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What college can’t do

What a beautiful piece from the New Yorker  In the thick of exam preparations, swim-or-sink instincts, unspeakable ennui (or deep uncertainty), it is worth remembering that the college years are the years of ‘dawning realization’. What have you learnt this year? 

What College Can’t Do

The New Yorker · by Joshua Rothman · August 6, 2014

A pair of Harvard alumni on campus for commencement, in 1977.

There’s a special joy in giving someone advice that’s sure not to be followed—“Wake up at the same time every morning”; “Don’t check your e-mail while on vacation”—and William Deresiewicz must have felt it when writing his recent cover story for The New Republic, “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League.” Hypercompetitive colleges, Deresiewicz wrote, are the replicators of the ruling class, recruiting and training “young people who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose.” Better to go to a state school, where the student body is more socioeconomically diverse, or to a “second-tier” liberal-arts college, where “real educational values” persist, than to submit yourself or your child to the careerist “machine” of élite higher education. This is a slightly fantastical way of looking at college—is there really any reason to think that students at Reed are more intellectually curious than students at Columbia?—and its real-life applicability is hard to gauge. But Deresiewicz’s article resonated because it echoed broader cultural concerns about busyness and overwork. It’s now widely accepted that adult Americans as a whole act pretty much the way Deresiewicz thinks Ivy League kids act. Americans work too much, think too much about work, and cultivate an air of competent yet maniacal busyness.

In recent years, essays lamenting the culture of overwork—and the superficial, self-centered, self-destructive busyness that develops from it—have become a genre unto themselves. Ostensibly, these essays are about manageable subjects, subjects about which it’s possible to have a single opinion, like higher education, parenting, or “mindfulness.” But they are also about another, larger subject, which, in its glacial, impersonal force, seems to transcend opinion. That subject, more or less, is modernity. In the background of an essay like “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League”—and of essays like “No Time to Think” or “The ‘Busy’ Trap,” both published in the Times—is the looming presence of the arrhythmic, unreassuring modern world, which seems always to be speeding things up in a senseless way. Modernity is the sort of problem that’s both very old and very new. Baudelaire coined the term, in 1860, and the first great literary treatments of modernité, such as “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” date from the nineteenth century. And yet to read “Ivan Ilyich,” a story about a workaholic lawyer and his atrophied inner life, is to see how much our contemporary busyness problem owes to a process that’s been going on for centuries.

To think about busyness in terms of modernity is to think about its deep roots. In part, busyness is a matter of economics: it has to do with bosses driving workers harder (or admissions committees asking more of applicants), and with the forces of meritocracy making life more competitive. But it also has a spiritual dimension: careers mean more to us because the traditional sources of meaning, like religion, mean less; increasingly, work is the field upon which we seek to prove our value.

Because of modernity’s dual nature, it’s hard to figure out what role it plays in your life. If you’re feeling anxious, overworked, and uncertain about what the point of all your work is, is your boss to blame, or is it just modern life? If you’re unhappy at Yale—which, one student tells Deresiewicz, is “stifling to the parts of yourself that you’d call a soul”—then why are you unhappy? It could be that the practical circumstances at Yale are soul-crushing. (There are a lot of extracurriculars.) It could be that you’re cut off from other sources of meaning. (Deresiewicz thinks that Ivy League students live in a “bubble of privilege,” with a “narrow conception of what constitutes a valid life: affluence, credentials, prestige.”) Or it could be that modern life makes thoughtful people feel, as Deresiewicz puts it, “emptiness and aimlessness and isolation.”

It would be comforting, in a way, if the Ivy League were a particularly soulless place. But is that really a plausible thing to say about a place like Yale, with its playing fields and courtyards, its libraries and theatres, and—most importantly—its population of energetic, intelligent, optimistic young people? I tend to draw the opposite conclusion from Deresiewicz’s data: the fact that you can feel soulless in such an intellectual paradise suggests that the problem is bigger than college.

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Modern day anxiety and the busy trap

Anxiety: We worry. A gallery of contributors count the ways.

If you live in America in the 21st century you’ve probably had to listen to a lot of people tell you how busy they are. It’s become the default response when you ask anyone how they’re doing: “Busy!” “So busy.” “Crazy busy.” It is, pretty obviously, a boast disguised as a complaint. And the stock response is a kind of congratulation: “That’s a good problem to have,” or “Better than the opposite.”

It’s not as if any of us wants to live like this; it’s something we collectively force one another to do.

