledge". I found this list thoughtful, as I'm someone who believes in the liberal arts as the underpinning to an active engagement with the world. Excerpts:

I. Origins of the Western Tradition.

An integrated humanities course with a Great Books focus. Students read Homer, Hesiod, the dramatists, Aristophanes, Thucydides and Herodotus, the pre-Socratic philosophers, Plato and Aristotle, the Hebrew Bible and some ancient Near-Eastern contextual material, Plutarch, Virgil, Horace, Ovid, Lucretius, Greek and Latin lyric poetry, secondary material on Greek, Hellenistic and Roman History, the Christian Scriptures, Augustine and other early Church material. I am very sorely tempted simply to stop there. That is easily enough material for two years; it is certainly enough material for two terms, and this is only part of the curriculum. I think it's important, moreover, to give a sense of this classical material as living, as still being accessible, and if we race on from here through Dante, Chaucer and Aquinas; Locke, Hobbes and Shakespeare; Goethe, Cervantes and Milton; and on and on through Nietzsche and Joyce and whatever else, then Plato and Euripides will only be cultural signposts, matter to be learned for tests, rather than living presences in students' lives...

II. English Poetry.

A very traditional course. Beowulf, Chaucer, the Pearl Poet, Spenser, Shakespeare, Jonson, Donne, Marvell, Milton, Pope, Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Keats, Browning, Whitman, Tennyson, Poe, Longfellow, Hopkins, Yeats, Kipling, Eliot, Frost, Stevens, Larkin, Bishop. I've probably put in poets that some would consider dispensible and left out others that some would consider indispensible; forgive me, and consider this a sketch rather than a definitive list. This is covering a lot of ground, and so necessarily the epic poets are not going to get treated fairly. I'm not too upset about that, because if students learn how to read well, they can return to Spenser either in another course or even later in life; if they don't learn to read well, then they will not be able to....

III. Aspects of American Civilization.

Not a history course. It presumes a decent familiarity with American history; I imagine a strong basic American history text assigned as a reference and to help students who weren't paying attention in high school to keep up. This is, rather, an open-ended exploration of the nature of American Civilization with both a historical and a comparative method. So, for example, one key "aspect" of American Civilization that would be explored is the nature of American Constitutionalism. To that end, students would familiarize themselves with the British antecedents to the American system, read the Federalist Papers and some of the anti-Federalist arguments, read some key Supreme Court decisions, the Lincoln-Douglas Debates, and finally some of the best contemporary analyses of the American Constitutional tradition (examples: Democracy and Distrust, The People Themselves, The Bill of Rights: Creation and Reconstruction; pick your favorites). Other topics would include immigration and the origins of the American people (start with Albion's Seed and move on from there); the American foreign-policy tradition (I'm imagining working within Walter Russell Mead's framework); slavery, anti-slavery and the problem of race (David Brion Davis, Eugene Genovese, etc.); the American experience of religion; one can go on and on...

IV. Principles of Aesthetics.

Secondary schools around the country have been cutting back on art and music; meanwhile, the tribunes of high culture from the major art museums to schools of architecture are failing utterly to teach humanistic aesthetic principles; and popular culture is almost comically debased. We are surrounded by ugliness, to the point where most people do not even know how to think about the aesthetic. The course will spend a little time reading about theories of the aesthetic (Aristotle, Ruskin, Pater, Nietzsche) but will mostly approach the topic directly, by interacting with works of painting, sculpture, architecture, photography and music. A strong emphasis will be placed on solving aesthetic problems: how to achieve such and such effect in a way that works....

V. Probability and Statistics.

No branch of mathematics is more important to thinking intelligently about the world than statistics...

VI. Concepts in Economics.

Ignorance of economics is nearly comparable to ignorance of statistics. But people need to understand some economics for reasons ranging from their own personal prosperity (understanding the importance of savings and investment, and the function of different forms of debt like mortgages and credit cards, as well as intelligently capitalizing on one's own skills and talents) to participating intelligently in political life....

VII. Logic and Rhetoric.

...Formal logic as such is an esoteric discipline, but basic logical principles need to be drilled into students, as do different rhetorical strategies, and then they need to use these principles and strategies in real situations....

VIII. Problems in Philosophy.

...I titled the course, "Problems in Philosophy" because I think that's the best way to approach philosophy for true novices: present problems that philosophers have wrestled with. The emphasis is intended to be on "purer" areas of philosophy: how we can know something, how we can communicate meaningfully, etc., and to avoid aesthetic, moral and political questions that might be dealt with adequately in other classes in the core.

IX. Introduction to Human Biology.

A course in human biology would be valuable for many reasons. First, for reasons of health; people really should know about how their bodies work and how to keep them working. They should also understand their own development; both men and women should have a realistic understanding of fertility, of child development, and of aging, because they will be planning to start or delay starting families, raising children, and taking care of aging parents. Our increasing understanding of human biology also informs all kinds of moral and policy questions that students are engaged with....

X. Colloquium on Ethics, Morals and Values.

Unfortunately, this course will inevitably be a gut course, one you almost can't possibly fail. But I think it's appropriate for there to be a course in the core explicitly devoted to exploring questions of ethics, morals and values; questions of how one should live one's life and what is the good. Students will have learned a great deal about the Western Tradition's classical approaches to these problems in the Origins course; they will have learned something about what modern knowledge brings to bear on these questions from the Economics and Human Biology courses; they will have learned something about how to intelligently phrase and answer questions from Logic and Rhetoric. They should have the tools, in other words, to ask and try to answer what are, ultimately, the most important questions....

Ken Robinson on Reforming Education to Nurture Creativity

Ken Robinson speaking at TED is a must-watch video. He hits on so many good points about the need to reform our education system to nurture creative geniuses and the importance of interdisciplinary thinking. I think a lot about how our education system can better encourage entrepreneurial thinking. Unfortunately, I believe we're heading too far in a testing mania that, as it's apparently done in some Asia countries for many years, produces too many cogs and too few life entrepreneurs.

Thanks to my friend Dan Grossman for pointing out this winner.

Sexuality Categories and Pornified Culture

The 21 comments appended to my post Girl-on-Girl Hookups and Sexual Categories covers some interesting ground by the same crowd which so thoroughly analyzed the issue of independent bookstores and globalization. I recommend you read through them slowly if you're interested in issues of sexuality, feminism, or the effects of a pornified culture on young people.

Here's a summary of the discussion:

  1. My post noted the "new trend" of experimental sexuality among young people, so-called "Lesbian Until Graduation."
  2. The comments conclude that the trend is not exactly new. Experimentation in this respect ebbs and flows over the decades. Sexuality historian Jesse Berrett argues that today's casual lesbianism at parties, for example, may though be new in its  "publicization and serving of male desires as mediated/invented/augmented by porn. I have to say that this sort of performative sexuality does strike me as new, and not as good."
  3. Steve Silberman argues that human sexuality has always been more fluid than the official view suggests. Perhaps it's the strict bifurcation -- straight or gay -- which is the fad, since homosexual behavior has been genetically "conserved" for all these years in both humans and animals.
  4. Fluidity acknowledged, Chris Yeh says, but it's hard to see any large long-term spike in homosexual behavior in the future given that "Homo Sapiens was designed so that a majority of adults would engage in monogamous heterosexual relationships (this is what is required to promote childbearing and childrearing)."

So I think we can be more precise about the trend we're currently seeing on high school and college campuses: it's probably not more sexual experimenting or more lasting experimentation (in that a higher percentage of the population in the future will be gay), but rather it's a different kind of experimentation, perhaps, than in the past. Whereas in the past 20-30 years it's been true experimentation, one could argue what we're seeing today is less mutual and more male-aggressive, even if males aren't involved in the act such as in girl-on-girl hookups.

Girl-on-Girl Hookups and Sexuality Categories

Salon had an article (free w/ day pass) last week titled "Live girl-on-girl action!" about a new trend of girls making out with other girls to turn guys on at high school and college parties. Is this sexual liberation or regression, it asks?

Like the oral sex epidemic in teenageland, the big question here is whether girls are succuming to guys' wishes and being dishonest to their own desires.

I can attest to the trend, but my question isn't whether girls are "on their knees" -- I think they are, I think a pornified culture is hurting women -- but whether teens' new sexuality categories will endure after school. For example, in this article we read terms such as "bicurious" or "heteroflexible." I think of the Foreign Policy article I blogged last year which predicted which instituations will be extinct in 20 years (monogamy was one). Clearly polygamy and singles engaging in new shades of bisexual behavior are different, but they're related. Is "Lesbian Until Graduation" going to become "Lesbian Until I Feel Like It"? Will the terms Gay and Straight slowly become more entangled and thus less relevant?

One note related to the fuck buddy discussion on an earlier post. There's a quote on this article on the one-off girl-girl hookups: "One of girls' fantasies of hooking up with a guy you like is that they'll want to date you, but that's a tried-and-failed situation. If you go home with a guy [right away], you have a minimal chance of him taking you seriously."

High School Graduation 2006

On June 3, 2006 I graduated from San Francisco University High School!

Saturday was The Big Day: commencement. We arrived at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco at 10 AM. As I slipped into my cap and gown it started to dawn on me that my four crazy, generally wonderful years with friends was coming to a close. The services were fine (the Head of School's speech was all about happiness -- as one friend told me, "He's been reading your blog too much"). I received my diploma and thought warm thoughts of all my friends as their names were read off, too.

In the reception afterwards I greeted close friends and supporters. I tried to thank as many teaches as I could but, on days like these, most thank-yous probably sound too cookie-cutter. My family and extended family had a nice dinner at Fleur de Lys, a fancy restaurant in San Francisco. Although I'm not a big "let's-eat-fine-food-and-wine" kind of guy (I prefer sweatpants/t-shirt and a cafe), it was fine. Then I rushed home, changed clothes, and headed over to waiting buses for Grad Night.

