Most Likely to Succeed by Tony Wagner and Ted Dintersmith

Most Likely to Succeed: Preparing Our Kids for the Innovation Era by Tony Wagner and Ted Dintersmith (Scribner, 2015), 296 pages.

MLTS Wagner Dintersmith

I like to read books on the problems of the US educational system. I spent 15 years as an adjunct professor (and 3 years on a tenure track) in computer science at two universities, one at the graduate level, and my wife has taught classes in art, journalism, and computers for grades from kindergarten through high school. So together we have every phase of education covered, K through graduate school. We aren’t just familiar the problems of the US educational system because we’ve read about them, but because we have seen them first hand over a long period of time, from 1984 to today.

Having said, that, I’m not sure I agree with every conclusion or recommendation this book makes, but in my eyes the current system is so broken that almost any change will be a change for the better.

I have a lot to say on this topic, so let me run down the authors’ major points and then I’ll add some comments of my own based on my own experience (and my wife Camille’s).

The subtitle is “Preparing Our Kids for the Innovation Era.” Dintersmith is a venture capitalist and entrepreneur and coupled with educational specialist Wagner to point out that kids in the US today are ill-prepared to think originally or even compose a decent paper designed to define a product or found a business. Instead, we focus on deeper and deeper “advanced placement” (AP) trivia and “teaching to the test” (formulated here as “Drill, baby, drill!”). This is all done in the name of “preparing children for college,” even to extend of citing that as the reason for cancelling the kindergarten play (I’m not kidding: that’s on page 38).

The book goes through the limitations of testing, especially the SATs and AP tests (page 211), and the fact that what most students learn in college today is NOT what they need to know (page 147).

I like the authors’ proposal that schools should give out “merit badges” for mastery of topics (page 227). You want an A? Get five merit badges and trade them in for an A at the end of the term. There’s much more, and I think anyone interested in where we need to go with schools today should read the book and form their own opinion.

Why is it like this? I’ve read that the school system in England – which America adapted with minor changes – being primarily adapted to the needs of bureaucrats and clerks for the British Empire. The system could take a child educated in New Zealand and post them to India without worry: their handwriting, vocabulary, math, and composition skills were absolutely compatible. This system was attractive to the growing US, which is not an empire but still one of the largest countries in the world (along with Canada, Russia, Brazil, India, and China).

One of the things I know that I wish I saw more often in books like this is why teachers have tenure, get to retire with pensions after (in many cases) 20 years, and are so poorly paid compared to almost any other occupation that requires post-high-school training.

I’d take these on one at a time, but they are all related. Even in the 1800s, there was no way a public school teacher (a state government employee) was going to make as much money as someone working in private industry. Even if we just consider women, the same is true (I’m not being sexist: just acknowledging most public school teachers were female back then, especially below the high school level). Women could work as nurses or for the telephone company (starting around 1880) and make a lot more than a teacher. What’s more, the telephone company didn’t require any training investment at all, which teaching did. So how could you make sure there were enough teachers for the growing population?

The solution, which also applied to government employees in general, was to compensate the teachers who had to struggle with sub-par wages in other ways. For instance, after some period of working in the classroom, teachers would be unionized and granted tenure, which meant they could not be fired except with great difficulty. Workers in the private sector, on the other hand, unionized with great peril and could be fired at any time for any reason whatsoever. Job security compensated for low wages. It was still a hard sell, so eventually teachers could earn a modest pension (and retire, leaving room for newer teachers) much faster than workers in the private sector. Oh, and when the farm kids were off during the summer to tend the herds and flocks and crops, the teachers were too (who would they teach when no one was there?).

For some reason, people lost sight of this public/private distinction and began stripping away what little job security or pension rights teachers had, in many cases gutting the power of their unions. Teachers became the focus of all the attention given to the US education system, as if the teachers had decided to neglect their field all at once. As a result, in Arizona (where we live) and some other states, there is a tremendous shortage of teachers. High school and college grads looked at the abuse heaped on teachers, as well as the tiny pay scales, and decided “Who needs that?” Here in Arizona, it is next impossible for a single teacher to buy a house (or even sometimes a car, because of crippling student loans), and if one teacher marries another (and many do), a house is still often out of reach.