Notice it isn’t generally people pulling back-to-back shifts in the I.C.U. or commuting by bus to three minimum-wage jobs  who tell you how busy they are; what those people are is not busy but tired. Exhausted. Dead on their feet. It’s almost always people whose lamented busyness is purely self-imposed: work and obligations they’ve taken on voluntarily, classes and activities they’ve “encouraged” their kids to participate in. They’re busy because of their own ambition or drive or anxiety, because they’re addicted to busyness and dread what they might have to face in its absence.

Almost everyone I know is busy. They feel anxious and guilty when they aren’t either working or doing something to promote their work. They schedule in time with friends the way students with 4.0 G.P.A.’s  make sure to sign up for community service because it looks good on their college applications. I recently wrote a friend to ask if he wanted to do something this week, and he answered that he didn’t have a lot of time but if something was going on to let him know and maybe he could ditch work for a few hours. I wanted to clarify that my question had not been a preliminary heads-up to some future invitation; this was the invitation. But his busyness was like some vast churning noise through which he was shouting out at me, and I gave up trying to shout back over it.

Brecht Vandenbroucke

Even children are busy now, scheduled down to the half-hour with classes and extracurricular activities. They come home at the end of the day as tired as grown-ups. I was a member of the latchkey generation and had three hours of totally unstructured, largely unsupervised time every afternoon, time I used to do everything from surfing the World Book Encyclopedia to making animated films to getting together with friends in the woods to chuck dirt clods directly into one another’s eyes, all of which provided me with important skills and insights that remain valuable to this day. Those free hours became the model for how I wanted to live the rest of my life.

The present hysteria is not a necessary or inevitable condition of life; it’s something we’ve chosen, if only by our acquiescence to it. Not long ago I  Skyped with a friend who was driven out of the city by high rent and now has an artist’s residency in a small town in the south of France. She described herself as happy and relaxed for the first time in years. She still gets her work done, but it doesn’t consume her entire day and brain. She says it feels like college — she has a big circle of friends who all go out to the cafe together every night. She has a boyfriend again. (She once ruefully summarized dating in New York: “Everyone’s too busy and everyone thinks they can do better.”) What she had mistakenly assumed was her personality — driven, cranky, anxious and sad — turned out to be a deformative effect of her environment. It’s not as if any of us wants to live like this, any more than any one person wants to be part of a traffic jam or stadium trampling or the hierarchy of cruelty in high school — it’s something we collectively force one another to do. Our frantic days are really just a hedge against emptiness.

Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day. I once knew a woman who interned at a magazine where she wasn’t allowed to take lunch hours out, lest she be urgently needed for some reason. This was an entertainment magazine whose raison d’être was obviated when “menu” buttons appeared on remotes, so it’s hard to see this pretense of indispensability as anything other than a form of institutional self-delusion. More and more people in this country no longer make or do anything tangible; if your job wasn’t performed by a cat or a boa constrictor in a Richard Scarry book I’m not sure I believe it’s necessary. I can’t help but wonder whether all this histrionic exhaustion isn’t a way of covering up the fact that most of what we do doesn’t matter.

I am not busy. I am the laziest ambitious person I know. Like most writers, I feel like a reprobate who does not deserve to live on any day that I do not write, but I also feel that four or five hours is enough to earn my stay on the planet for one more day. On the best ordinary days of my life, I write in the morning, go for a long bike ride and run errands in the afternoon, and in the evening I see friends, read or watch a movie. This, it seems to me, is a sane and pleasant pace for a day. And if you call me up and ask whether I won’t maybe blow off work and check out the new American Wing at the Met or ogle girls in Central Park or just drink chilled pink minty cocktails all day long, I will say, what time?

But just in the last few months, I’ve insidiously started, because of professional obligations, to become busy. For the first time I was able to tell people, with a straight face, that I was “too busy” to do this or that thing they wanted me to do. I could see why people enjoy this complaint; it makes you feel important, sought-after and put-upon. Except that I hate actually being busy. Every morning my in-box was full of e-mails asking me to do things I did not want to do or presenting me with problems that I now had to solve. It got more and more intolerable until finally I fled town to the Undisclosed Location from which I’m writing this.

Here I am largely unmolested by obligations. There is no TV. To check e-mail I have to drive to the library. I go a week at a time without seeing anyone I know. I’ve remembered about buttercups, stink bugs and the stars. I read. And I’m finally getting some real writing done for the first time in months. It’s hard to find anything to say about life without immersing yourself in the world, but it’s also just about impossible to figure out what it might be, or how best to say it, without getting the hell out of it again.

Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets. The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration — it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done. “Idle dreaming is often of the essence of what we do,” wrote Thomas Pynchon in his essay on sloth. Archimedes’ “Eureka” in the bath, Newton’s apple, Jekyll & Hyde and the benzene ring: history is full of stories of inspirations that come in idle moments and dreams. It almost makes you wonder whether loafers, goldbricks and no-accounts aren’t responsible for more of the world’s great ideas, inventions and masterpieces than the hardworking.

