Culture, nonfiction, philosophy

Generation Me

generation-me-book

Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled–and More Miserable Than Ever Before,   by Jean M. Twenge. Originally published in 2006, updtaed in 2014. 304 pages.

At first glance of the title, you might think this is a book criticizing the character and behavior of millennials. Your first glance would be wrong. While millenials are certainly a part of Generation Me, the author makes it abundantly clear that the patterns and problems this book addresses encompass generations earlier than millenials.

It’s not about the boomers either. Although they take a bit of the responsibility for the mindsets they ushered in and the insanity that followed, they were raised by a generation of parents who had mostly instilled in them the tools to live a productive, reality based life.

No, this book takes aim first at my generation ( GenX), and then subsequent generations who drank our self-interested, self-centered Kool-aid and enhanced it with steroids.This author hits on some important insights about the way most of us have been conditioned to live, how unrealistic are our expectations of life, and how we are ill prepared for the realities of the way most of us will go through life: living an ordinary existence doing ordinary things.

Unfortunately for me, my curiosity was so piqued by this author’s work, that I went looking for other articles she had written only to find that while she did a superb job of diagnosing our post-modern problem, she is no closer to a solution to it than anyone else. Nonetheless, her book has several quotable points:

Why the label Generation Me? Since GenMe’ers were born, we’ve been taught to put ourselves first. Unlike the Baby Boomers, GenMe didn’t have to march in a protest or attend a group session to realize that our own needs and desires were paramount. Reliable birth control, legalized abortion, and a cultural shift toward parenthood as a choice made us the most wanted generation of children in American history. Television, movies, and school programs have told us we were special from toddlerhood to high school, and we believe it with a self-confidence that approaches boredom: why talk about it? It’s just the way things are. This blasé attitude is very different from the Boomer focus on introspection and self-absorption: GenMe is not self-absorbed; we’re self-important. We take it for granted that we’re independent, special individuals, so we don’t really need to think about it.

This is a pretty good introductory synopsis to what follows as you read through Generation Me. It is simply expanded upon through interviews, extensive research of generational surveys, and commentary from fellow cultural critics. One of the first things we note is the way media has shaped our collective delusion with respect to our specialness:

In the animated movie Planes, Dusty wants to be a racing plane. “You are not built to race; you are built to dust crops,” his friend Dottie warns him. But Dusty enters an international flying race—and wins. In another movie released the same year, Turbo is a snail who yearns to race. Close to the finish line in the Indianapolis 500, his once-skeptical brother urges him on: “It is in you! It’s always been in you!” Turbo wins, “proving,” as Luke Epplin observes in the Atlantic, “that one needn’t be human nor drive a car to win the country’s most prestigious auto race.” Epplin notes, “The restless protagonists of these films never have to wake up to the reality that crop-dusters simply can’t fly faster than sleek racing aircraft. Instead, it’s the nay-saying authority figures who need to be enlightened about the importance of never giving up on your dreams, no matter how irrational, improbable, or disruptive to the larger community.”

These movies are just the most recent example of the relentless cultural message to young people: you can be anything you want to be, as long as you believe in yourself. In the Google database of American books, the use of the phrase you can be anything increased 12 times over between 1970 and 2008.

Thankfully, there are parents out there who are cognizant enough of the realities of life to help temper their children’s delusions and try to guide them into a path commensurate to their abilities and talents, but for the most part, we are a generation (or three generations) trapped in a maze of circus fun house mirrors:

This ethos is reflected in the lofty ambitions of modern adolescents. In 2012, 58% of high school students expected to go to graduate or professional school—nearly twice as many as in 1976. Yet the number who actually earn graduate degrees has remained unchanged at about 9%. High schoolers also predict they will have prestigious careers. Sixty-eight percent of 2012 high school students expected to work in professional or managerial jobs, compared to 40% in the 1970s. Unfortunately, these aspirations far outstrip the need for professionals in the future; about 20% of Americans work in professional jobs, about the same as in the 1970s. Short-term ambitions fare little better: In 2012, 84% of incoming college students in the United States expected to graduate in four years, but only 41% of students at their universities actually do so. In The Ambitious Generation, sociologists Barbara Schneider and David Stevenson label these “misaligned ambitions,” and another set of sociologists titled their paper “Have Adolescents Become Too Ambitious?” Apparently the kids learned the lesson “you can be whatever you want to be” a little too well. This might benefit some, but many others will be disappointed.

