Voyeurs and Exhibitionists

That’s what we’ve become.

I was struck recently by the results of a poll of grade school children.  When asked what they wanted to be, the number one answer by a wide margin was “famous.”

Not athletes, firefighters or cops, President, doctor or teacher.  Just famous.

That explains the success of YouTube, Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and “reality” TV.  Making the finals of Big Brother is just as good, if not better, than working hard to become a doctor or scientist.

Everybody thinks their daily lives should be of interest to their fan base, no matter how mundane.  You can broadcast the details of your daily life on your Facebook page, and feel you’ve somehow connected with the people you’ve “friended.”  No need to spend time actually interacting with them.  No need for them to interact with you, unless they want to add a “like” credit to your latest.  Winning in life is having as many followers on Twitter as possible or having your YouTube video “go viral.”  How did this happen?

Another schoolkid poll I heard about last night only hardened my opinion that we are creating for ourselves a happy and dangerous mass delusion.  When measured by test results, the top 5% of American students are woefully low among the top twenty countries in math and science.  This shouldn’t be news to anyone.  What was surprising to me was the fact that 72% of our top 5% achievers believed they were better than any other country’s elite students.  No other country’s children have as high an opinion of themselves.  We’re off the charts in confidence.

I have to admit some lack of understanding in all this, having grown up in a family where even being the best was sometimes not good enough.  I recall approaching my Dad about getting a dollar for each ‘A’ on my report card, and being told instead that I would be spanked once for each ‘B’, twice for each ‘C’ and four times for each “D.”  He wasn’t serious, but the message was.  When my sister took a worldwide exam for programmers that would result in professional recognition as a “Certified Data Processor,” she got the the highest score in the world that year.  My father had set all-time high score records for several of the US Army’s technical proficiency exams, so achievement was to be admired, but also to be expected.

I partially understand why this is happening, given the fact that our leaders insist, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, that we are “the best” in everything we do.  Take our health care mess as a prime example.

Somehow I think we have over-corrected from the time when I benefited from the shock of Sputnik.  America woke up one morning to the beeping sound of a Soviet satellite circling the globe.  We were behind, and we knew it.  We threw resources and attention at the task of developing a generation of scientists and engineers, and the result was spectacular.  We kept going, even once we were ahead, occasionally spurred on by leaders who insisted we suffered a “missile gap” even while the Soviet Union was crumbling from within because it failed at providing consumer goods.

After the disappointments of Viet Nam and exposure of the Nixon White House, our national psyche loved the happy fairy tale Reagan told us, calling our country a “shining city on the hill,” a line that could have come straight out of the Wizard of Oz.  I guess we needed the boost, though we should at least approach the world with some amount of fact-checking skepticism, given that our Cheerleader-In-Chief by then believed he had seen combat in World War II, even though his exposure to Nazi’s was all in the back lot at Warner pictures.

I’ve even debated friends who insist on the catechism that Reagan defeated communism, countering with the argument that the TV show Kojak has just as much or more to do with it.  In case you didn’t know, Kojak reruns were dubbed into Russian and played during prime time in the late 80’s, and it was the most-watched show on their network at the time.

The Soviet leadership thought the trash on New York City’s streets and constant stream of black drug dealers and pimps who were the bad guys in almost every show would let their citizens see how badly American policies had done for its citizens.  My reaction was that the Communist Party bosses totally blew it, because the show portrayed even poor black people in Harlem with nicer cars and color TV’s than ordinary Russians could get.  And then there was Telly Savalas playing a cop while wearing nicer suits than the Chairman of the Communist Party could manage.

I digress, though, from what truly made America exceptional in the 60’s through the 80’s.

Our educational institutions, our government, and our corporations all built centers that could attract and support world-class people to the pursuit of science and technology.  Xerox sponsored the Palo Alto Research Center, which gave us almost everything we take for granted in our internet, touch screen and icon world.  IBM’s Watson’s Research Center and Bell Labs did basic research and followed up with the bucks to use that basic science to come up with new and improved products.  NYU has the Courant Institute for mathematics, Princeton has its Institute for Advanced Studies that Einstein made his home for decades.  DARPA, NASA and the CDC all used taxpayer funds to sponsor basic and applied research on a massive scale.  Without Fermilab, Lawrence Livermore and Sandia Labs, where would we be in understanding nuclear physics today?

Other than the amazing stuff the high school robot clubs are doing, I just don’t see that kind of focus and influence today.  Walk through any grad school’s research complex, and more than half the people you see are likely to be in the US on student visas.  Though also true during the 70’s and 80’s, America benefited from every young genius from India or China wanting to live here after their studies on those decades.   I think you’ll find that today’s young scientists from overseas are far more likely to want to go back home with their knowledge to seek their fortune in the country they came from.