“The goal of the future is full unemployment, so we can play. That’s why we have to destroy the present politico-economic system.” This may sound like the pronouncement of some bong-smoking anarchist, but it was actually Arthur C. Clarke, who found time between scuba diving and pinball games to write “Childhood’s End” and think up communications satellites. My old colleague Ted Rall recently wrote a column proposing that we divorce income from work and give each citizen a guaranteed paycheck, which sounds like the kind of lunatic notion that’ll be considered a basic human right in about a century, like abolition, universal suffrage and eight-hour workdays. The Puritans turned work into a virtue, evidently forgetting that God invented it as a punishment.

Perhaps the world would soon slide to ruin if everyone behaved as I do. But I would suggest that an ideal human life lies somewhere between my own defiant indolence and the rest of the world’s endless frenetic hustle. My role is just to be a bad influence, the kid standing outside the classroom window making faces at you at your desk, urging you to just this once make some excuse and get out of there, come outside and play. My own resolute idleness has mostly been a luxury rather than a virtue, but I did make a conscious decision, a long time ago, to choose time over money, since I’ve always understood that the best investment of my limited time on earth was to spend it with people I love. I suppose it’s possible I’ll lie on my deathbed regretting that I didn’t work harder and say everything I had to say, but I think what I’ll really wish is that I could have one more beer with Chris, another long talk with Megan, one last good hard laugh with Boyd. Life is too short to be busy.

(Anxiety welcomes submissions at anxiety@nytimes.com.)

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No Time To Think

A collection of articles recently on the cult of busyness, overparenting, a maniacally busy lifestyle – all of which are emblematic of modernity.

No Time to Think | New York Times 25 Jul

ONE of the biggest complaints in modern society is being overscheduled, overcommitted and overextended. Ask people at a social gathering how they are and the stock answer is “super busy,” “crazy busy” or “insanely busy.” Nobody is just “fine” anymore.

When people aren’t super busy at work, they are crazy busy exercising, entertaining or taking their kids to Chinese lessons. Or maybe they are insanely busy playing fantasy football, tracing their genealogy or churning their own butter.

And if there is ever a still moment for reflective thought — say, while waiting in line at the grocery store or sitting in traffic — out comes the mobile device. So it’s worth noting a study published last month in the journal Science, which shows how far people will go to avoid introspection.

“We had noted how wedded to our devices we all seem to be and that people seem to find any excuse they can to keep busy,” said Timothy Wilson, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia and lead author of the study. “No one had done a simple study letting people go off on their own and think.”

The results surprised him and have created a stir in the psychology and neuroscience communities. In 11 experiments involving more than 700 people, the majority of participants reported that they found it unpleasant to be alone in a room with their thoughts for just 6 to 15 minutes.

Moreover, in one experiment, 64 percent of men and 15 percent of women began self-administering electric shocks when left alone to think. These same people, by the way, had previously said they would pay money to avoid receiving the painful jolt.

It didn’t matter if the subjects engaged in the contemplative exercise at home or in the laboratory, or if they were given suggestions of what to think about, like a coming vacation; they just didn’t like being in their own heads.

It could be because human beings, when left alone, tend to dwell on what’s wrong in their lives. We have evolved to become problem solvers and meaning makers. What preys on our minds, when we aren’t updating our Facebook page or in spinning class, are the things we haven’t figured out — difficult relationships, personal and professional failures, money trouble, health concerns and so on. And until there is resolution, or at least some kind of understanding or acceptance, these thoughts reverberate in our heads. Hello rumination. Hello insomnia.

“One explanation why people keep themselves so busy and would rather shock themselves is that they are trying to avoid that kind of negative stuff,” said Ethan Kross, director of the Emotion and Self-Control Laboratory at the University of Michigan. “It doesn’t feel good if you’re not intrinsically good at reflecting.”

The comedian Louis C.K. has a riff that’s been watched nearly eight million times on YouTube in which he describes that not-good feeling. “Sometimes when things clear away and you’re not watching anything and you’re in your car and you start going, oh no, here it comes, that I’m alone, and it starts to visit on you, just this sadness,” he said. “And that’s why we text and drive. People are willing to risk taking a life and ruining their own because they don’t want to be alone for a second because it’s so hard.”

But you can’t solve or let go of problems if you don’t allow yourself time to think about them. It’s an imperative ignored by our culture, which values doing more than thinking and believes answers are in the palm of your hand rather than in your own head.