Grad Night is a traditional parents-sponsored night for the seniors, billed as the last time we are all in one place together (and probably the last time I will ever see some of these people). All 120 of us loaded buses for a secret location (they don't tell us beforehand). On my bus the music was all San Francisco themed. San Francisco Love has been a constant point of discussion the past couple weeks -- people who are leaving the Bay Area for college (most everyone) have started to appreciate the amazing beauty and personality of this region.

We arrived at the Bay Club, a luxurious health club / gym in downtown SF. The school rented out the whole facility for the night and loaded it with tons of food, activities, music. Think street fair and night club in one. I gorged myself on sushi and guacamole and other goodies all night long. One of the highlights of the night was the American Idol competition. By 2:30 AM people started to fade -- like me, who hasn't stayed up all night....ever. People started to sign yearbooks feverishly. Even though most of my mental faculties had shut down, I still managed to write meaningful messages in most of my friends' yearbooks. It is a rare opportunity to express sincere gratitude for all my peers have taught me. They are an amazing group of people and since it's easier for me to write rather than deliver heartfelt emotions in-person, I took yearbook signings seriously.

At 4 AM we had a light breakfast followed by the closing activity of the night. The entire class sat in a big circle in the humongous yoga room at Bay Club. The lights were all off save for some candles flickering and a few red lights shining. I had heard about this activity from previous graduating classes. It had the reputation of being the "cry session," where people express their thanks to everyone else. We passed a candle around the circle. When it came to me, I said, "If you plan to use your considerable talents and gifts to affect change in your community, organization, or in the world, please reach out to me so I can learn from you, help you, and we can do it together. Stay connected. Stay connected." Other people had more personal expressions of gratitude, pieces of advice (not all of which I agreed with), and yes, some tears. One friend even used the opportunity to riff of my blog post on luck!

At 5:45 AM we boarded the buses, drove through SF as the light was catching the top of the sky scrappers and hills, and by 6:20 AM I was back in my bed, utterly exhausted. My head was still racing with emotions and thoughts about my four years of high school. Like most people, on the one hand I am sad to leave a group of peers whom I respect so much. On the other hand, I have always had such an active life outside my high school that it's not as hard to for me to leave and, moreover, I have some kick-ass years ahead of me! (Also, I also find many aspects of high school culture sickening.)

In all of our lives there are turning points. Today is a new chapter. It's a brand new day. Thanks to everyone who helped me get to this point.

(Me with friends David, Danielle, Director of College Counseling and brilliant thinker Jon Reider, and Head of School Mike Diamonti)

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High School Senior Year Prom

It was last night. I didn't go to the formalities -- saved $250 and my sanity -- but did hit up the after party.

I arrived at the girl's house around 11 PM. In a serendipitous moment, after walking in the door I bumped into the girl's dad who I have been wanting to meet with since he does some cool investing work in China and is a trustee of the World Affairs Council. We exchanged business cards. ("Only Ben Casnocha shows up a high school prom party and ends up trading business cards with a parent," a friend later tells me. I guess.)

A few hours later a couple friends and I crash back at my house. We got back at 3 AM, the latest I've been up my whole life (I'm a go-to-sleep-early-get-up-early kind of guy). This morning we rolled out of bed and walked back across town in the beautiful San Francisco sun to pick up our cars, which we had parked near the house.

In one of those only-at-a-high-school-prom-party moments, as we're walking we bump into a friend of ours walking the other way on the sidewalk. Still in tuxedo, he smiles. "What's up with you?" I ask. "I haven't gone to sleep yet, been out all night!" he answers. It was 10:30 AM. Holy christ.

I find my car, turn on the radio, and "It's a Beautiful Morning" comes on, the perfect song for the cloud-less day. I drove home, tired, humming to the song, and reflecting on the craziness that is high school social life. The most fascinating psychological petri dish I've encountered.

Related Post: Prom 2005

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Teen Sex Novels...And How to Think About Changing Teen Culture

I feel like I have some obligation to comment on the essay in today's NYTBR by Naomi Wolf about the young adult fiction teens are gobbling up. They are, to be blunt, sex novels, whose plots center around 15 year old girls sneaking off behind statues at MoMA to have "semi-sex." Oh, how repulsive!

This is, of course, just another adult outraged at the state of pop culture (read: teen culture), though that doesn't make it any less legitimate. Wolf's spin is that it's not just on television screens anymore; it's intruded our novels. Weren't books supposed to be an untouched oasis?

I guess my question is what purpose essays like this serve. Awaken parents to the chilling reality? Aren't parents hit over the head with this stuff all the time? Is it with the hope that a combination of the monthly "tales from the teen trenches" piece (last month it was Caitlin Flanagan and the teen oral sex epidemic) and an expose on college dorms from Tom Wolfe, parents of the 60's will get off their butt and install internet filters?

Here's my theory.

There are traditionally thought to be two groups of teens. Both indulge in the ugly: they drink alcohol, smoke pot, hook up with guys/girls indiscriminately, glorify the slutty girl or the dumb jock (Wolf: "Girls...are expected to compete with pornography, but can still be labeled sluts"), watch hours of MTV, and buy pornography. One group engages in such behavior without a cloud of intellectual confliction. It's just the thing to do. Another group partakes, yet with a deep moral dilemma. Aren't they going to be instructing their kids to not drink or do drugs?

And yet there's this little known third category. This is the group of teens who don't resolve the moral dilemma by saying "Should I do this?" and then light the joint anyway. Instead, they fake their drunkeness, play up their Saturday night at school, exaggerate their sexual experience. When done right, this earns them a place among the hot, popular kids -- after all, to completely opt-out would mean social isolation -- and concurrently keeps them from breaking every moral fiber.

Wouldn't it be more useful for writers like Wolf to stop bashing the lifestyle of that one group of teens -- the mindlessly hedonistic -- and instead lay out a playbook for this third category, which no doubt is the most difficult to pull off?

It is clear that if the ugly teen culture adult critics love to beat up is going to change, it's not going to be because of essays in high culture media. Instead it will come from infiltrators within, from the quiet warriors fighting to carve a lifestyle that strikes an impossible balance.

They need all the help they can get.

Contexualizing the Summers Fall Out

As a fascinated observer and soon to be consumer of higher education, I have been following Larry Summers' resignation from Harvard with interest because I think it speaks volumes about the state of academia. Peter Beinart, editor The New Republic and an impressive person, has an excellent contexualization (free username/pass required) of the Summers debacle. Read it and it's hard not to feel sympathetic for the man.

He wanted top professors to actually teach. What???

He wanted the college to serve the nation, not merely itself. Is he nuts?!?

Higher education needs a reinvention.

Would You Rather Have a UC Berkeley Diploma and No Education, or Education and No Diploma?

There's a very interesting debate going on among economist bloggers on the "signaling" theory of  education. Would you rather have a [insert prestigious college name here] diploma and no education from there, or the [prestigious college name] education with no diploma? "The signaling theory says that to a significant extent, education does not increase workers' productivity. Instead, the fact that you obtain an education shows that you were more productive all along, which makes employers want to hire you."

Gary Becker, perhaps the most influential living economist, argues that signaling benefits have tailed off considerably, to the point where it doesn't matter if someone went to Stanford or the University of Phoenix - after their first job, their overall productivity and success will trump whatever degree they hold. "Pay adjusts to productivity, not education credentials."

Tyler Cowen offers a novel point that education is about "self-acculturation." It's about surrounding yourself with peers and social attitudes that form a self-image which values intelligence, wealth, etc. "Your identity is shaped by what you are doing, and your peers, between the critical ages of thirteen to your early twenties.  Those are precisely the years covered by our educational system."

Bryan Caplan rebuts these points. "Sure, employers eventually figure out how productive a worker is IF they hire him. But interviewing is expensive, and so is getting rid of disappointing workers. So it still makes sense to use credentials to make interviewing and hiring decisions: You save valuable time, and reduce the chance of hiring unproductive workers."

I will chime in with my own two cents later.

The High School Years: The Worst Four, or Best Four?

I recently exchanged a couple emails with two different adults who recalled two different views on childhood/adolesence. The first was on Amy Batchelor's post where a book reminded her of "the deep and real sadness of childhood, and how much I really like being an adult." A day later I got an email from a really successful late 30's entrepreneur/investor: "Are you enjoying still being 17? I'll trade you."

This is pretty representative. It seems some adults look back at their high school years as utterly wrenching - "the worst four years of my life" - while others recall it more fondly. I have to say, if these have been the worst four years of my life, then I'm going to have a good life, but that's because I've had oodles of good luck.

High school - or, more generally, being a teenager - has been neither one big happy party nor one depressing nightmare. Most days I am extremely happy, excited, engaged in the world of ideas. I wake up and bound out of bed ready to tackle an impossible to-do list. A few days ago I took the Authentic Happiness test run by UPenn and soon stopped after taking the first few quizzes. It was a slam dunk. I'm a happy person - I get it - especially when compared to other people my age.

But on those rare days, I sometimes get that splash of cold water that so many of my peers endure regularly.

Irving Wladawsky-Berger
of IBM who maintains an excellent blog, recently posted on diversity and how certain groups of people need to mask their natural tendencies. He concluded, "The freedom to be who I am.  I can't remember when I last encountered words that so succinctly captured our deepest aspirations."

I think this is an excellent summation. Only problem: most teenagers' malaise comes from the fact you can't just be yourself if you don't know what "yourself" means. This doesn't just mean one's most natural personality. It means deeper things, like one's sexuality, one's relationship to the material world and religion, one's life expectations vs. parental expectations. It is amazing how much angst these questions can cause teens - and it appears the angst has increased, as more and more teens are being diagnosed as depressed.

I'm blessed to be very "grounded" in who I am, what I believe, and the life I'm choosing to live. I, fortunately, haven't had to struggle with these identity issues as much as my peers may have to. I haven't had to see shrinks, cry to my friends on the phone, etc etc. This doesn't mean I have it all figured out, or that I don't have those random days of depressive introspection (hormonal, of course!).