Our young adult kids are in that lofty 41% of 4-year or less graduates (one graduated at age 20 and the others will be done by 22), but they did it on the cheap and at a social cost. Of course, they’ve known since they were pre-teens that none of us get to have “it all”. Despite economic realities, many people of our generation and subsequent generations have lofty career goals:

Young people also expect to make a lot of money. In a 2011 survey, 16-to-18-year-olds expected their starting salary to be $73,000, which they assumed would rise to $150,000 once they were established in their career. However, the median household income in 2009—for all adults—was $50,000, or around a third of the teens’ aspirations. Overall, young people predicted a bright future for themselves, even during the years of the late 2000s recession and its aftermath. Fifty-seven percent of high school seniors in 2012 predicted that they would own more than their parents; only 10% thought they would own less. In the 2011 survey, 59% believed they would do better financially than their parents.

Some people might argue that this is just youthful hope—after all, hasn’t every generation dreamed big during adolescence? Maybe, but GenMe’s dreams are bigger. While our parents may have aimed simply to leave their small town or to go to college, we want to make lots of money at a career that is fulfilling and makes us famous.

In other words, reality bites, and too many of us don’t know it because we’ve been fed a media diet for the past 40 years that has told us that reality is what we make it.

One of the most popular television shows among Christians from the mid-90’s until it ended in 2007, was the religious family television show 7th Heaven. The show, based on the family and life of a Christian pastor, his wife, and family of seven children was not immune to the propaganda:

In an episode of the family show 7th Heaven, 21-year-old Lucy gives a sermon to the young women in the congregation: “God wants us to know and love ourselves. He also wants us to know our purpose, our passion. . . . So I ask you . . . ‘What have you dreamt about doing?’ . . . What you are waiting for is already inside of you. God has already equipped us with everything we need to live full and rich lives. It is our responsibility to make that life happen—to make our dreams happen.” So if you want to do it, you can make it happen. But what if your dream is to be a movie star or an Olympic athlete? Or even a doctor? What if we’re not actually equipped with absolutely everything we need—say, a one-in-a-million body, Hollywood connections, or the grades to make it into med school? Well, you should just believe in yourself more. Yes, some people will achieve these dreams, but it will likely be due to their talent and hard work, not their superior self-belief.

One professor encountered the GenMe faith in self-belief quite spectacularly in an undergraduate class at the University of Kansas. As she was introducing the idea that jobs and social class were based partially on background and unchangeable characteristics, her students became skeptical. That can’t be right, they said, you can be anything you want to be. The professor, a larger woman with no illusions about her size, said, “So you’re saying that I could be a ballerina?” “Sure, if you really wanted to,” said one of the students.

The book will hardly provide revelatory information for many of the people who read here, but it is something most young people read as they strike out into the world. A little grounding is always in order so that we can do the best we can with hard work and ethical behavior within the scope of our reality.

Grade: B for good content.

 

children's books, Florida History, novels

Strawberry Girl

strawberry-girl

Strawberry Girl, by Lois Lenski. Originally published in 1945. 194 pages. Winner of the 1946  Newberry Award for Children’s literature.

We’re reading this to my 4th and 5th grade Florida history  co-op class and they seem to be enjoying it a great deal. Readers may recall that last semester we read The Lion’s Paw, another Florida classic children’s novel built on the life and topography of 1940’s Florida.

Strawberry Girl is probably one of the least childlike children’s book I have ever read (by post modern standards), but it’s a good book and not too heavy for children to read and enjoy.

Lois Lenski put a lot of time and research into the lives and culture of what are known as Florida Crackers. That is, native Floridians whose roots go much deeper than World War II. As described by Florida Backroads Travel:

He or she is from a family that was here long before the huge population explosions in Florida after World War Two. He or she is almost always Caucasian.

They and their ancestors lived in Florida and prospered before the days of cars, highways, mosquito control, air conditioning, medicare, social security and government welfare.

It is with this backdrop that Lois Lenski wrote Strawberry Girl, a tale of two Central Florida families whose heads bump heads. The new family in town, the Boyers, are farmers while the Slaters, who had lived on the neighboring property for generations, were cattlemen.

Before the Florida legislature passed a fencing law in 1949, cattlemen let their cows and other livestock roam pastures unhindered to graze wherever they desired. Florida was  very active cattle country at the turn of the century and is still a big cattle raising state. These free roaming cattle often proved to be quite a nuisance to adjacent homesteaders whose income was derived primarily from agriculture.