“It’s like we’re all in this addicted family where all this busyness seems normal when it’s really harmful,” said Stephanie Brown, a psychologist in Silicon Valley and the author of “Speed: Facing Our Addiction to Fast and Faster — and Overcoming Our Fear of Slowing Down.” “There’s this widespread belief that thinking and feeling will only slow you down and get in your way, but it’s the opposite.”

Suppressing negative feelings only gives them more power, she said, leading to intrusive thoughts, which makes people get even busier to keep them at bay. The constant cognitive strain of evading emotions underlies a range of psychological troubles such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety, depression and panic attacks, not to mention a range of addictions. It is also associated with various somatic problems like eczema, irritable bowel syndrome, asthma, inflammation, impaired immunity and headaches.

Studies further suggest that not giving yourself time to reflect impairs your ability to empathize with others. “The more in touch with my own feelings and experiences, the richer and more accurate are my guesses of what passes through another person’s mind,” said Giancarlo Dimaggio, a psychiatrist with the Center for Metacognitive Interpersonal Therapy in Rome, who studies the interplay of self-reflection and empathy. “Feeling what you feel is an ability that atrophies if you don’t use it.”

Researchers have also found that an idle mind is a crucible of creativity. A number of studies have shown that people tend to come up with more novel uses for objects if they are first given an easy task that allows their minds to wander, rather than a more demanding one.

“Idle mental processing encourages creativity and solutions because imagining your problem when you aren’t in it is not the same as reality,” said Jonathan Smallwood, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of York, in England. “Using your imagination means you are in fact rethinking the problem in a novel way.”

Perhaps that’s why Google offers its employees courses called “Search Inside Yourself” and “Neural Self-Hacking,” which include instruction on mindfulness meditation, where the goal is to recognize and accept inner thoughts and feelings rather than ignore or repress them. It’s in the company’s interest because it frees up employees’ otherwise embattled brain space to intuit end users’ desires and create products to satisfy them.

“I have a lot of people who come in and want to learn meditation to shut out thoughts that come up in those quiet moments,” said Sarah Griesemer, a psychologist in Austin, Tex., who incorporates mindfulness meditation into her practice. “But allowing and tolerating the drifting in of thoughts is part of the process.” Her patients, mostly hard-charging professionals, report being more productive at work and more energetic and engaged parents.

To get rid of the emotional static, experts advise not using first-person pronouns when thinking about troubling events in your life. Instead, use third-person pronouns or your own name when thinking about yourself. “If a friend comes to you with a problem it’s easy to coach them through it, but if the problem is happening to us we have real difficulty, in part because we have all these egocentric biases making it hard to reason rationally,” said Dr. Kross of Michigan. “The data clearly shows that you can use language to almost trick yourself into thinking your problems are happening to someone else.”

Hard as they sometimes are, negative feelings are a part of everyone’s life, arguably more so if you are crazy busy. But it’s those same deep and troubling feelings, and how you deal with them, that make you the person you are. While busyness may stanch welling sadness, it may also limit your ability to be overcome with joy.

 

Why we travel

Beautiful – Pico Iyer’s Why We Travel  in line with the 2014 MYE question on whether travel broadens the mind.

So travel, at heart, is just a quick way to keeping our minds mobile and awake. As Santayana, the heir to Emerson and Thoreau with whom I began, wrote, “There is wisdom in turning as often as possible from the familiar to the unfamiliar; it keeps the mind nimble; it kills prejudice, and it fosters humor.” Romantic poets inaugurated an era of travel because they were the great apostles of open eyes. Buddhist monks are often vagabonds, in part because they believe in wakefulness. And if travel is like love, it is, in the end, mostly because it’s a heightened state of awareness, in which we are mindful, receptive, undimmed by familiarity and ready to be transformed. That is why the best trips, like the best love affairs, never really end.” 

Here is Alain de Botton’s documentary on The Art of Travel (one of my favourite books) – completely enjoyable (and lyrical) exploration of the impulse to travel, and the paradoxes, attitudes and treasures surrounding it.

Spatial Justice: a more level playing field

A more level playing field? Change how the field is used

Cheong Suk-Wai meets a thinker in this fortnightly column, which alternates with her book review column The Big Read

For all of his adult life, American geographer Edward Soja has been championing spatial justice, or transforming urban areas to improve the quality of life of the poor

ASK American geographer Edward Soja why he has devoted his entire adult life to championing the idea of spatial justice, and he says: “I guess you could call it trying to increase happiness everywhere.”

That is because his life’s work has been to watch closely for ways in which cities are developed, lest they lead to prime land becoming playgrounds for the rich while the poor are left to languish in ghettos, steeped in pollution.