In Arizona, there is also a great movement toward charter schools and home schooling. So let me say a few words about that (full disclosure: my wife is a public school teacher). I don’t mind charter schools per se. However, as the book points out (page 57), charter schools do only marginally better on standard tests than public school children.

Finally, I have to say that I don’t get very excited about home schooling. I tell people “*All* children are home schooled…” because I don’t think learning stops when you leave school. I think what you learn in a public environment is socialization (very important for young children) and that there are many types of people, adults and children alike, out there. Moreover, I remain unconvinced that a parent busy with ordinary household chores can find the time to educate himself or herself enough to teach children every subject in the broad curriculum to the depth needed to raise intellectually competitive citizens in today’s world.

Let me leave you with one other story, also based on my own experience with children as “learning machines.” It’s just what they do. If you look at the vocabulary of a child entering school at age five and the vocabulary of an eleven-year-old, the math shows that they have been learning four or five new words per day, effortlessly and without drilling, review, or tests. Yet if you put them in school and hand them a list of thirty or so words on Monday and say “Learn these! There will be a test on these of Friday! If you fail the test, you’ll have to take it again next week, plus the new words.” they couldn’t do it. And that, I claim, is what’s wrong with the American educational system today.

The Just City by Jo Walton

The Just City by Jo Walton (TOR, 2015), 368 pages.

TJC Walton

I bought this book shortly after it came out because I knew Jo Walton as an award-winning author (the book Among Others) and I have always enjoyed novels based on ancient Greece and Rome (like those of Mary Renault or Steven Saylor). This came billed on the cover as “a novel of ideas” which intrigued me because I had no clue what to expect in a novel of ideas as opposed to a novel of anything else.

The premise here is that the great Olympian gods like Apollo or Athena (a firmly Athenian Pallas Athene here) are super-beings capable of great feats of consciousness transfer and time travel. After an argument over the rape of Daphne, a well-known Greek myth, Athena challenges Apollo to live through a life-cycle as a mere mortal named Pytheas in order to appreciate how human women might take offense to a more powerful male coming up and going “I want you” and assaulting her with overpowering strength. (As pointed out in the essay on last week’s book, Women After All, it’s not uncommon for males to assault other males in the same way.)

Apollo accepts the challenge and drinks from the river of forgetfulness and becomes the mortal Pytheas. This is such a common epithet for Apollo (at Delphi they worshipped Pythean Apollo) I doubt anyone would be fooled for long, but the citizens of the Just City seem completely bamboozled by this god walking among them. Athene is there to keep an eye on things, as the instructor Septimia, and it’s not surprising that her low profile makes it easy for her to observe what is happening in her city.

In fairness, the children who inhabit the city initially have much more pressing concerns than wondering if the gods are around. For Athene has populated her city at the beginning of time with more than ten-thousand ten-year-olds, gathered from all periods of civilization. These children, some liberated slaves, others just downtrodden, are transported to the island of Santorini so that they become citizens of a place set up to be the embodiment of the perfect city created by Plato, the Greek philosopher and student of Socrates. Plato wrote a dialog called The Republic where his teacher Socrates supposedly outlines the perfect city, the just city, and that is what the book is all about. (In ancient times, The Republic was known as On Justice, which explains Walton’s title and the connection.)

The children and teachers are all given new Greek names, which can be confusing at first when you try to map them in your head. But it’s not too bad. Walton uses some correct but uncommon spellings as well. Sokrates is not too bad, but everyone wears a kiton, which you can find on Google under chiton. There is more Greek stuff going on here than at a joint fraternity/sorority party.

Most of the narrative is driven by Apollo as Pytheas and two others: a student and a teacher. The student is Simmea, an Egyptian sold into slavery, sexual abused as a ten-year-old, and finally taken to the Just City (where, it turns out, rape is still a problem). The teacher is Maia, a young Victorian formerly named Ethel, who prays to be freed of her restrictive life in Rome and finds her prayer answered by Athene (yeah, the Romans didn’t care if it was Minerva or whoever).