Among the hundreds of comments I've gotten on this blog, one anonymous one has always resonated:

Oh please, Ben.  You've got an incredible mind, and most of your blog entries are truly engaging and interesting to read, but this sentence is just a veiled form of self-affirmation.  It has nothing to do with truly asking a question of the reader, and really only makes you come off as seeming insecure about yourself and whether reading so many books is truly a good thing to be doing with your time.  If you truly were comfortable with being told by people to "break out of your shell", you wouldn't have to constantly keep defending just how "big and worldly" your shell is.  You would just move on, knowing full well who you are, why you're doing what you're doing, and why your actions will speak for themselves in the long run.  You don't need to keep defending who you are.

There is some truth in this.

OK, enough sharing for now. Back to work.

The Post-Gay Generation of High Schoolers

What a joke of an article in New York magazine. Its premise is that casual same-sex hooking up is a big deal in high schools; bi-sexuality is now very gray; adults are standing by passively, etc. I also loved the quote by the professor who's "been studying same-sex attraction among adolescents for more than 20 years." Sounds like a great field to be conducting scholarly research.

The meta point that, due to the ubiquity of contraceptives and sex education, casual hooking up/sex has increased among teens while official dating has decreased is true, in my view. But this does not mean we have a culture where teens "kiss anything that is beautiful" and whatnot.

The more serious point in all this is what effects, if any, growing up in a pornified culture will have on the next generation of leaders. Too bad this article went the easy route of picking scandalous quotes from teens which will further the cause of every worry-mom.

Question of the Day: How to Start an Entrepreneurship Club

I sit at my computer with no voice after a loud basketball game, so I thought I'd publicly answer a question I got via email today.

In recent months, I have taken a job at a high school, teaching math.  The school where I work has about 2400 students, and consistent with its size, a club for almost everything.  All I can see lacking are (a) a bowling team (not my area) and an entrepreneurship club (my area).

If your school has one, I don't recall you writing about it.  Whether it does or not, I figure you can offer tips on how I can get my ducks in a row before I approach the principal.  I'm aiming for having one
in place for next school year.

Yes, there do seem to be student clubs on nearly every topic imaginable. Though it may pay to be in a niche, it'd be great to see you start an entrepreneurship club that embraces the wide definition of life entrepreneurship. We need to get more students to reject the cog-driven please-the-superior-and-follow-all-the-rules bullshit that most schools reward. So perhaps your club can look at great people in world history who went against the beaten path and made the world a better place because of it. Of course, brainstorming business ideas is always fun (start by making a list of all the problems that bug high school kids, then figure out solutions) but I'd start by developing a framework of thinking different, and discuss how such a framework can be applied to ANYONE. Good luck!

Classes I'm Taking Next Semester

I'm fortunate to have been granted a reduced course load to pursue some independent studies and other projects.

  1. Irish Writers - An English class with everything from Joyce to drama to short stories.
  2. American Lives: Poverty in America - A History elective exploring life on the margins of America.
  3. Microeconomics AP - It's about time I took a formal econ class!
  4. Introduction to Calculus - Will prepare me for a college level calc class.
  5. Indy Study: Problems of Philosophy - Working with a faculty member to take the MIT OpenCourseWare class Problems of Philosophy.
  6. Indy Study: Software Engineering - I'm going to roll up my sleeves and become familiar on a coding level with PHP, mySQL, web servers, and hopefully some of the latest and greatest web 2.0 technologies too.

Of course, this is all as a second semester senior, baby!

On Editing My School Newspaper

A big activity this year for me that I haven't blogged about has been my school paper. I'm editor-in-chief, but we assembled a rock star team of really smart editors (all girls other than me, go figure) so I try to stay out the way. I think we've broken a number of records. Today, for example, we published a 24 page issue, probably the first time in history. The quality of the content is also better than it's ever been.

The issues one faces in running a small school newspaper are consistent with those in any organization. I've been particularly amused at the similarities of bug testing in software development and copy editing the paper: it's a real bitch to organize everyone's feedback. There are also interpersonal challenges, where sometime's personal pride comes before what's best for the organization. All stuff that gives a real intellectual high.

Great job guys on a terrific first semester.
Da_screenshot_blog

Now, Go Suck the Gas Pipe

My friend Ben Springwater at Williams College sent me this essay by a U of Virginia professor that bemoans the state of higher education. It's the kind of stuff that makes you want to suck the gas pipe - my generation is a consumer culture yearning for entertainment. Oh the good ole' days, this professor says, when students would have animated conversations about intellectual affairs. Now, they're too busy surfing their "100 cable channels."

Being so culturally pessimistic is flip, and particularly condescending when coming from the ivory tower. But - but! - this essay does raise some points I've discussed on this blog. Incredibly, people still romanticize college and higher ed to an unrealistic degree. People still view it as a melting pot of ideas and the only time you'll get pure intellectual stimulation for four years. This professor argues, with some merit, that you're more likely to find students drinking beer to MTV than a novel idea that may challenge the status quo.

There are big problems with education and my generation, but such doomsayer pessimism is not the way to fix it.

I Was Hypnotized Today

In psychology class today we brought in Dave Hill - The World's Greatest Hypnotist who performs in Las Vegas and has been on the David Letterman show several times. Over the course of an hour he attempted to put our class of 21 into a deep sleep and then read to us our post-hypnotic suggestions which we wrote on a sheet of paper beforehand. No one did any embarrassing or crazy things after waking, but most of us drifted in and out of hypnosis.

First, the hypnotist made us breath deeply and become very relaxed. Then we closed our eyes and weren't allowed to open them until he told us so (once we went under, even if you tried to open them, you couldn't). He then spoke to us to become more and more comfortable, which made us slouch more and more. "Very sleepy, very droopy, you are concentrating perfectly," he would say over and over. After we awoke, he tried "rapid induction" which he claimed only three people in the world can do. He stands right across from the subject, gets him/her comfortable, and then shouts "sleep!" and the person falls into his shoulder and becomes limp.

My post-hypnotic suggestion was "I will not check by BlackBerry for the next two hours." Instead, he read it "You will not check your BlackBerry for the next two weeks, and you will put it in the office of your teacher until November 7th." WTF? When he said that I consciously knew it wasn't going to work.

Despite some people resisting - if you resist, you can avoid hypnosis - it was still a good time, and will be more fun to watch the video of ourselves tomorrow!

The Fundamental Human Need for an Identity (and Religion)

In my Geography class today we had a very interesting discussion on the Israel and Palestine situation. Two of my Jewish friends who are both very involved and spent two months in Israel over the summer said that they would fight for the Israeli army over the American army. This shocked me. They are both very normal American citizens, but feel like their heritage and attachment to the religion supercedes loyalty to their home country.

It raised the larger question about the fundamental human need for an identity.

It is usually in adolescence when we fully develop our sense of self. It is a core human need to feel ownership of our self (our ego), take comfort in a unique identity, AND feel a sense of belonging to a larger something. The identity crisis is the quintessential high school quagmire, and it usually manifests itself with abrupt personality changes. Someone may come in one day and be a real loud-mouth, and a month later try on the introverted hat. Later on, this is called the mid-life crisis.

Religion is a very convenient way to fulfill this need. In many ways it dictates a value system and brings a rich culture and history to which you can feel a part. For me, I prefer to exercise my individuality by grappling with the big questions myself and developing a personal value system. In other words, my sense of belonging is to a worldview I continue to create. I have little interest in finding my roots or tracing my ethnicity. If my parents tried, I would have resisted a formal religious upbringing because it seems too tidy a way to resolve some of the most difficult questions. My approach is not necessarily better than the one of my friends, but it highlights a divergence in life philosophy.

What are your thoughts?

Life is Interesting at Intersections

Life gets interesting at intersections. Economic theory, for example, is boring until you add behavioral science and sociology. Environmentalism may, in and of itself seem "same old same old," but when discussed with public policy, geography, and energy it becomes much more interesting.

This is why interdisciplinary education should triumph over the historical precedent of different discrete academic departments. As I look at colleges and their majors, the most fascinating and relevant to today's world are the interdisciplinary ones that involve law professors, computer scientists, political theorists, sociologists, and media studies scholars.

The President of Stanford says that each student in today's world needs to be like a "T" - deep in one area but fluent in a wide range of topics. I couldn't agree more, with one additional emphasis: broad exposure in the liberal arts should be taught by examining the intersections, overlaps, and disagreements between what we historically have called independent "disciplines."

I Laughed So Hard My Rib Cage Hurt

There's nothing like good ole high school humor. For all the downsides of high school, I do get to be around some very funny people who make me laugh. In business meetings people politely laugh, usually at stupid jokes. But at the high school lunch table, I spend a fair amount of time straight out bawling (in a good way!). You can always tell a genuine smile/laugh when the eyebrows pop up and a twinkle in the eye.

What's not so good is when I break down laughing during a class. But there I was, in my Geography class, and we were talking about why foreign aid can sometimes be a bad thing. A classmate of mine suggested that sometimes foreign aid is delivered in the form of condoms, and as such, condoms save people from AIDS, ergo less people die, more population, and the African country can't deal with it. On the face of it, it seems mildly outrageous, though not something I would break out laughing to. But a quick look at a friend sitting to my right shows a slight smile creeping across his face. That did me in. I start breaking down, laughing so loud that the teacher has to stop his lecture for a second. Finally I stop, but I'm still laughing. A few minutes later I can't sew my mouth shut and humor tears start forming. Meanwhile, my friend is laughing so hard he starts sweating, which leaves him in shock. By the end of the class, my rib cage hurt.

The moral of the story is...when was the last time your rib cage hurt from laughing so much?

School Encourages "Fuck" in the Classroom

Why can't my high school adopt this policy? As Erin O'Connor reports:

An English high school has decided to cope with the problem of student profanity by tolerating it. Beginning this fall, students will be allowed to curse at their teachers, just so long as they don't say "f--k" more than five times during a lesson. Part of the new policy involves keeping a running tally on the blackboard of how many times the word "f--k" has been uttered during a given lesson--a practice that promises to distract students. If the word is used more than five times during a class--and my guess is that some classes will turn into competitions to see just how many times the word can be uttered--students will be "spoken to" afterward by the teacher. The school's idea is that this policy will improve student behavior by acknowledging their habitual language patterns while making a reasonable request for modification of those patterns. "The reality is that the f-word is part of these young adults' everyday language," the headmaster said. "As a temporary policy we are giving them a bit of leeway, but want them to think about the way they talk and how they might do better." The school, which was labelled "not effective" by inspectors last year, will also be sending "praise postcards" to parents of students who avoid cursing and who show up on time for class.