When the Boyers, wearied by the Slaters cows and hogs trampling their strawberries and eating their other crops, decide to build a fence around their property, a feud breaks out between the two families. Since the Slaters found the Boyers’ “biggety’ ways distasteful from the very beginning, it was a long simmering fight which boils over when Bihu Boyer puts a sound whipping on Sam Slater after Slater poisons his mule. Things escalate even further after that, until Lenski wraps up the book with a neat and tidy religious conversion at the end leaving the reader to surmise that afterwards, the families will live side by side in peace.

One of the first hurdles to get over when reading books set in the old South, is the dialect. I mentioned this when I reviewed Their Eyes Were Watching God, which was written in black dialect not long after Reconstruction. Even though this particular book explores Cracker culture which is white, it was still poorer people speaking in a Southern dialect, which takes some getting used to. However, it is well worth getting over that hurdle:

“Thar goes our cow, Pa!” said the little girl.
“Shore ‘nough, that do look like one of our cows, now don’t it?”
The man tipped his slat-backed chair against the wall of the house. He spat
across the porch floor onto the sandy yard. His voice was a lazy drawl. He closed his
eyes again.
“She got our markin’ brand on her, Pa. A big S inside a circle,” said Essie.
The man, Sam Slater, looked up. “Shore ‘nough, so she has.”
“She’s headin’ right for them orange trees, Pa,” said Essie.
“Them new leaves taste mighty good, I reckon,” replied her father. “She’s hungry,
pore thing!”
A clatter of dishes sounded from within the house and a baby began to cry.
“You’d be pore, too, did you never git nothin’ to eat,” said the unseen Mrs. Slater.
There was no answer.
The sun shone with a brilliant glare. The white sand in the yard reflected the
bright light and made the shade on the porch seem dark and cool.
“She might could go right in and eat ’em, Pa,” said the little girl. Her voice was
slow, soft and sweet. Her face, hands and bare legs were dirty. At her feet lay some
sticks and broken twigs with which she had been playing.
Pa Slater did not open his eyes.
If it isn’t obvious to my regular readers by now, I thoroughly enjoy reading books which explore the history of this state where I have lived my entire life. As it turns out, it’s a history far richer and deeper than Mickey Mouse. However, no matter where you hail from, this is an excellent book.

Grade: A

Grade level: 4th-6th

Content advisory: Violence, though mostly alluded to. Discussions of alcoholism, and killing of animals in retaliation. See full parental review of content at Plugged In.

American history, Culture, educational, nonfiction, politics

The Vision of the Anointed

vision-of-the-anointedThe Vision of the Anointed: Self-Congratulation As a Basis for Social Policy, by Thomas Sowell.  Originally published in 1996. 320 pages.

Upon learning of Thomas Sowell’s announced retirement I was motivated to read one of his books that I had not yet read. I chose this one because despite being over 2 decades old, it dovetails nicely with state of affairs in which we find ourselves in 2017. In fact,  his words are more relevant now than ever before.

The thrust of the book is exactly as its title implies, that our academic, media, legal and political institutions are increasingly staffed by those who view themselves as anointed to do what is best for we in the huddles masses by virtue of the fact that they know best. That with just the right amount of tinkering, social experimentation, and deference to their view of a perfect world, we would all be living in a utopia.

One of the sad signs of our times is that we have demonized those who produce, subsidized those who refuse to produce, and canonized those who complain.

That is, we could, if it weren’t for the benighted plebeians. That would be those of us who make up the general public, religious zealots, and anyone else who doesn’t subscribe to the notion that degrees, microphones, and political pedigree make one the rightful arbiter of all that is good and right for everyone else.

In their haste to be wiser and nobler than others, the anointed have misconceived two basic issues. They seem to assume (1) that they have more knowledge than the average member of the benighted and (2) that this is the relevant comparison. The real comparison, however, is not between the knowledge possessed by the average member of the educated elite versus the average member of the general public, but rather the total: direct knowledge brought to bear though social processes (the competition of the marketplace, social sorting, etc.), involving millions of people, versus the secondhand knowledge of generalities possessed by a smaller elite group.— p. 114

This book is heavy reading, full of facts, and doesn’t flow with the ease of a book driven by a plot or even primarily by the political opinions and analysis of its author. In fact, were it not for the fact that I am something of an intellectual groupie of Dr. Sowell’s, I might have put it aside once I got the gist rather than reading through until the very end. If you have the time and temperament to sift through it all, it’s worth the read. He does what so few political commentators do: provides concrete evidence for the  conclusions reached and positions asserted.

