Friday, April 8, 2011
SOME QUICK RESPONSES
First, my thanks to Michael for the link to YouTube clips of Herbert Marcuse being interviewed. When I met Herbert, I was only twenty-six, and he was sixty-four -- thirteen years younger than I am now, but at the time ancient-seeming to my young eyes. Watching the YouTube video, I realized how much I miss him. In the video he has his sober, German intellectual face on, but he was an ebullient, attractive man with an impish sense of humor [see my Autobiography for some stories.] How fortunate I was to have become his friend. One sees very few like him, alas. Now to the comment by Angus, who thinks my argument in the Teachers' College speech is not sound, although he seems sympathetic to its normative thrust. He is right that I made the argument too quickly and without spelling out all the linkages, but I do think they are there to be found. Let me make several responses. First of all, I am not claiming, nor need I, that every young person is capable of filling every position in society, merely that every normal, average young person is capable of filling one or another of the positions that in our society have been assigned favored compensation and perks. [Let us leave aside professional sports, which is an artificial enterprise not required for the reproduction of society. Very few of us are as tall as Yao Ming, or can leap as high as Michael Jordan, but all average, normal people can engage with pleasure in competitive sports, if they so desire.] The key to my argument is the fact of the sharply unequal income pyramid along which all of society's jobs are arranged. It is the scarcity of the high-wage jobs that creates the fierce competition for those favored slots, and with it the entire mythology of scarce talents, selective examination, and all the rest. Just about anybody can learn to be a teacher, a doctor, a lawyer, or [especially] a corporate manager. There are still differences in temperaments and natural talents, to be sure. [My sister is a brilliant woman who, after earning a Harvard doctorate in biology, went on to a distinguished career that ended with a stint as the Ombud of the World Bank. But when she took a skills aptitude test as a young girl, the psychologist who examined her told her, "Whatever you do, do not ever become a secretary! You would be terrible at it."] My army example is apposite here. Some recruits turn out to have a talent for marksmanship, others for bomb defusing, still others for communications -- which in my time in the army meant learning how to walk up poles with a linesman's gaffs on one's ankles. But virtually all of us were capable of becoming adequately trained soldiers, who could carry out the mission of the unit. Wall Street law firms are not filled with legal geniuses, nor are hospitals staffed by brilliant diagnosticians. On average, it is adequate lawyers who defend clients and adequate doctors who care for patients. In any case, I am dead sure that the ferocious competition for scarce jobs and the virtual eroticization of test scores has nothing at all to do with supplying society with people capable of carrying its affairs forward for another generation. There is, however, one important exception to these strong assertions. When it comes to figuring out how modern technology works, you really do need a twelve year old to explain things.