Reading a Note to Yourself Written 3 Years Ago

At our senior retreat yesterday, I opened a letter I wrote to myself on September 20th, 2002 at my freshmen retreat. I was more taken by it than I expected (maybe because it was handwritten, unlike my typed journal entries from those years). It wasn't so much what I wrote - although that was quite interesting - but how I ended it. I wrote "Good luck Ben of '05! -Ben of '02"

That really symbolizes a central truth of being a teenager: each year so much changes. Everyone knows about the physical changes, but the more important are the emotional and cognitive. Even now, looking back to what I wrote in 2002 reminds me that since I've accumulated more experiences I have greater perspective. What excites me is that I've accumulated a tremendous set of one-of-a-kind experiences that should (and does) give me perspective that may be slightly different...in a world of intellectual homogeneity.

My Fall Semester School Schedule

In a few days I'll become a high school senior, and, as always, my ability to juggle a multitude of activities will be put to the test. My schedule will become slightly insane, especially come basketball season. This is where I doubly focus on my health and nutrition to make sure I'm performing day in day out at peak capacity.

I'm lucky that nearly all of the elective classes at my high school are college level courses, often times better than AP classes we don't even bother following what the College Board outlines. This is what I'll be spending 19 hours a week doing (plus all the homework, studying):

1. Asian Studies - A look at Hinduism, Buddhism, and other belief systems of India and China. A number of very cool spiritual books which will be right up my alley.

2. Geography - Everywhere I look I read about how an understanding of geography will be critical in the world. I've posted about cultural geography, and today I read a book review on how geography is the foundation for many of the most pivotal issues facing our world. I know squat right now, so this will be helpful.

3. Pyschology - A much coveted class, we will be covering the foundations of pycho-analysis, Freud, etc. We'll also be reading a book that was recommended to me, The Sociopath Next Door.

4. Pre-calculus for the Social Sciences - Math-challenged Ben is still chugging away with an applied math course. Ho hum.

5. What It Is - A novel based English course. Examines the role of reality and intercourse between what is being told versus how it is being told.

I am also exploring ways to independently study globalization and philosophy.

In addition I will be partaking in the following activities on-campus:

The Devil's Advocate (student newspaper) - I'm Executive Editor, working closely with a couple esteemed colleagues, and a bunch of other smart people. I will be writing a ton, managing our staff and budget, editing, and making sure we kick up lots of dust as a good student paper should.

Men's Varsity Basketball - I'm returning Captain, working with a senior-heavy team. We'll be working hard for a league championship!

KUHS Student Radio - The radio station I founded and run - we'll be moving to an all-podcast format.

So there you go, that will be my life at University High School this fall.

Free the Curriculum!

A prediction at Larry Lessig's blog that a complete curriculum in English from Kindergarten through the University level will exist for free by 2040. "In the long run, it will be very difficult for proprietary textbook publishers to compete with freely licensed alternatives. An open project with dozens of professors adapting and refining a textbook on a particular subject will be a very difficult thing for a proprietary publisher to compete with. The point is: there are a huge number of people who are qualified to write these books, and the tools are being created to leave them to do that."

Here here! On this topic, I am of course familiar with the fabulous MIT OpenCourseWare, but does anyone else know of other "open source" educational resources/courses/curricula designed for self-learners?

David Foster Wallace's Brilliant Commencement Speech

After getting a trackback ping from a professor at Case Western Reserve University, I came across David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech at Kenyon College. As a DFW fan (the guy’s a brilliant writer, and I have his 1,000 page Infinite Jest on my bookshelf waiting for me) I checked it out and now declare it required reading for everyone. He starts off by saying that the biggest cliché in commencement speeches is that the value of your liberal arts education isn’t what you learn but that it “teaches you how to think.” Rather, he thinks the value of the liberal arts education is that it gives you the ability to choose what to think. It's incredibly thought provoking in ways well beyond what college means as he dissects how we are our own point of view. Intrigued? Go read it and become smarter after 5 minutes. I have included my favorite parts below, it’s long enough that I didn’t blockquote it.

“Here is just one example of the total wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe; the realist, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness because it's so socially repulsive. But it's pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is there in front of YOU or behind YOU, to the left or right of YOU, on YOUR TV or YOUR monitor. And so on. Other people's thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real.

Please don't worry that I'm getting ready to lecture you about compassion or other-directedness or all the so-called virtues. This is not a matter of virtue. It's a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default setting which is to be deeply and literally self-centered and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self. People who can adjust their natural default setting this way are often described as being "well-adjusted", which I suggest to you is not an accidental term.

Given the triumphant academic setting here, an obvious question is how much of this work of adjusting our default setting involves actual knowledge or intellect. This question gets very tricky. Probably the most dangerous thing about an academic education -- least in my own case -- is that it enables my tendency to over-intellectualize stuff, to get lost in abstract argument inside my head, instead of simply paying attention to what is going on right in front of me, paying attention to what is going on inside me.
As I'm sure you guys know by now, it is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive, instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head (may be happening right now). Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience….

And I submit that this is what the real, no bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out…

This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn't. You get to decide what to worship.
Because here's something else that's weird but true: in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship -- be it JC or Allah, bet it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles -- is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It's the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you… Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they're evil or sinful, it's that they're unconscious. They are default settings.

They're the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that's what you're doing.

And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving. The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.”

Valedictorian Madness

A New Yorker article that Chris Yeh writes about affirms two things in my mind: 1) I'm glad my high school doesn't do the valedictorian thing, and 2) That I'm not even close to being of valedictorian status doesn't mean anything in my quest to think different and change the world.

"In 1981, two professors...began following the lives of eighty-one high-school valedictorians...According to Arnold’s 1995 book “Lives of Promise: What Becomes of High School Valedictorians,” these students continued to distinguish themselves academically in college; a little less than sixty per cent pursued graduate studies. By their early thirties, most were “working in high-level, prestigious, secure professions”—they were lawyers, accountants, professors, doctors, engineers. Arnold totted up fifteen Ph.D.s, six law degrees, three medical degrees, and twenty-two master’s degrees in her group. The valedictorians got divorced at a lower rate than did the population at large, were less likely to use alcohol and drugs, and tended to be active in their communities.

At the same time, Arnold, who stays in touch with her cohort, has found that few of the valedictorians seem destined for intellectual eminence or for creative work outside of familiar career paths. Dedicated to the well-rounded ideal—to be a valedictorian, after all, you must excel in classes that don’t interest you or are poorly taught—the valedictorians had “used their strong work ethic to pursue multiple academic and extracurricular interests. None was obsessed with a single talent area to which he or she subordinated school and social involvement.” This marks a difference, Arnold said, from what we know about many eminent achievers, who tend to evince an early passion for a particular field. For these people, Arnold writes, a “powerful early interest evolves into lifelong, intensive, even obsessive involvement in the talent area.” She goes on, “Exceptional adult achievers often recall formal schooling as a disliked distraction.” Valedictorians, by contrast, conformed to the expectations of school and carefully chose careers that were likely to be socially and financially secure: “As a rule, valedictorians relegated their early interests to hobbies, second majors, or regretted dead ends. The serious athletes among the valedictorians never pursued sports occupations. Most of the high school musicians hung up their instruments during college."

Chris goes on to say:

"In other words, while valedictorians do well, most of those who are most successful in life were definitely not valedictorians. Let me emphasize one line from the quote above: Exceptional adult achievers often recall formal schooling as a disliked distraction.

School isn't like real life. In fact, it's about as far from real life as can be imagined. The lessons that let you be successful in school (follow the rules, work hard, know the right answers) are completely the opposite of those that help you become a successful entrepreneur (change the rules, work smart, know the right questions)."

Ah, I sleep easier.

Ben Is Insensitive and Like a Machine

That's what I was told today standing around with people at school much smarter than I who were deconstructing some amazing art/photography students had done. A couple people had come up to me and said they had stumbled across my blog, so using that as a segue, we dived into a conversation about blogging and the new-teen-phenomenon social networking web site MySpace.

People were commenting about how weird it is to exchange emails or IMs were someone and then walk by them the next day in the hall and not say a word. In other words, was blogging and the internet creating people who only knew how to communicate behind a screen?

As I defended the medium a bit (hey, someone has to) it came out: "But Ben, I don't want to read your blog. I want to talk to you in person. You're a machine!" The same person also called me insensitive. Now, I have a nice friendship with this person but we would both admit that it could be much stronger. A very close (male?) friend I don't think would ever say something like that. And herein lies the great challenge for me as I navigate the high school waters with interests and friends which largely exist outside the walls of my school: building strong relationships with people @ school requires time. I don't have much spare energy. So I am resigned to having friends at school who share mutual activities, like basketball, or who are so awesome where I make an extraordinary effort to reach out to them (rare). For the others, who are all super smart and beautiful, I am stuck with the label of being a crazy-busy machine. The trade off is definitely worth it, but it makes me take a big, deep sigh.

High School Prom

There is nothing more quintessentially high school than the prom. It is a super-commercialized affair with girls spending hundreds of dollars on cosmetics, clothes, etc. The cynic in me wants to say it's all part of that "cheap shit" that is high school social life. But the other side of me finds it all hilarious - the jousting, the social climbing, the drama, and the never ending text messages about the latest gossip. It's pretty funny. (What's not so funny is that racially segregated proms still exist in Georgia.)

At 6:30 PM I met up with 13 other friends, in my rented tuxedo, and had dinner at a house where endless pictures were taken (in the era of digital photography, if you can take 1 why not 100?). Then the 14-person limo pulled up and we cruised around San Fran for an hour before arriving at the Century Club, the site of the prom. An hour or two at the prom - the main goal, as I understand it, is to just "be seen" - and then in the limo again.