We aren’t benefiting from a “brain drain” any more.

To the contrary, with global corporations anxious to use the cheapest labor of all types, we encourage companies to export our intellectual capital as quickly as they can to take advantage of “knowledge workers” in eastern Europe and the subcontinent.

I certainly don’t need to be a genius to see that this can’t end well.  During the recessions of the 80’s and 90’s, I was involved with intense technological work, both outside and inside Wall Street.  Though manufacturing jobs were leaving the US at an alarming rate, the programmers and engineers I dealt with were confident in their continued high value to employers.  More than one consultant laughed at me when I was making a salary, pointing out that they made more money in six weeks doing programming for the same Wall Street firm as I was.

Imagine their surprise after the final burst of old style programming work to handle the Y2K conversion!  There were hungry young programmers in Latvia, Pakistan, India, and elsewhere happy to take their gigs away from them for a monthly paycheck equal to the US consultants’ daily fee.

We joke about call centers on the other side of the world for everything from computer technical support to lost credit card reporting.  The joke is on us, because it was such a tiny step from that telecom-enabled job outsourcing to external equity analysis (yes, that stock research may be from Mumbai) or tax preparation.

It all leaves me wondering how much the today’s adults enabled today’s children in their willingness to think themselves the best, while scoring the worst on objective tests.  Did we do this to ourselves with our endless drumbeat of contempt for “elites” and the reverse snobbishness of deliberate ignorance?  How much longer will we choose to put fame (or even notoriety) over real accomplishment?

I wish I had more than a few hundred dedicated readers at times like this.  I would love to understand how we measure achievement.  It occurs to me that a survey that asked which award was most prestigious, and the order of importance, might tell us a lot about who we are today.

Feel free to reply with your answers to my little poll, or suggestions how to put this out to a wider audience.  I’m going to explore how to use the polling feature of this blog hosting service right after I post this.

Which prize or award listed below is most prestigious?  How would you rank them in terms of importance?

Heisman Trophy
Academy Award (Oscar)
Nobel Prize
Grammy Award
Pulitzer Prize
Cy Young Award
Clio Award
Fields Medal

Responses invited in the form of comments, or answers to the poll itself, which should appear shortly.

[Note:  Surveys in the wordpress-related polling website are limited to 100 responders per month, which makes this poll almost useless.   The alternatives seem too expensive — to spend $200 a year to get up to 1,000 responses per month or almost $800 to take the limit off the number of responses. I’ll keep looking at the options, but for now, responses in the comment section seem like the way to go.]



15 Responses to Voyeurs and Exhibitionists

  1. AL says:

    sorry, bud.

    there is no happy ending here.

    just a long slow flow into the drain.

    and then someday, maybe, a revolution. a real one.

    and then we start over.

  2. Truman Holland says:

    The Fields Medal should be #1. #2 should come from a separate list.

  3. Bruce B says:


    Do not forget that we’ve had a generation where the “self esteem” of the child is paramount. Even if he/she can’t add or read, points are awarded for trying. I always felt the fear of failure was a pretty good motivator, but that is considered cruel in today’s America. Many on this blog probably would have liked your Dad.

    We became a soft, decadent society with an expectation of prosperity and security. When it came to an end (with the worst yet to come) our society whined.

    • hhill51 says:

      I know. I have a friend whose public high school student’s parents threatened to sue when she was going to fail a student who never came to class for an entire semester. Others have threatened legal action when she wouldn’t give mediocre students A grades. Bizarre.

      • Al says:

        sadly, another clear example of greshams law.

        if everybody get a blue ribbon, then a blue ribbon means nothing.

        we cannot all be “above average”.

  4. Larry says:

    1) Nobel Prize

    This one seemed to mean a lot more before Obama got one for NOT ending our two most recent empire-building adventures.

    2) Fields Medal

    This one is impressive, but I doubt these people ever get laid.

    3) Heisman Trophy

    I’m a total non-sports guy, and not a big fan of jocks, but you gotta be a pretty amazing specimen of athletic prowess to get one of these.

    4) Pulitzer Prize

    My opinion of what passes for “journalism” today is very much like everything this post of yours talked about. Back in the day, this was a seriously badass award. Today? No idea.

    5) Academy Award (Oscar)

    I like movies. Some of them are truly moving and inspiring. Most of the time when someone gets an Oscar, they really DID do something pretty great.

    6) Grammy Award

    Sometimes a grammy means something. Most times not. It’s almost always about sales and very seldom about the actual quality of the art.