The focus of spatial justice is squarely on cities because its overcrowded environs intensify resentment and the sense of unfairness among people.

He was in Singapore recently to talk about spatial justice at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. He had first visited Singapore in the 1980s and then late last year, to talk to architectural students of the National University of Singapore about his work.

Professor Soja, 73, says: “I try to get people to realise that planning and deciding public policies all shape public places, and sometimes create bad spaces.

“But, more importantly, if we have made things worse, we can make things better too!”

His main argument is that by scrutinising how people interact in living spaces, you will begin to see all kinds of injustices, such as the best schools and roads being usually in the wealthier neighbourhoods. “This is a geography we have created,” he points out. “It is not something natural or inevitable.”

So understanding the dynamics that lead to, and entrench, inequalities will help you map out what he calls “the uneven geography of power and privilege” and enable everyone to see immediately which areas within a city need the most attention.

The one thing to remember, he says repeatedly during this interview, is that spatial justice cannot result in complete equality.

“That’s never going to happen,” he stresses, because living on Earth’s uneven surface – with those on mountains much poorer than those in valleys – creates its own inequalities.

“Friction and distance in geography are the main elements that lead to unequal human development,” he notes. “So where there is space, there will always be inequality.”

More seriously, he points out, once certain segments of society gain an advantage over an area, they not only prolong that advantage, but also sometimes extend it over wider areas.

“Whether it be occupying a favourite position in front of a TV set, shopping for food, finding a good school or finding a location to invest billions of dollars (in)… human activities not only are shaped by geographical inequalities but also play a role in producing and reproducing them.”

The point then, he says, is to improve life for the disadvantaged slowly but surely, while “embarrassing the wealthy” into lowering the barriers between them and the have-nots.

He muses: “One of the great myths that have to be dispelled is the idea that progress is a zero-sum game, that to improve the poor, the rich have to suffer terribly.”

For example, he points out, Singaporeans should acknowledge that part of their country’s stunning wealth today “came from the shoulders of its immigrant population”, given how much cheaper it has long been to hire foreigners for work here.

The rub is, he adds, the problems of the poor rarely get most people’s attention, and this lack of visibility makes it all the more harder to get justice for them, spatial or otherwise.

In that, Prof Soja has a cautionary tale to share: In 1996, a California court compelled Los Angeles’ public transport authority to put the needs of poor commuters above those of the rich for 10 years. That was after the Los Angeles Bus Riders Union (BRU) sued the authority for discrimination because it spent more money building highways than subways or buying more buses. This meant that those who owned cars benefited more than those who were dependent on public transport.

Unhappily, Prof Soja adds, the footnote to this landmark case was that in 2000, when a Spanish-speaking Hispanic man in Alabama sued the transport authority there because the all-English driving test discriminated against him, the US Supreme Court ruled that any American who alleges discrimination had first to show that the discriminating party intended to be unfair.

Worse, the same court added, no private person or organisation could sue the US government for discrimination. That stopped the impact of BRU in its tracks.

So, yes, spatial justice is still very much a work in progress.

In that vein, he pooh-poohs economists who reason that most people today are jobless because the Information Age has rendered their jobs obsolete and that is why they have dropped out of the market. “That’s silly because there are so many other things causing it, including changing geographies in cities that are creating new inequalities.”

For example, few would link a spike in divorces, suicides and spousal and child abuse to the daily drudge of commuting to and from work. But Prof Soja’s long and deep studies of his home base Los Angeles show that spending four hours to travel from one’s home to one’s office, and back, exerts such a toll on one’s self-worth that it is a major factor in families breaking up.

So by, say, finding ways either to reduce time spent travelling or to enable employees to live closer to their workplaces, the bonds of family are less likely to fray.

Prof Soja’s parents were uneducated Polish immigrants. His father drove a taxi while his mother was a housewife. From the age of 10, he says, he was fascinated by maps and travel stories, although he travelled “only in my mind”. Now a married father of two and grandfather of three, he is a distinguished don in urban planning at the University of California at Los Angeles as well as the London School of Economics.

In December last year, the 109-year-old non-profit society Association of American Geographers awarded him its Lifetime Achievement Honour for reshaping the relationship between people and the city.

Pioneering Singaporean architect William Lim says of Prof Soja, who is his friend: “For more than 30 years, Edward has shaped spatial justice such that it is now a respected conversation topic.”

suk@sph.com.sg Continue reading

New laws on labour trafficking: the need for defining conditions in SG

Bar on what is forced labour should not be set so high that new law ends up nailing no one

Labour

A group of Bangladeshi men arrive in Singapore expecting to earn a basic monthly salary of $600 plus overtime because that is what they were told back home when they were recruited to be construction workers. The amount is stated in the approval letter from Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower (MOM) which they receive before they board the flight. Within days of arriving, however, their employer gives them the lowdown: their basic pay will be $520, and they will have to sign a fresh contract reflecting the reduced terms. Having taken loans of more than $3,000 to land their jobs here, the men sign on the dotted line. If they refuse, they know, they might be sent home penniless to face a huge debt.