Socrates arrives on page 96, but not revealed for who he is until page 99. But then, the “students” are 15, and ready for indoctrination into the system of the perfectly just city, either as a “gold” or “silver” or “bronze or “iron,” based on the teachers’ assessments of the mix of “metals” in their souls. There is a hierarchy, of course, to determine who gets to lay around and think all day and who gets to tend the fields or mind the flocks (reading Plato, I could never figure out why these activities were exclusive: I do my best thinking while working). This system yields exactly 252 Golds and 1,120 Silvers and 3,240 Bronzes, leaving the rest of the population, the 6,508 Irons (page 152) to do the menial work. This is the “noble lie” that drives the system on: that people are somehow so fundamentally different that once you are branded a Gold, you’re set for life.

Not that life, even as a lowly Iron, is really stressful. The truly back-breaking work like construction is handled by a cadre of robots. These are mute, mechanical workers who charge themselves when their batteries run low and can be programming with chips to do what is needed, whether it is cleaning the gutters or planting flowers in the spring. Sokrates, being Sokrates, naturally begins to question the “downtrodden” workers about how they like their work, whether they are happy, and so on. Natually, if the workers are intelligent enough to be conscious, the leaders must decide if their treatment is just or not. In other words, Sokrates is throwing a monkey wrench into the inner workings of the city, exactly as he did in ancient Athens. This activity got him condemned to drink hemlock, but here in the Just City, Sokrates picks right up where he left off.

By now, it should be clear that this Just City is a totalitarian place where individual desires bend to “the common good.” This is especially clear when it comes to sexual assignations designed to sustain and increase the population (don’t worry: they are all over eighteen when the time comes!). There is a quarterly festival where each boy or girl is assigned to one of the opposite sex. They are expected to party and sleep together, whether they like it or not, and a lot of them don’t. If they don’t become pregnant, the girls go back into the hopper and draw another partner for the next go-round. The best you can do, apparently, is hope for a pairing with someone you like…but don’t count or that. The city doesn’t really care, since all children are raised in common anyway.

A lot of the book’s tension comes from these sexual activities: remember, good-looking mortal Apollo/Pytheas is always lurking around to swoop in and the girls sigh. More tension comes from Sokrates investigations into the humanity of the worker robots, a concern that might be more relevant to modern life sooner rather than later. Although the robots cannot speak, they have more subtle ways of communicating with the overseers of the Just City.

One intriguing take on the ancient concern with “justice” or a just life or a just city is to translate this into the modern concept of coolness. So Sokrates’ questions about whether some act is just or not becomes a question in modern times whether someone’s action is cool or not. I actually read a book about that, but I can’t find it right now and do not recall the name. I’ll get back to you on that…

The end of the book comes rather abruptly. I won’t reveal more than to say that (apparently) if anyone can show Athene/Septimia that her city, founded on Plato’s principles of firm justice, is really unjust, the game is up.

All in all, let me just say that it might be while before I attempt another novels of ideas.


Women After All by Melvin Konner

Women After All: Sex, Evolution, and the End of Male Supremacy by Melvin Konner (Norton, 2015), 404 pages.

WAA Konner

I think the subtitle really says it all. I don’t get the “women after all” point (all fetuses begin as female, but some become male through androgens?). But I certainly understand the issues about sex and evolution. Lots of articles and books have pointed out the “degenerated” aspect of the Y (male producing) chromosome. It’s tiny and has few genes, leaving humans born without a backup copy of a gene on the robust X chromosome (XX babies—female) particularly at risk for life-shortening genetic flaws (page 8). It would not take much for the Y chromosome to disappear altogether, especially once other methods of sexual reproduction besides man-on-woman penis-in-vagina sex become widespread.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The premise of the book is not how genes might end the need for a male role in reproduction (as the book points out, several species reproduce just fine without males, one right here where I live in Arizona: see page 47). The real point of the book is how male treatment of females has jeopardized any warm feelings women as a group might otherwise have for the male of our species. It’s one thing if men die out. It’s another if women push them into extinction.

Consider the whole definition of “supremacy” in the first place. Konner proposes that the male assertion of supremacy over females is based on a deep-seated and uncomfortable realization of male’s inherent inadequacy: males are not equipped, on their own, to carry on the human race (page 9). He also makes the claim that this male “supremacy” is temporary, an anomaly based on the over-valuing of brute force when farming and early towns replaced more relaxed hunter-gatherer lifestyles (page 6). Now that labor-saving devices dominate civilization, the tradeoff of the need for males to build walls and fight wars to knock them down is no longer needed. As Konner points out on page 12, the biggest thing we can do to improve life today is to empower and educate women. No wonder this simple idea is apposed so vehemently all over the world.