    7) Cy Young Award

    Another jock award. Meh. Footbal wtfpwns baseball.

    8) Cleo Award

    Did you mean Clio Award for advertising design? This one is last because it made me think of those cheesy 900 number psychic commercials. I had to google it to find out what it was. Not much “prestige” if I’ve never heard of it.

  5. Rick says:

    Been reading your blog for a while, and cannot begin to tell you the financial education it has given me, seeing as how I was never exposed to that at any time in my formal classes though college!!
    Your observations about Jack and Jill average america are spot on, but a logical outcome of our electronic age, and shrinking production budgets. sad.

  6. David Ericson says:

    Howard — Hands down Fields, Clio, and Nobel are tops here (with reservations about economics since it is currently misconceived by its practitioners to be logically independent from sociology, ethics, and political economy). Mathematics, history, and the natural sciences simply are fundamental, and rather distinct, forms of human understanding.

    I don’t accord them any kind of rank order of importance, however. Along with the other fundamental forms of human understanding (philosophy, social sciences, the arts, ethics, and religion) they all are voices in the human conversation begun long ago and, hopefully, will continue as long as the species survives. Some enjoy greater public respect now — a respect that waxes and wanes with the popular culture of the times — but all are indispensable in commentary on the human condition.

    Below them, I would accord the Pulitzer great respect. Journalists, the best of them, translate the advances and changes in the fundamental forms of understanding into a language that reaches the broad, literate public. Investigative journalism probes the back alleys and dark spaces where we may find the human condition at its worst, shines a wholesome light on it, and confronts it with our social ideals. In a strange way, investigative journalism is a contemporary form of the Biblical prophet that calls on the nation to repent its sins.

    The performing and sports arts are wonderful displays of human excellence. I can’t help but think that the major achievement, however, is the script or score writer in the arts. How many great actors or dancers can overcome a mediocre script or score? As for our contemporary sports “heroes,” rejoicing in excellence has given way to winning at all costs and maximizing the “payoff.” This, too, will change.


  7. David Ericson says:

    Howard- A further comment concerns your observation about the self-esteem and educational performance of our young. I, too, find them to be bizarrely disconnected. But I am not sure what the solution is — beyond letting them taste the conditions that their great grandparents did in the Great Depression, ahead to Depression 2.0 that is our likely future.

    However, I am now watching the takeover of the American public educational system by the federal government, a successive development from Reagan onto Obama (especially Bush II and Obama). Some may applaud this. I do not. Indeed, we are now hurtling towards “national standards” in public education that will homogenize education throughout the country. Why do we, in a country that prides itself in the most diverse, heterogenous, and finest higher educational system in the world, think this to be a desirable direction? Do you think that our best independent (private) schools and rich suburban schools will follow the D.C. dictate? I think not, unless they have lost their educational compass.

    When I look at those “educationally superior” countries that have centralized education and “high” test scores, I ask how many of those intellectual medals have they won? Indeed, they look at themselves in comparison to the U.S. and ask how can they change their systems in order to create more creative and critical thinkers — something a centralized, exam hell, system will never encourage. So, do we want to move in their direction, while they are doing everything possible to move away from it? Yes, they may continue to receive higher scores on the international comparison tests than American kids. However, just remove the southern states’ scores from our overall situation and you get a very different American comparison with the rest of the world.


    • hhill51 says:


      I’ll have to try to find it, but the test results already eliminated the bottom 95 percent from the pool. It was only a comparison of our top 5% vs the top 5% elsewhere. That certainly could have been filled by the elite private schools and suburban public schools. The problem is more profound, in my opinion, than the problem that exists when comparing all students.
      As to those awards, the winners for the past couple of decades are from the generation that was educated after Sputnik, but before Reagan, so the jury is out on your assertion that we still have the brightest and most creative critical thinkers among our current crop of students.
      I recently attended a memorial service for a friend from college who passed away far too early (brain tumor), and was stunned that his New York City public high school physics teacher was there to speak. Albert was a restaurateur, but a smart high school student who had a special relationship with his teacher, and came back to that high school’s district (lower Manhattan) to open his restaurant. That teacher had three of his former students go on to win the Nobel prize in Physics. What are the odds of that? I dare say there aren’t many colleges whose whole physics departments could say the same.
      I do know that I found those standardized tests to be fun, with the exception of one (Miller’s Analogies) that had too many correct answers, so I was left trying to figure out which of several was the one that the test makers had seen, and which analogies were there, but they had not seen.

      • David Ericson says:

        Howard- It’s funny about the Miller’s Analogy Test. I remember taking it, too, for grad. school entrance (along with the GRE) many moons ago. Somehow I lucked out since I did well on it, but I remember, like you, that you could make out a great case for other than the “right” answer.