It is easy to be wrong-and persist in being wrong-when the costs of being wrong are paid by others. p.136

And the cost, Sowell notes, is rarely paid by the anointed as they are far enough removed from their benefactors to never have to deal with the fallout of their outrageous social science experiments.

The presumed irrationality of the public is a pattern running through many, if not most or all, of the great crusades of the anointed in the twentieth century–regardless of the subject matter of the crusade or the field in which it arises. Whether the issue has been ‘overpopulation,’ Keynesian economics, criminal justice, or natural resource exhaustion, a key assumption has been that the public is so irrational that the superior wisdom of the anointed must be imposed, in order to avert disaster. The anointed do not simply: happen: to have a disdain for the public. Such disdain is an integral part of their vision, for the central feature of that vision is preemption of the decisions of others.— p 123-124

The way these gambits work is through verbal sleights of language. For example:

Another way of verbally masking elite preemption of other people’s decisions is to use the word ‘ask’–as in ‘We are just asking everyone to pay their fair share.’ But of course governments do not ask, they: tell. The Internal Revenue Service does not ‘ask’ for contributions. It takes. — p 197

Widespread personification of ‘society’ is another verbal tactic that evades issues of personal responsibility. Such use of the term ‘society’ is a more sophisticated version of the notion that ‘the devil made me do it.’ Like much of the rest of the special vocabulary of the anointed, it is used as a magic word to make choice, behavior, and performance vanish into thin air. — p 199

I could drop quotes all day, but time is short. So for the policy wonks, evidence seekers, and general nerdy folks who read here, pick up the book. Especially if you don’t possess a particularly conservative perspective. Sowell isn’t asking you to agree with him based on the depth of his feelings on issues. He is inviting his readers to take a look at the facts.

films, historical fiction

Movie Review: Hidden Figures

Our entire family went to see this movie yesterday. I didn’t love it or hate it, but it was thought provoking. So although it doesn’t meet my previously stated criteria for being reviewed, it did add another item to the list of things that I thought made it a worthy film.

For those unaware, Hidden Figures is the story of Katherine Johnson (and to a lesser degree Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan), black female mathematicians/engineers who worked for NASA at the height of the American-Russian space race. Trailer:

I haven’t had a chance to date to read the book, but I plan to in the near future and hope to review it here upon conclusion. One the things I usually do however, when viewing a film based on true events, is fact checking at a glance. This is easily enough accomplished via a website such as History vs. Hollywood, which fact checked Hidden Figures here.

The brilliant and groundbreaking nature of the work these three women did seems to be as noteworthy as the movie depicts. NASA’s official pages dedicated to the women can be found here, here, and here. What does seem to be markedly different, at least in Katherine Johnson’s recorded experience, was the level of discrimination she experienced in the movie. Or more accurately, the discrimination she didn’t experience.

Although the film depicts a fairly hostile work environment for Katherine Johnson upon her promotion from computer to the upper levels of flight planning, she reported that she was always treated a s a respected colleague, something I find believable.

Her testimony rings more true than the movie depiction not because I underestimate the amount of racial discrimination present in Virginia in the early 1960’s. On the contrary, it rings true because of the high level of discrimination present in Virginia in the early 1960’s. There was a fierce competition between the U.S. and Russia at the time this story took place, particularly after the launch of Sputnik. Anyone who could help Americans close the gap might have been viewed as an asset.

Further, there was no such thing as affirmative action during this time so Katherine Johnson’s mere presence was evidence of her worthiness to be there. If she could help accurately and quickly compute the math to get launches accomplished, she was no doubt welcomed.

One of the noteworthy points of the existence of the colored “computers”, the name of the groups of women employed by NASA during that time to do mathematical computations, was the fact that they were all female. From the white perspective, this was not necessarily anything of note, as those girls could still marry “up”, if you will.

However, from the black perspective it highlighted (for me at least) the reality that black women -long before the militant feminism of the mid to late 60’s- were already on the road to the education and occupational advantage over black men that is so often written about today as if it the gap only just began to widen in the 1990’s. This hidden disparity was one of the peripheral issues that made this film interesting to me even though it was never addressed by the film.

I hope to discuss this story more after reading the book (which has a backlog of requests in my local library system) .I do think it’s worth viewing for the historical value.Until I can read the book, I give the movie:

Grade B-

Content advisory:

  • Discussions of racism and sexism throughout film.
  • A couple “damns” here or there, a depiction of Dorothy Vaughn sneaking a programming book from the white section of the library after not being allowed to check out books there. Lesson there for your kids.