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?
Academy Award (Oscar)
Cy Young Award
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.]