        I’m not against testing, per se, just bad tests and the (mis)interpretation of what inferences can be drawn of even good tests and their results. In China, for example, a difference of one point (out of 700 or so) on the entrance exam can mean going to Peking U. (#1 in China) or one of the lesser universities. This has huge “washback effects” on everything that is done in schools and how kids grow up — just striving for that extra one point over your peers. Yes, it goads performance and even more than a little craziness, but at what costs in the pursuit of that one “right” answer.

        Many Chinese think that critical thinking, etc. will come in graduate school, but I have yet to really come across it in my years of consulting there. My judgment (so far) is that their best researchers (in general) do not measure up to our medium-weight state universities, a view shared by my Chinese specialist colleagues at UCLA and UH-Manoa. I will be there again later this month, so I will do a bit more investigating of Chinese perceptions of this issue.

        I have to agree, however, that it is unclear how and whether U.S. students, especially in our high schools, ever become critical thinkers. Clearly, your physics teacher example is an outlier here. I suspect that our best high school teachers imbue our most promising high school students with a passion to learn and excel that is best realized in higher education, not high school. So, I am not sure that we should be too scared right now about the test performance of our 10th graders (who take the international test known as PISA on math, science, and reading). Once the East Asian kids get into their destination university, their tendency is to let loose and play after the exam hell of their secondary years. (There, the faculty are “encouraged” to coddle them.) American kids, in the main, who go to college finally are confronted with the fact that self-esteem no longer cuts it. It is there that they catch up with their East Asian peers or are forced out.

        Below is a link to one of my former doctoral student’s examination of the self-esteem crap in American education. She is right and ruthless in her indictment.


        The Feel-Good Curriculum: The Dumbing Down of America’s Kids in the Name of Self-Esteem – Paperback (Jan. 2001) by Maureen Stout and Ph.D., Maureen Stout
        Buy new: $17.95
        17 new from $9.74
        20 used from $1.34
        Get it by Wednesday, Oct. 13 if you order in the next 10 hours and choose one-day shipping.
        Eligible for FREE Super Saver Shipping.

  8. Jolly says:

    It’s been widely cited that American students performed worse than other counties in standardized tests, especially in math and science.

    Is it any wonder that we do so poorly when the vast majority of the elementary and secondary institutions (especially public ones) and the overwhelming majority of ‘professional educators’ in America frown upon standardized tests. Teacher unions don’t want to be judged by test scores. They don’t want national education standards. They place no emphasis on international exam-based competitions. They favor other means of teaching math and science instead of ‘by rote’ and memorization. They spend classroom time talking about self-esteem that translates into American students (even the ‘high scoring ones’) having an inflated image of themselves. They hand out “my kid is the student of the month/quarter/year’ bumper stickers to any and all parents lest any child feels slighted. They cater to students who don’t speak English instead of teaching them English and then wonder why they have trouble functioning well as adults in a mostly-English America.

    Regardless of how you feel about standardized testing, if we don’t optimize for it in our school systems, is it any wonder that we don’t perform well on tests? In many other countries, students are trained from kindergarten to excel and outperform in tests. In America, standardized test are maligned and dismissed.

    You can either dismiss standardized tests as useless and ignore the fact that we score in the bottom of other comparable industrialized countries or you actually teach to the tests and make scoring well on them an important component of education.

  9. Larry says:

    When I took statistics, one of the first things the professor did was have us look at the SAT and see how well it did what it was supposed to do. Pretty clever way to get freshmen interested, since they had recently endured their SATs and sweated over how it would determine their future.

    What it is SUPPOSED to do is predict how well someone will do in their freshman year of college. As it turns out, it absolutely FAILS to do what it is supposed to do.

    I’m sure every reader here knows why. The SAT cannot predict how much beer a student will drink and whether or not they will bother showing up to class once their parents aren’t there to make them go anymore.

  10. Richard McDaniel says:

    I just discovered this blog. I feel like Diogenes, only I have finally found an honest man.

    One of the awards you left out was the Medal of Honor. I served during the Viet Nam war and I do not support either of the current wars, only those who are serving. The MOH is not given often, none so far in the current conlicts, and there have been many who should have received it but were left out. Those who have received it are heros way beyond any other recognition that can be bestowed imho.

    • hhill51 says:

      Excellent point on the MOH.
      I actually feel that one would be sullied by being compared to the others, which are given by committees judging more prosaic activities. Welcome to the readership. Suggestions for topics, pointers to interesting news, questions and comments are always welcome.

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