They start work and soon learn that other workers have been similarly deceived by the same employer, who also makes them work extra hours without overtime pay. There are illegal deductions too and some months their basic salary dips to below $200.

This is a hypothetical case, but such practices are not uncommon here, say migrant worker advocates who deal with foreign workers in various states of distress. If migrant workers facing such multiple forms of abuse complained in Europe, the United States, Canada or Australia, their allegations, if true, could be prosecuted under laws banning human trafficking. In those countries, the law covers vulnerable migrant workers who are deceived or coerced into commercial sex or labour and exploited.

Singapore is planning a dedicated law to combat human trafficking, but judging by discussions so far, such cases may fall outside its purview. Public consultations on the Prevention of Human Trafficking Bill, likely to be introduced in Parliament by November this year, ended on April 18. It covers sex and organ trafficking, which are already illegal here, as well as labour trafficking which is not prohibited under current laws. Continue reading

What Finnish Education needs

Education in Finland: Pisa isn’t the full story | The Guardian, Dec 2013

Despite Finnish education’s strong performance in Pisa, it isn’t all perfect – science and maths standards are declining and top-performing students aren’t being pushed enough
Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights, Iceland

Northern Lights: is the Finnish education system letting down its brightest students? Photograph: Arctic-Images/Getty Images

As a Finn, I know we can have a reputation for being dour and seeing the glass half-empty. Perhaps such pessimism is a feature of small, northerly nations, where people see more of the inside of drinking establishments than they do sunshine in winter months.

To avoid national stereotyping, I will therefore caveat what I am about to say by noting that the Finnish education system has much to commend it, notably equality of access, high societal regard for the value of education, and teacher respect.

Finnish performance in the programme for international student achievement (Pisa) league tables has led to an influx of educational tourism to Finland since the rankings were first published in 2001. We may have slipped in the latest judgment from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) – which tests more than 500,000 pupils in 66 countries ranking performance in reading, maths and science – but we are still very much at the top tier of the world’s best performing educations systems and the attention isn’t likely to disappear soon.

Today’s results, however, show Finland dropping out of the top 10 performers in maths, with a score of 519, 22 points lower than the last ranking three years ago. Reading skills fell 12 points to 524, while the science ranking dropped nine points to 545. Signs of this were already showing in PISA 2009, although the slippage was less than anticipated.

I am concerned that the Finnish education system is letting down our brightest students. In every country, there is a debate about whether education systems should group children according to their ability. In Finland, we have taken a firm stance not to do this based on the belief that having mixed groups has distinct advantages, such as childrenteaching each other.

But are we giving enough room for our most intelligent young people to flourish? Every summer the organisation I run, Technology Academy Finland, brings the brightest teenagers in the world to Finland to work on science projects together. This year, the Millennium Youth Campwelcomed 60 students from 31 countries to work on sophisticated problems such as designing sanitation systems for a space mission to Mars. At this end of the educational spectrum, where the children’s ambitions are to improve on the work of Nobel prize-winners, it is vitally important to stretch the young people’s minds.

In many Finnish classrooms, however, the pace is determined by the lower-achieving students. In the lower grades, all children from the most talented to the least talented are grouped together. Some commend our system for serving all students well, regardless of family background or socio-economic status. But it means our brightest cannot maximise their potential. No other country has so little variation in outcomes betweenschools, and the gap within schools between the top and bottom-achieving students is slim.

We are kidding ourselves if we think these smart young people can make up the gap at university. Firstly, we run the risk that their intellectual energy is diverted into less worthwhile pursuits, getting them into trouble at school. Secondly, starting from behind makes it much less likely that the Nobel prize-winners of tomorrow will come from Finland.

To address these fault lines, we should maximise the use of the possibilities of technology in the classroom. Studies have shown that theuse of tablet computers in the classroom improves learning, while some video games have been shown to improve brain function.

More use of the flipped classroom model, where instruction is delivered online and homework is moved into the classroom, allows students to learn at their own pace. It would also allow us to economise the expensive resource of teacher time for direct interaction with students. Another benefit is that instruction is given by those best qualified in a given subject.