Arrive at the after party, wash down a Balance bar with a few college sodas, yada yada yada and I taxi it home at 3 AM. I haven't been up that late in years. Needless to say, dragging my ass out of bed today to get to the gym - and fighting my way through all the Bay to Breakers runners (a quintessential San Francisco event) - was pretty tough.

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Feeling Sorry for Myself

It was Wednesday night, I was driving home from Los Altos after a night of sitting in with a local angel investment group watching three entrepreneurs pitch their wares and meeting the group's members. As the clock struck 10 pm, I was flying up 280 in my family's new Ford Escape Hybrid SUV (first new car since '84!) and suddenly a wave of stress passed through me. I had a major test the next day and I was thinking to myself, "Wasn't I supposed to put my business endeavors to the side for a bit as I try to step it up academically?" Worst of all, I felt sorry for myself.

Then I remembered. It's immoral to be unhappy. I just had an awesome dinner with super-smart and successful people and learned a lot. I'm blessed with amazing opportunities and support. I go to one of the best high schools around. So, using the digital radio tuner (trust me - this is a step up from before) I turned the volume on high, rolled down the windows, and gased to 80 mph. As luck would have it, first Gavin DeGraw came on with "I Don't Wanna Be" whose lyrics go:

I don't want to be anything other than what I've been trying to be lately
All I have to do is think of me and I have peace of mind
I'm tired of looking 'round rooms wondering what I gotta do
Or who I'm supposed to be
I don't want to be anything other than me

And then Kelly Clarkson's "Breakaway":

I'll spread my wings and I'll learn how to fly
I'll do what it takes til' I touch the sky
I'll make a wish
Take a chance
Make a change
And breakaway
Out of the darkness and into the sun
But I won't forget all the ones that I love
I'll make a wish
Take a chance
Make a change
And breakaway

Exhaustion

Over the last 96 hours I have spent 10 hours filling in little circles on standardized tests (and I'm not done yet), spent a little under 10 hours in the South Bay meeting or pitching, and a handful of hours working out in the gym leaving myself so sore I haven't been able to walk without hurting all weekend.

All three circles - emotional, intellectual, and physical - were at empty by Saturday afternoon.

I know lots of people who are busier than I am as they require a full entourage to keep them going each day. But what makes my schedule exhausting is the changing of gears. In one day, I spend six 45-minute blocks in different academic disciplines and then different chunks of time on business, athletics, and social. All these areas require different types of focus and energy. Our Academic Dean reported that it takes on average 13 minutes for the brain to become completely assimilated in a new subject area after sitting down in a new class. I suspect this is similarly true in life.

As the craziness continues, I return to my focus on managing ENERGY not time.

"I'm Going to Break Ben Out of His Shell"

A friend told me a minute ago, "[Redacted] told me that she's going to break you out of your fucking shell this summer." I get this a lot. I don't have time to build social relationships with a lot of people at school. Instead, I've surrounded myself with a small group of guys who I trust and enjoy and for everyone else my relationship is very surface. One particular jarring incident this year is when I told someone flatly, "I am not going to commit to building a friendship with you." Insensitive? Probably. But what my high school peers don't realize is that building a relationship takes significant time and effort and I'd rather be upfront. I find a lot of value in my social relationships at school - but not enough to divert more time from my other endeavors just to climb the social ladder.

The downside to this is that I have a reputation to a lot of people for being...mysterious, unaccessible, or unemotional. This doesn't bother me; in fact, it makes me laugh, because I don't care what they think.

Facilitations on Racial Issues Next Week

I was recently asked to moderate a debate hosted by a school club Moving On Racial Equality on Affirmative Action. Additionally, I was asked to facilitate a separate discussion on the HBO Documentary O.J.: A Study in Black and White after the junior class watches it. The book The Secrets of Facilitation has been on my shelf for a bit so I'm going to pore through that beforehand. Race relations has always interested me but I'm the first to admit that I don't know much in the way of history, policies, etc. At the moment, affirmative action w/ respect to school admissions is something that interests me. If anyone knows of any good articles or resources on these topics please let me know.

Analogical Thinking

There's been lots of chatter "out there" about analogies. One meme talks about analogies in business and their value when sizing up markets.

The rest of the chatter has to do with the elimination of analogies from the new SAT (which I took yesterday). In Today's NYTimes, Adam Cohen opines that "An SAT Without Analoges Is Like (a) A Confused Citizenry." He makes several good arguments about the power of analogies for persuasion. Analogies, he says, are more prevalent than ever in daily discourse. People draw comparisons to prove a point - and more often than not completely butcher the analogy. (His example is someone comparing the Estate Tax to the Holocaust.)

Cohen, unfortunately, falls into his trap of irony. He draws an analogy between the SAT and an Educated Citizenry; that is, if analogies are eliminated from the SAT then we are churning out young people ill-equipped in the skill. Although Cohen cites a handy-dandy example of an SAT-style analogy:

Poverty:Money::

(A)Wealth: gold; (B) Hunger: food; (C) Car: Driver; (D) Cook: Stove.

The vast majority of standardized test analogies are far more confusing, far more tricky, far more stupid.

Kudos to Cohen for an astute observation of a trend in rhetoric, but shame on him for drawing an analogy to the SAT.

The New SAT Debuts

If you've been following the news at all recently you probably have heard about the new SAT which debuted today making millions of high school students sit for 4 hours this morning slaving through harder math, a 25 minute writing essay, but thankfully no analogies.

I was one of those high school students.

The first part was the Essay, the part that's gotten all the attention. It has been a little controversial because doing well on the SAT Essay doesn't mean you know how to write well. To do well on the SAT Essay, test-prep companies say, you need to fill at least 1.5 of the 2 pages with writing, have 5 paragraphs (intro, three supporting examples, conclusion) and use big vocabulary words. As I opened up the test booklet this morning ready for an essay on some abstract topic like "Do you think most people learn from their mistakes?" I was stunned.

The prompt (italicized quotation) was from Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. I read Csikszentmihalyi's other book Flow: The Psychology of the Optimal Experience over Christmas. So, I dominated the essay (which asked whether nurturing creativity should be higher on the world's agenda), made references to Csikszentmihalyi's teachings at Claremont, and cited his other book. What luck.

From there, it was tons of sentence completion, error ID, math, and the like. Going into the test, I had studied some with the Princeton Review Online because while my PSAT scores predicted very high verbal scores (high 600's/low 700's) my math scores were dismal. Reflecting on today I still don't think I'm very good at standardized tests.

During the test, I had to correct the proctor three times on how much time we had left on the section because he couldn't read a hand clock and I was using a digital stopwatch on my watch. Around me, cheating was rampant but no one does anything because if you report a cheating incident they void all tests in the room. And no one wants that.

I have strong objections to standardized testing and how people look at it as a "smarts" test when really it's a "how rich are you to be able to prepare/get coached for the test" examination. The math sections are mostly tricks and traps and the verbal sections test vocabulary that the average human being would only see if they read the dictionary as a hobby. It promotes alarming attitudes among high school students and to that end I sincerely hope more colleges vent their frustration with it (like the UC system did) or not accept scores at all (like many are starting to do).

Visual Literacy in Businesses

I took a Photography class because I wanted to fulfill my Arts requirement but I also heard that the teacher was one sharp cookie. She is a big believer that art is a language that you are either literate in or not. She believes that images and photography is going to be the most important language to know in the coming years. Be it the point of view of a photojournalist (and how people always forget that photojournalists have biases just like regular journalists do), or the ramifications of camera phones and all the visual media that anyone - like bloggers - are creating, the language of visual literacy has some interesting angles to explore.

She has some provocative challenges. Bring her a photo album of your family and she will tell you more about your family that you can yourself. Put up a plain old photograph and if everyone in the room agrees it's "good" there may well be a cultural consensus for why that's so. Finally, she thinks that any company that hasn't brought in someone like her trained in the field to talk about interpreting and understanding visual images is nuts.

I'm not a big arts guy, but these ideas seem to be much deeper than just "a picture is worth a 1000 words." Shouldn't EVERYONE be trained in this language, not just advertisers? Are you?

I Turned 17 Today

17 years ago I came into this world and was immediately put into intensive care and had a 50% chance of dying. If I lived, the doctors said, I would be perfectly normal. (Looks like they blew that one!)

I think about the teenage years with 13 as the tweener year, 14-15-16 as the first set, and 17-18-19 as the last set. The difference between being 14 and 16 is huge, the gap is narrower between 17 and 19. At 17, I still can’t vote or be drafted.

When I look back at old emails I sent when I was 12 or 13 or even 14 or 15, the vast difference in my writing ability shocks me. When I look back at my overall knowledge and sophistication about the world a few years ago it is funny.

The adolescent years contain more emotional, physical, and intellectual development than any other period in our lives. Neurons are still being connected (but only for a few more years). I'm excited about getting smarter and more savvy about the world around me.

I am still a kid, I'm still a teenager, and I'm still cherishing the special moments that come with this time of my life. But I'm also ready to burst out of these walls I've had to live in and go make an impact on civilization. I believe I can do anything.

Finally, I’m grateful. Each and every day I can get hit by a bus or be involved in a freak accident or be disabled. I have none of those restrictions. Saying I am “lucky” is a humongous understatement.

Email Exchange With Reader on God and Man at Harvard

My post God and Man at Harvard generated a number of comments from people. One led to an email exchange which I have included below.

Reader Writes:

The days when college was a place to passively soak in the liberal arts, get Cs, then go off to work at your dad's friend's law firm went out with the advent of need-blind admissions and the general shift to merit -- not social station -- as the primary factor in college admission decisions.

The purpose of college has changed. It serves many different needs, and it can no longer be expected to explictly address only the concerns of a certain segment pining away for the "good 'ole days." It
seems the response to Baker's article should be: if you want a strong liberal arts education, then take hard liberal arts courses. If you want more than anything to be a doctor, then take hard pre-med
courses. If you want to be a humor writer, go to Harvard and work your ass off to get on the Lampoon. If you want to do all three, then do all three. Just because no one is forcing a specific path, no one is
preventing on either.