This is not to say that gender differences are not important. They are really defining: the first thing anyone noticed about all of us occurred at birth: “It’s a boy!” or “It’s a girl!” (page 19). Babies who do not fit into one category of another (those with ambiguous or all-inclusive genitals) will struggle all their lives to find their place in the world. The most fascinating part of the book to me was Konner’s exploration of these outliers in the world of the male-female divide and his countdown of various genetic “mistakes” like XYY males and XY females (which do exist—see below).

I’ve never seen this detailed so completely, so it’s worth going over, I think.

Genes on the Y chromosome create male testes (which create androgens like testosterone in turn) and suppress the female organs (page 26). But sometimes the fetus has two or more Xs and a Y (XXY, XXXY, and so on), a condition called Klinefelter syndrome, but the child will be basically male. Often, a male seems to be XX (female!) but has a tiny Y chromosome attached to an X. Konner calls some XX babies “Ahs” and others “Andras” because they have masculinized genitals that make it hard to say whether the child is a girl or boy. They are basically girls, but in drawing tests they tend to sketch mobile or mechanical objects like boys instead of people or flowers. There are even XY “boys” that have deformed penises, which are often amputated so they can be raised as girls.

These are not quite the same as XY people who look and act female. How is this possible? They have a mutation that means they can’t make androgens and have no androgen receptors even if they could (page 37). These are infertile women, essentially, and show that blocking androgens means there is no maleness in a fetus or person—none.

One of Konners most intriguing passages involves a litany of birth defects: babies born with this chromosomal defect suffer from a shorter lifespan, higher mortality at all stages of life, an inability to reproduce, premature hair loss, and many brain defects, such as attention deficits, hyperactivity, an inability to control impulses, hypersexuality, and an “enormous” excess of inward and outward aggression. We call it maleness (page 8).

However, it would be a mistake to think the Konner’s whole book is about male-bashing. The author is, after all, an unabashed male. We can’t experiment with humans, naturally, but we can look at primitive societies: the author’s his first wife studied the !Kung people in Africa and published ground-breaking work on those hunter-gatherers. We can learn from various ape species such as chimps and bonobos, but these studies tend to be more valuable for understanding genetic influences on behavior than cultural (language is absent in all but human societies).

Males seem to have two pluses to offer in complex, but non-technological, societies. The first is a hair-trigger for aggressive acts, and the second better upper-body strength compared to females. Both these help with projectiles, and are helpful in for big-game hunting and in protecting the tribe. The harm comes when these two aspects of power are not directed outward toward prey or invaders, but inward toward vulnerable women. However, it is worth pointing out that males suffer from male aggression and violence much more than women, who are often protected by a formidable trio of father, husband, son, do: page 7. Male-on-male rape tends to be much more violent than when directed toward women, although that is small consolation to the victims.

For those who still think that male injustice when it comes to the treatment of women is a simply a matter of whiny special-pleading on the part of women, consider these gems that the author presents on page 296:

  • Instead of saying “I’m not interested in you” when approached by a male, women should say “I have a boyfriend/husband.” Men will respect the “property” of other men more than they will accept the simple statement of a woman.
  • What men fear most about going to prison is what women fear every time they walk down a lonely street.
  • The most important thing a woman can learn is to say “Take whatever you want, just don’t hurt me.”
  • A smile might get you followed, but no response can get you killed.

Are these situations exaggerated? Perhaps…but the stories I see in the news, even in the “enlightened” West, tell me that there is more truth is these statements than men might care to admit.

Let me leave with something I heard years ago, during the dawn of the “feminist movement.” I’ve never see it online, but the “Prayer of Aristotle” goes like this:

Aristotle prayed, “Oh, Great Gods of Olympus, thank for making me a human instead of an animal, and for making me a Greek instead of a barbarian. But most of all, thank you for making me a man instead of a woman, because without this last blessing, the first two would be worthless.”

Maybe an end to “male supremacy” will someday be a blessing too.