For our future competitiveness, we also need to encourage more students into maths, science and technology. While teaching these subjects is very difficult, flipped learning could make a difference especially for very young children. Teachers of younger students are expected to teach practically all subjects, and there is some criticism that many may be unsuited for instruction in mathematics.

In the upper grades, Finland has introduced a lot of freedom for students to select courses. As a result, fewer and fewer students select physics, chemistry and some of the more intensive maths courses. When it comes to university, some are finding that they are not qualified to their faculty of choice. Although they did not realise it when selecting their courses, too many are disqualifying themselves from courses such as computer science, where graduates are better paid and more likely to get a job in their chosen profession.

Much of the fall in today’s ranking, however, boils down to a simple question of economics. Education budgets are under pressure in these times of austerity, but we should be wary of cutting funding for our future. Investment in education is as crucial to nations’ long-term fiscal health as fiscal prudence in other areas. If Finland’s education system is to succeed, we must avoid complacency and continue to focus on reforms so our young people are best equipped for the competitive world of tomorrow.

Dr Juha Ylä-Jääski is the president and chief executive of Technology Academy Finland.

What drives success? The Triple Package of traits

A SEEMINGLY un-American fact about America today is that for some groups, much more than others, upward mobility and the American dream are alive and well. It may be taboo to say it, but certain ethnic, religious and national-origin groups are doing strikingly better than Americans overall.

Indian-Americans earn almost double the national figure (roughly $90,000 per year in median household income versus $50,000). Iranian-, Lebanese- and Chinese-Americans are also top-earners. In the last 30 years, Mormons have become leaders of corporate America, holding top positions in many of America’s most recognizable companies. These facts don’t make some groups “better” than others, and material success cannot be equated with a well-lived life. But willful blindness to facts is never a good policy.

Jewish success is the most historically fraught and the most broad-based. Although Jews make up only about 2 percent of the United States’ adult population, they account for a third of the current Supreme Court; over two-thirds of Tony Award-winning lyricists and composers; and about a third of American Nobel laureates.

The most comforting explanation of these facts is that they are mere artifacts of class — rich parents passing on advantages to their children — or of immigrants arriving in this country with high skill and education levels. Important as these factors are, they explain only a small part of the picture.

Today’s wealthy Mormon businessmen often started from humble origins. Although India and China send the most immigrants to the United States through employment-based channels, almost half of all Indian immigrants and over half of Chinese immigrants do not enter the country under those criteria. Many are poor and poorly educated. Comprehensive data published by the Russell Sage Foundation in 2013 showed that the children of Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese immigrants experienced exceptional upward mobility regardless of their parents’ socioeconomic or educational background.

Take New York City’s selective public high schools like Stuyvesant and Bronx Science, which are major Ivy League feeders. For the 2013 school year, Stuyvesant High School offered admission, based solely on a standardized entrance exam, to nine black students, 24 Hispanics, 177 whites and 620 Asians. Among the Asians of Chinese origin, many are the children of restaurant workers and other working-class immigrants.

Merely stating the fact that certain groups do better than others — as measured by income, test scores and so on — is enough to provoke a firestorm in America today, and even charges of racism. The irony is that the facts actually debunk racial stereotypes.

There are some black and Hispanic groups in America that far outperform some white and Asian groups. Immigrants from many West Indian and African countries, such as Jamaica, Ghana, and Haiti, are climbing America’s higher education ladder, but perhaps the most prominent are Nigerians. Nigerians make up less than 1 percent of the black population in the United States, yet in 2013 nearly one-quarter of the black students at Harvard Business School were of Nigerian ancestry; over a fourth of Nigerian-Americans have a graduate or professional degree, as compared with only about 11 percent of whites.

Cuban-Americans in Miami rose in one generation from widespread penury to relative affluence. By 1990, United States-born Cuban children — whose parents had arrived as exiles, many with practically nothing — were twice as likely as non-Hispanic whites to earn over $50,000 a year. All three Hispanic United States senators are Cuban-Americans.

Meanwhile, some Asian-American groups — Cambodian- and Hmong-Americans, for example — are among the poorest in the country, as are some predominantly white communities in central Appalachia.

MOST fundamentally, groups rise and fall over time. The fortunes of WASP elites have been declining for decades. In 1960, second-generation Greek-Americans reportedly had the second-highest income of any census-tracked group. Group success in America often tends to dissipate after two generations. Thus while Asian-American kids overall had SAT scores 143 points above average in 2012 — including a 63-point edge over whites — a 2005 study of over 20,000 adolescents found that third-generation Asian-American students performed no better academically than white students.

The fact that groups rise and fall this way punctures the whole idea of “model minorities” or that groups succeed because of innate, biological differences. Rather, there are cultural forces at work.