College has been opened up to the masses, and in return, it demands that the masses take the initiative. It can longer force fit everyone into one model of education. The onus is now on the student. The student can no longer be passive. He must be proactive; use college as chance to shape a future -- not a holding period before descending a pre-determined path.

My response:

I think you make some interesting points. A lot of people are telling college students (and high school students) just what you said - be proactive, take steps to shape your future, if you want to be X then you must do Y, etc. By junior year in high school, people are asking "what do you think you want to major in?" By senior year, it's "what do you want to be when you grow up?" By college, if you're not on the fast track for a successful, rich career, then something is wrong with you.

This troubles me and I think there are a number of consequences. First and foremost it means our education system will be churning out people who are very specialized and focused on their one area. Just as public intellectuals and academics now specialize in the most narrow areas imaginable, students are getting put on this track too. This may mean you can be successful at that one career, but what if it's not a passion? What if it gets boring? Being successful doesn't make you an interesting person who has knowledge in a wide range of areas and thus will only take you so far up the totem pole. I believe going to college should be about intellectual stimulation, not which hoop to jump through next.

A lot of high school/college students are asking themselves, What if I don't know what I want to be? What if I don't know what I'm interested in? Indeed, they should opt-in to a liberal arts curriculum that will offer broad exposure.

You would argue, and I agree, that our education system now offers schools that have different educational philosophies. Some that mandate a core curriculum forcing everyone to take Chemistry 101. Others have no academic requirements. You seem to be saying that it's up to the student to go to a school that is a good match for them based on where they are in answering the question "What do I want to be/do in this world?" I agree.

My takeaway from the God and Man at Harvard piece was basically that since Harvard is the most visible educational institution in the country, it should set the standard and lead by example by mandating broad academic requirements before graduating.

God and Man at Harvard

I was going to blog about a good article in this month's Atlantic called The Truth About Harvard but instead I highly reccomended printing out the Q and A with the author of that article in a piece titled God and Man at Harvard. Ross Douthat is a recent Harvard grad and talks about the social and academic realities of a Harvard education. "Elite meritocratic ennui may not be the most urgent social problem on the national agenda today, but in mapping its contours, Douthat makes an intriguing contribution to the ongoing conversation about the skills, ideals, and affiliations we choose to value most as a society." It's terrific and thought provoking.

If you need to be a subscriber, I'm happy to email you the full text. Just leave a comment.

Paul Graham on What You'll Wish You'd Known (High School)

In his book Hackers & Painters Paul Graham spent a surprising amount of time talking about high school and college and the education system. Today, he published an essay on his web site called What You'll Wish You'd Known written in second-person voice directed to high school students but applicable to anyone interested in youth or the education system.

It's a good read. The first part of the essay is golden (the second half he starts rambling a bit). He talks about how high school kids are freaking out about what their life work is going to be - so true - and how every May graduation speakers tell us "don't give up your dreams!" What that means, he says, is that we are encouraged to pick a goal 20 years out and work backwards from it. But this means that we're bound by some plan we made early on and can lead to a disaster. He has lots of other thought-provoking nuggets, so stop reading me, and go read his essay if you a) have kids, b) are a kid, c) interested in young people, d) interested in how we approach education and teaching.

Integrity in Business and in School

A couple people I don't know at my school cheated on a test and now they're busted. Word spread like wildfire mostly due to the high profile nature of the students and stupidity of the act (writing answers on arms and legs). People talked about the appropriate disciplinary action that should be taken in light of the fact that "everyone cheats." What?! I haven't, and won't. I think I'm in the majority but it's shocking how many people openly admit to doing all sorts of dishonest things just to get the grade.

Integrity is a big deal in education but probably the hardest to talk about. A few years ago we had an "honor committee" and it was a complete joke. It's very tough to talk about morals and values and integrity and honesty and what all those big words mean.

About a year ago I got into a sticky situation involving integrity but in my business. I had stumbled across something that, if I exploited it, could have easily done amazing things for my company. My "stumbling" was a little bit stumbling, a little bit curiosity, and a little bit technical savvy. In the ensuing weeks I had a big internal battle whether I should act on my findings or leave it. My chief advisor told me "Ben, you can rationalize it any way you want. But you know, and I know, that this should go no further. If you acted on it, it would be wrong. There's no other way to put it." Looking back, despite the "What ifs..." I'm glad I made the right ethical decision.

As always, I turned and continue to turn to books to help me understand these thick issues. I reccomend Stephen Carter's Integrity for a very thorough and well-written look at integrity that tries to answer this big question: Why do we care more about winning than playing by the rules?

IT Directors: The Gap Btwn Adults and Kids on Technology

The IT Director at my school asked me to speak at a meeting of Bay Area private school tech directors on the topic of the growing disconnect between young people and adults (specifically educators) when it comes to technology. I spent 20 minutes there this morning and didn't have much profound to say. In fact, I was so exhausted from this past week (tests, games, meetings, calls...repeat 3 times) that I went into "rhetoric" mode. I'm fortunate to be able to sound articulate. I'm fortunate to be able to mask any nervousness and deliver a speech or presentation without fidgeting or stumbling (for the most part). The upside to this is obvious. This morning for example I didn't prepare really at all and can't remember much. But words came out, they sounded ok, and people were impressed I think. "Rhetoric mode" is rare and a sign that I need to recharge my batteries.

A couple interesting points discussed - one person said how kids of today don't realize how public they live their lives when they have blogs or photos online etc. I said "BS. Kids know." After a little elaboration I added that through my blog I am striving for a lot of transparency and honesty with the outside world. The guy responded "Ben, you've chosen to live your life like that. None of us in this room ever did that when we were young."

Another asked if blogs, IM, email, etc. has contributed to the decline in writing skills. Again, for the sake of argument, I disagreed (discussions like this go nowhere when everyone agrees) and said that the more writing you do, the better it gets. Period. (I actually don't agree with this. I think IM and email has contributed to a decline in writing and grammar at all ages. But I'm sick of kids saying "I don't know how to spell anymore because of computers. Come on, that's a personal choice.")

Overall, my key point was that everybody (adults) seems to be throwing their hands up and declaring that the "understanding gap" btwn adults and Millenials on technology is huge and, thus, unsolvable. It's not that hard of a problem. It would be great if an entrepreneur set out to solve it.

What Does It Mean To Be Well Educated?

That's the title of my latest book read. Alfie Kohn compiles a variety of essays on education, standards, grading, "and other follies" into a interesting book.

He starts with his most provokative essay titled the same as the book. He asks "What is purpose of education?"

Ned Noddings of Stanford urges us to reject "the deadly notion that the schools' first priority should be intellectual development" and contends that "the main aim of education should be to produce competent, caring, loving, and lovable people." Alternatively, we might wade into the dispute btwn those who see education as a means to creating or sustaining a democratic society and those who believe its primary role is economic, amounting to an "investment" in future works and, ultimately, corporate profits. In short, perhaps the question "How do we know if education has been successful?" shouldn't be posed until we have asked what it's supposed to be successful at.

He continues by discussing the qualification of an "educated person":

How much do you have to know about neutrinos, or the Boxer rebellion, or the side-angle-side theorem? If deep understanding is required, then a) very few people could be considered well educated, and b) the number of items about which anyone could have that level of knowledge is sharply limited because time is finite. On the other hand, how can we justify a cocktail party level of familiarity with all these items - reminiscent of Woody Allen's summary of War and Peace after taking a speed reading course: "It's about Russia."

Next, he cites Deborah Meier in her list of the importance of developing five "habits of mind" in schools: the value of raising questions about evidence ("How do we know what we know?"), point of view ("Whose perspective does this represent?"), connections ("How is this related to that?"), supposition ("How might things have been otherwise?"), and relevance ("Why is this important?").

He concludes the chapter citing Dewey: To be well educated, then, is to have the desire as well as the means to make sure that learning never ends.

He then dives into a blistering critique on standarized tests, grading, the costs of overemphasizing achievement, and more. While I agree with most of his stuff, I do take exception with one assertion in the chapter "Confusing Harder with Better." He says "No student should be expected to meet an academic requirement that a cross section of successful adults in the community cannot." I disagree. If this were the standard, how do we achieve progress? How do we stretch our minds deeply to find out what we want to do with our lives?

If you are interested in new thinking about education or have kids in schools, check out Kohn's work.

Swiss Exchange Student Comes and Goes

A couple months ago I started a sister-blog to chronicle my experiences and post pictures from an exchange program I am involved in in which a junior in high school from Switzerland stays with my family for three weeks and then I go to Zurich for three weeks.

Patrice, the student from Zurich, arrived three weeks ago and left this evening after celebrating Thanksgiving with my family. Img_0340More details and pictures are at my Zurich Exchange blog, but I learned some interesting things during his stay.

1. Switzerland is not very different from America. Other than the four official languages, much involving politics, culture, and adolescence is the same. This is not to say there are no differences or to try to homogenize two distinct peoples, but I never expected my mindset, opinions, or questions about life to be so similar.

2. Their approach to education is much different. They have longer school days and virtually no homework. This is compared to the US private high school education of shorter school days and hours and hours of homework.

3. The Swiss kids knew more about American culture than I did. They knew more movie stars, more music bands, and the like.

4. Europeans close the door to bathrooms even when no one is in there!?

5. I will generalize and say most European teens like heavy metal, punk music. Yuck.

In the New Year I will start thinking about my trip to Zurich in the beginning of June. I'll be taking classes in English at their school but I'd like to travel a bit to the surrounding countries of Italy, Germany, or France. If you have any ideas or experiences please share.

I Believe In Tomorrow

In 8th grade I gave the graduation speech for my class and I read the following poem which has been really inspirational for me but that I did not write and in fact do not know the original source. Even if you're not young in age, you can always be young in heart. Perhaps people who were speechless after Nov 2 (Andy Sack, for one) can find solace in this.
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I believe in tomorrow. I believe in it because it has not yet come. And I am young, and youth always believes that tomorrow will be better than today. I believe that I will do tomorrow what I failed to do today, and be then what I have not yet been.

I trust the future. Youth is always glorious because it trusts the future. Youth will attempt the impossible, scale the mountain that is supposed to be inaccessible, and dare the thing that age will fear.

I believe in tomorrow because it is unspoiled. I have, nor has anyone, yet written on it with grimy finger or insanity or selfishness or sin. No wars have been fought in tomorrow. No lie has been told, or dishonest deed done in tomorrow. No man has treacherously failed a friend in tomorrow.

Tomorrow is one clean, beautiful day, the day on which dreams come true, on which the impossible things will yet be done, on which I shall have the nerve and the will to be and to do that which was too much for me in the grim battle of today.

I believe in tomorrow.

Study Skills My Ass

That's the latest from my advisor at school. Do the reading better = get better grades. Makes sense. But it's not why I have a C in the class. "I'm sure you're really busy with your business thing and your other interests but..." It's impossible for me to try to explain the amount of emotional and intellectual energy that goes to other things, and many times it seems like I can't control it when my mind wanders. I'm just so god damn fidgety when reading page after page of 400-page textbook after 400-page textbook that I'd rather sit back and watch Cornel West engage in rhetorical wizardry and ponder the implications of moving away from an examined, Socratic society and into a materialistic, anti-intellectual one.

I felt pretty abandoned after that advisor meeting. I wish they would stop taking the same cookie cutter model and trying to mold me around that...I want to be different. I think different. I am different. My philosophies may not always be right, but they're different.

A rant about high school

This is a rant about high school, feel free to read or ignore, and pardon my French.

Some days I sit around with friends and laugh so hard that I get sad thinking about when high school will be over. Other days I sit and look around me and see a bunch of really young, immature boys and girls and I want to scream “get me out of here!” It’s a pretty even balance usually. Recently it’s been more of the latter category. All the social instability, and the social climbing, and the gossip, and the clothes, and superficiality, and all that cheap shit. I mean it’s sickening. I see people who came from feeder schools and have been hanging out with the same 3-4 people their whole life (I guess the notion of “branching out” is a dead one). I see people whose only concern in the world is what’s happening the next Friday night. I respect the people who can acknowledge that they have an alcohol or drug problem, but I can’t stand it when they don’t seek help. It’s maddening to see parents be so overprotective that they change their child to be a meek, closed person instead of an assertive, risk-taking one. I’m sick of hearing stories about the latest MTV show. I’m sick of having to hug someone each and every time I see them – can’t we just look each other in the eye and start talking instead of acknowledging our intense happiness to see each other through a hug or “ghetto” handshake? Finally, I’m sick of people whining about their grades and being ultra-competitive with their own friends about these artificial indicators of achievement. Thank God my life isn’t all about high school, as it’s this fact which keeps me as happy and curious as I am!

Zurich Exchange Program: I'm In (and have a sister-blog)

I got some good news today that my family and I were one of four families at my school selected to participate in an exchange program with a school in Zurich, Switzerland. This school in Zurich wants to establish a Zurich/San Francisco sister-city relationship and is working with four schools in San Francisco - mine is one of them. When our Dean of Academics first announced this opportunity a few weeks ago I was immediately interested: a Zurich 16/17 year old comes and stays with us for three weeks in early November through Thanksgiving. He's been in intensive English language studying in Zurich. Then, when school gets out in June, I go to Zurich and stay with that same family for three weeks and take classes there in English as their school is still in session. $500 covers all expenses, everything. What a deal.

So I put my name into the hat. I knew there would be a lot of interest, who wouldn't want to do this? When I emailed the Dean, I put a sales-spin on it: "I've never been out of the country and I believe I could provide this kid an interesting and multi-faceted experience." Despite my academic struggles, I have a pretty strong relationship with the brass at my school, I seek them out often (hey, who wouldn't want to spend time with super-smart PhDs).

Yep, I've never been out of the country. Most of my friends did all sorts traveling and international programs this past summer. I worked (and traveled up and down the coast on Southwest). It was fun, make no doubt about it, but everyone keeps coming back saying "you really get a whole different perspective." I was getting anxious.

Today I learned I was chosen. I have started a sister-blog within my TypePad account called My Zurich Exchange Adventures. There, I will be lightly posting news, updates, and pictures both when he comes and when I'm in Zurich and Europe from now till June. Occasionally, I may post Zurich thoughts on this main blog. FeedBurner has a cool feature so I created an animated GIF on the right column of my main blog that says "Latest From Zurich" and it pulls the latest headline from the Zurich blog. if you'd like to subscribe to my Zurich feed, use this link.

I would close with something like "Ciao!" but alas, Zurich has three official languages.

Morals, Values, Ethics, Honor

How would you define each of those words? Schools talk about them all the time (perhaps through an honor code or something of that sort) but rarely are there thoughtful discussions about what each means. Society also talks about them. "Values" has been one of the key buzzwords of the election this year. Are morals something innate or do they change as you acquire new experiences? What exactly is honor and who defines what acting honorably means? In his book On Paradise Drive David Brooks writes:

Schools see “passing along knowledge, not building character, as their primary task. To put it at its baldest, the Achievatron micromanages the tiniest issues in young people’s lives. Their SAT prep, their recycling habits, their drinking-and-driving tendencies. But when it comes to instilling character, the most difficult task of them all, it’s ‘You’re on your own, kiddo.’ Throughout each day society reinforces the message ‘You must be an arrowshot moving ever upward into the stratosphere toward your best self.’ At rare moments in life, commencements and other high minded occasions, society adds, ‘You must also be an oak planted stubbornly into the bedrock of moral truth.’ How do you become an oak that is also an arrow? How do you do that in the cracks of your 18-hour day? Students search earnestly for the wise old head that will answer that question. They hunger for the solution. But that is the one subject on which authorities are strangely silent."

Inside an educational institution and in everyday life, I think a conversation about these topics needs to be more prominent. Let me know if you have any good resources, books, etc. that radically changed your thinking on this stuff.

Ah, The High School Social Life

Last night was the first school-sponsored party/dance called Monte Carlo Night. Since pretty much the whole school is in attendance, it reminded me of what I like most about high school and what I don't. What I like is probably not singular to high school - who doesn't like being around smart, funny friends with good music, lots of food and drink, etc.? While I do have an intellectual/philosophical bent, not as much as Aaron Swartz who, in chronicling his first week at Stanford, writes:

Inside the party, the clear focus was on the dancing. Teenagers moving their bodies in bizarre and vaguely rhythmic positions in close proximity to one another. I’d seen the practice frequently enough on TV, so on one level I knew what to expect, but on another it was wholly bizarre. It was like watching brownian motion or a complex screensaver, it’s completely meaningless and random but it’s also complicated enough that you don’t look away.

But I am guilty of sometimes thinking about situations as an innocent, 3rd party spectator, looking down on the environment I'm in ("self-awareness"?). And in that light, last night confirmed all the things why most people think high school was the worst time of their life. First, the never ending social climbing. Making friends just to become friends with someone else just to move an inch on the social ladder. Showing up at an after party for 5 minutes just so people know that you are among the elite group of kids who know about such exclusive events, let alone get in. On and on and on. Second, dancing. Some do it, some don't. If you don't, it's incredibly awkward, especially after you've been labeled/categorized as such. Despite talk of "breaking out of your shell," most kids do not. It is just too hard. So, this makes for people standing around on the outside, embarrassed and awkward. Third, attractive girls are friends with other attractive girls. And if you're not in this inner circle, you are ostracized big time. Nothing angers me more than that girl who is very bright, funny, interesting, etc. but just doesn't have the perfect bod, and that makes her experience in high school miserable.

The one thing I didn't touch on was "sex, drugs, and alcohol." That's for a later post. :-)

Everyone Can Find Smart People...Interesting People, Now That's Another Thing

I listed yesterday to the program on the local NPR station here called "How Colleges and Universities Are Ranked" because my school's college counselor was one of the four guests, along with the prez of Reed College, a guy from US News and World Report, and the editor of Washington Monthly. My high school always manages to get some good press. A couple months ago a front page article on the NY Times included one accompanying photograph - one of my college counselor and a student.

The program was mostly same old same old if you've follow debacle that always ensues after the US News and World Report college rankings are released each year. Most people say they contribute to the increased levels of stress amongst students and parents and that it promotes poor behavior among colleges trying to boost their ranking. One listener called into the program and commented that as a Silicon Valley recruiter he won't even talk to someone who didn't attend one of the top few schools on the rankings. Another person called in and responded saying that the rankings are a reliable indicator of where smart kids are, but interesting people, now that's another thing. For a lot of professions, if you are smart but not interesting, you won't go anywhere.

In my experiences as an entrepreneur working with others in the business world, I often come across people who have their undergrad and MBA or PhD from some worldly institution. They are almost always reliably smart. But it's usually those really interesting guys, the folks that stand out in your mind who could deliver the "aha" or the person you could talk to for hours without ever wanting to leave, who attended XYZ University in Anywhere, USA.

The Age of the Essay

My classmate Zach Lipton (the only person in my school who is also blogging) turned me on to a fantastic article titled The Age of the Essay which is now another arrow in my quiver on why there are some fundamental issues with the way education is approached. This article is about how writing skills and composition is intertwined with reading novels. Excerpts below:

The most obvious difference between real essays and the things one has to write in school is that real essays are not exclusively about English literature. Certainly schools should teach students how to write. But due to a series of historical accidents the teaching of writing has gotten mixed together with the study of literature. And so all over the country students are writing not about how a baseball team with a small budget might compete with the Yankees, or the role of color in fashion, or what constitutes a good dessert, but about symbolism in Dickens...

The other big difference between a real essay and the things they make you write in school is that a real essay doesn't take a position and then defend it....

And yet this principle is built into the very structure of the things they teach you to write in high school. The topic sentence is your thesis, chosen in advance, the supporting paragraphs the blows you strike in the conflict, and the conclusion-- uh, what is the conclusion? I was never sure about that in high school. It seemed as if we were just supposed to restate what we said in the first paragraph, but in different enough words that no one could tell. Why bother? But when you understand the origins of this sort of "essay," you can see where the conclusion comes from. It's the concluding remarks to the jury....