It turns out that for all their diversity, the strikingly successful groups in America today share three traits that, together, propel success. The first is a superiority complex — a deep-seated belief in their exceptionality. The second appears to be the opposite — insecurity, a feeling that you or what you’ve done is not good enough. The third is impulse control.

Any individual, from any background, can have what we call this Triple Package of traits. But research shows that some groups are instilling them more frequently than others, and that they are enjoying greater success.

It’s odd to think of people feeling simultaneously superior and insecure. Yet it’s precisely this unstable combination that generates drive: a chip on the shoulder, a goading need to prove oneself. Add impulse control — the ability to resist temptation — and the result is people who systematically sacrifice present gratification in pursuit of future attainment. Continue reading

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What suffering does

On a more contemplative note this weekend – is there any point to the ‘hard stuff’ in life? I resonate with Brooks when he writes about how when we look back, pain, suffering and failure have become particularly formative, even ennobling.  

David Brooks for the New York Times 

Over the past few weeks, I’ve found myself in a bunch of conversations in which the unspoken assumption was that the main goal of life is to maximize happiness. That’s normal. When people plan for the future, they often talk about all the good times and good experiences they hope to have. We live in a culture awash in talk about happiness. In one three-month period last year, more than 1,000 books were released on Amazon on that subject.

But notice this phenomenon. When people remember the past, they don’t only talk about happiness. It is often the ordeals that seem most significant. People shoot for happiness but feel formed through suffering.

Now, of course, it should be said that there is nothing intrinsically ennobling about suffering. Just as failure is sometimes just failure (and not your path to becoming the next Steve Jobs) suffering is sometimes just destructive, to be exited as quickly as possible.

But some people are clearly ennobled by it. Think of the way Franklin Roosevelt came back deeper and more empathetic after being struck with polio. Often, physical or social suffering can give people an outsider’s perspective, an attuned awareness of what other outsiders are enduring.

But the big thing that suffering does is it takes you outside of precisely that logic that the happiness mentality encourages. Happiness wants you to think about maximizing your benefits. Difficulty and suffering sends you on a different course.

First, suffering drags you deeper into yourself. The theologian Paul Tillich wrote that people who endure suffering are taken beneath the routines of life and find they are not who they believed themselves to be. The agony involved in, say, composing a great piece of music or the grief of having lost a loved one smashes through what they thought was the bottom floor of their personality, revealing an area below, and then it smashes through that floor revealing another area.

Then, suffering gives people a more accurate sense of their own limitations, what they can control and cannot control. When people are thrust down into these deeper zones, they are forced to confront the fact they can’t determine what goes on there. Try as they might, they just can’t tell themselves to stop feeling pain, or to stop missing the one who has died or gone. And even when tranquillity begins to come back, or in those moments when grief eases, it is not clear where the relief comes from. The healing process, too, feels as though it’s part of some natural or divine process beyond individual control.

People in this circumstance often have the sense that they are swept up in some larger providence. Abraham Lincoln suffered through the pain of conducting a civil war, and he came out of that with the Second Inaugural. He emerged with this sense that there were deep currents of agony and redemption sweeping not just through him but through the nation as a whole, and that he was just an instrument for transcendent tasks.

It’s at this point that people in the midst of difficulty begin to feel a call. They are not masters of the situation, but neither are they helpless. They can’t determine the course of their pain, but they can participate in responding to it. They often feel an overwhelming moral responsibility to respond well to it. People who seek this proper rejoinder to ordeal sense that they are at a deeper level than the level of happiness and individual utility. They don’t say, “Well, I’m feeling a lot of pain over the loss of my child. I should try to balance my hedonic account by going to a lot of parties and whooping it up.”

The right response to this sort of pain is not pleasure. It’s holiness. I don’t even mean that in a purely religious sense. It means seeing life as a moral drama, placing the hard experiences in a moral context and trying to redeem something bad by turning it into something sacred. Parents who’ve lost a child start foundations. Lincoln sacrificed himself for the Union. Prisoners in the concentration camp with psychologist Viktor Frankl rededicated themselves to living up to the hopes and expectations of their loved ones, even though those loved ones might themselves already be dead.

Recovering from suffering is not like recovering from a disease. Many people don’t come out healed; they come out different. They crash through the logic of individual utility and behave paradoxically. Instead of recoiling from the sorts of loving commitments that almost always involve suffering, they throw themselves more deeply into them. Even while experiencing the worst and most lacerating consequences, some people double down on vulnerability. They hurl themselves deeper and gratefully into their art, loved ones and commitments.

The suffering involved in their tasks becomes a fearful gift and very different than that equal and other gift, happiness, conventionally defined