Fundamentally an essay is a train of thought-- but a cleaned-up train of thought, as dialogue is cleaned-up conversation. Real thought, like real conversation, is full of false starts. It would be exhausting to read. You need to cut and fill to emphasize the central thread, like an illustrator inking over a pencil drawing. But don't change so much that you lose the spontaneity of the original....

Err on the side of the river. An essay is not a reference work. It's not something you read looking for a specific answer, and feel cheated if you don't find it. I'd much rather read an essay that went off in an unexpected but interesting direction than one that plodded dutifully along a prescribed course.

I wish this thinking was mainstream, because at the moment I'm slaving my way through a boring Greek drama and yes, we will need to write a boring, old essay on it.

Rafting on the American River

I had a nice weekend three hours north of San Francisco near Sacramento river rafting down the American River with 20 other folks from school as part of a required outdoor-ed trip for the Environmental Science AP class I'm taking. No blackberry, no cell phone, just nature and me. I like nature and outdoor stuff except for the sleeping part. I don't like sleeping on a hard ground in a sleeping bag. But, I did get to further understand my classmates. There are the really laid back, cool guys, to the guy who has an arranged marriage in India, to a girl who was traumatized by the river and refused to get in the raft after the first hour and therefore sat at the camp site clinging to Wheat Thins, to a guy who openly called someone a feminist bitch, to an openly gay guy who didn't exactly get enthusiastic about water splashing on him. Although we don't have a lot of diversity in terms of race, diversity in opinions and personalities we do. Don't you miss high school?

The Endless Summer - Overscheduled Kids

I'm sick of these articles. Every week I open up some magazine, paper, or web site and see some adult complaining that kids have no time to "ride his bike up the street, swing at a tennis ball with a broomstick and play basketball on the blacktop" as today's Wall Street Journal article mentions. I've read countless articles about how kids and teens are overscheduled, how youth sports perpetuates specializing in a sport as early as 3rd grade, and how kids just "can't be kids anymore." And so I ask: who is defining what being a "kid" really means? It seems that while the current 50-something has sit-on-the-dirt-and-watch-the-clouds-go-by nostalgia, today's young people have no aspirations whatsoever to engage in such passivity. Maybe because violence and loss of life has become so prevalent in everything we do and see that the sad fact that our life can go at anytime motivates today's "kid" to be busy and scheduled. Don't get me wrong, I agree that there are certain parts of 21st century childhood which trouble me, but let's stop the shaking of heads at the demise of today's youth just because how kids spend their time today wasn't how you spent yours.

We're all sitting in a lab, posting

I'm sitting in an English class in the PC lab and we are all supposed to be posting on the School's online forums. So we are all sitting next to each other, no one saying anything, and posting links and comments and questions for 45 minutes about revenge (the name of the class is The Big Payback: Literature of Revenge). Not a word is spoken. Interesting approach to get people into using online forums and message boards.

A new life begins for the next nine months

That was quick. Summer is over, as of today. I started junior year this morning and it felt weird to be back. Nothing has really changed - I love high school for the same reasons, and I hate it for the same reasons. I love it because I surrounded by really smart kids who are super funny. And those things (smarts and humor) are very very high on my evaluation of somebody. I hate it because there's something woefully wrong with how this country approaches education and, as David Brooks puts it, lives in the future tense.

I will be busy these next nine months (see what I'm studying)...even busier come the winter during basketball season. But I'm not going to wear this on my sleeve. I know being busy is hip and I don't want to be hip in this way. How will these next nine, long months affect my blogging? I don't know. I will probably post a little less frequently - say, a few times a week instead of every day or every other day. Fact remains, my business and activities at school come first. What I am not going to do is give up on this blog. No no, the more time I spend in this space the more I'm learning. And learning is good. So you can be assured that this blog will stay active and I will continue to try to engage you.

After all, I try not to let school get in the way of my education. (Mark Twain)

What I'll Be Studying/Working on First Semester Junior Year

My high school is pretty amazing in its course offerings. There are a lot of classes taught by a lot of PhDs and really smart people. Now in my junior year I have a variety of electives to choose from. If I didn't place into a low spanish and low math class freshman year, I'd have even more exotic choices. Nevertheless, starting in a week, I will be devoting some amount of brainpower (although probably not enough) to studying the following topics:

1. US History AP - This is a big course with a lot of random dates and memorization. But I'm happy that by the end of the year I will know about every facet of United States history (wars, legislation, presidents, etc.) The question is how much can I retain afterwards.

2. The Big Payback: Literature of Revenge - Semester long course with some crazy books that examine how revenge has worked its way through pre-20th century literature.

3. Spanish III - I can drop Spanish after this year. That's all I can say.

4. Trigonometry - This will be a battle...to stay awake.

5. Environmental Science AP - 99% of the junior class takes physics. I have no interest whatsoever in learning how light bends. Or why I can drop a ball and it hits the ground. I do have an interest in environmental politics and ecology. But I'm sure there's going to be a lot of corporation-bashing.

6. MIDI Class - We have a recording studio (an alum in the music industry donated it) which is very sophisticated. This class allows me to get trained in this facility so I can oversee the recordings at KUHS Radio, the campus radio station I founded last year.

7. Comcate Foundation - This is my community service, I'll be doing entrepreneurship education and promotion through the Comcate Foundation. I have thoughts on community service at school, will post them at a later time.

8. KUHS Radio - I started a radio station last year, I'm going to post on it more later. Right now it's webcast and includes student music and other talk radio. Here I mainly oversee recordings, bring in guest speakers from the radio world, and get people involved.

9. Quasi-Chess Club - I'm starting this club this year with a couple friends. It's called "quasi" because it's not an official club (avoid paperwork). We basically try to play chess whenever we can.

10. Newsflash - A friend and I are heading this up for the next two years. At all school meetings we facilitate someone reading a bipartisan report of current affairs and news.

11. Devils Advocate - School newspaper. I'm op-ed editor. We are going to hold the administration's feet to the fire! I love school newspapers.

Hidden Culture of Aggression in Teenage Girls

Coming from an all-boys grammar school, one of the biggest changes for me at my high school is that there are girls. Socially, girls are very much different than guys at this age. They are most notorious for constant backstabbing and talking shit about their own friends. I wasn't prepared, and therefore was shocked, to learn that most of the girls in my class cry every other day, see shrinks, and generally have a very socially stressful experience. For the past two years I've watched girls break down, get in brutal fights (albeit with words, not punches), and concurrently outsmart the guys in almost every class. It was an amazing phenomenon. So I just read Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls and it confirmed every single thing I'm seeing in high school.

I didn't learn a lot from the book, because I'm living everything the author is saying, but if you want to take a trip down memory lane and remember what being a high school girl is like, read this book. The author explains how fundamentally girls bully through words and emotions and tells terrible stories of friends emotionally killing their own best friends. Stories include a girl who started a club "Harriet the Hairy Hore" and got all of Harriet's best friends to sign a petition that basically said "We hate Harriet." Then there's the girl who broke into her friend's email account and changed her password to "slut." There are countless stories that make you cringe but it does illuminate a very serious issue in schools. Unlike guy-bullying, where it will end up with someone on the ground and physical fights, girl fighting is very mysterious and hidden.

A lot of adults I talk to say high school was one of the worst times of their life. Having brothers in college, and spending so much time in the "real world," I do know that life gets a lot better after high school. I'm fortunate to have that perspective, and so I try to preach an optimistic future to my friends!

How to Pass as a 30-Something When You're Really Not

"What do people think when they find out you're just 16?" ranks among the most popular of questions I receive. Usually, they never find out. No, it's not because I'm some genius when it comes to trying to act like a 30 something when I'm really just mid-teen. I just follow a eight tried and true habits when it comes to "acting old when you're really not."

1. Say things about the traffic, even though I'm not old enough (until a couple months ago) to drive. Also remark what a "beautiful day it is" regardless of the weather.

2. If politics is the topic of our chit chat, talk about who I'm thinking about voting for, even though I have no right to vote.

3. Ask if my contact wants to "get coffee" even though I never will drink java...it's terrible for you.

4. Insist that I cover breakfast or lunch with my contact with my handy dandy credit card...even though you have to be 18 to have one (don't ask how I do use a credit card).

5. Say "take care" often.

6. Write good.

7. Unlike in high school social circles, don't make jokes that involve sarcasm or tongue-in-cheek. Too risky. What if they don't get it? Strictly business.

8. If at a formal dinner, desperately try to use fork and knife to get at that chicken breast even though everyone knows that if you could just pick it up with your fingers and devour the thing it would be much easier and much tastier.

I will address true professionalism - this has nothing to do with age - and elaborate on number six above, in a later post.

Opt Out of College Admissions Mania

I had lunch today with Tom Mulvaney, an advisor. Tom retired young after a successful career at Seagate Technologies and as an attorney. This is a guy Meg Whitman asked to be the COO of eBay and he turned it down. As we caught up on both personal and business fronts, Tom mentioned his son who's a senior in high school. I immediately pounced on this opportunity to deliver my trademark "the college admissions process is nuts" line and he responded too, only more eloquently: "it's bullshit." Tom told me, "Ben, here's what I tell my kids and everyone I talk to about this. I went to San Diego City College, and then transferred to Santa Clara University. Not a Harvard or Stanford for sure. But I've worked with some of the top lawyers in the country, the top investment bankers in the country, and none of them was brighter than I even though they boasted Harvard, Stanford. Look, what matters is are you a good person, work hard, etc."

A lot of parents and people say this, but then they send their own kids to SAT tutors for $200/hr, college consultants, load on AP classes like they're nothing, and put on incredible pressure. But Tom Mulvaney is not this type of person. In fact, his son is starting senior year and he hasn't done anything too formal. Usually by now all hell would be loose. Instead, Tom is calmly evaluating his options and supporting his son in what he wants to do to be happy.

Tom is a model for any parent or student entering college admissions paranoia.