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Education

The “Accountability” Problem

May 31st, 2011 // 1:21 pm @

School Reform in 2011

Schools are typically infected by one fad after another, spreading teacher energy around instead of leaving it focused on teaching. One recent and particularly deadly fad has spread under the false name of “accountability.”

On its face, accountability seems obvious and positive. Who wouldn’t want schools to be accountable in such an important role as educating the next generation of young people? But the reality is more complex simply because there are at least two popular meanings of the phrase “educational accountability.”

Accountability has taken over much of our educational debate—accountability to parents, boards, administrators, accreditors, unions, voters, donors, alumni, the media, and various agencies in Washington D.C.

On the one hand, true accountability is a natural need; but false accountability has become a bane of modern education—false accountability has perhaps caused more harm to schools than anything else.

True accountability refers to results—the quality of student learning, pure and simple. Any and every educational institution and system should be accountable in this way. Their students should learn. And after completing a class or graduating from the institution they should exhibit initiative and genuine interest in pursuing more learning.

This is education, and every teacher and curriculum should be accountable to this result.

False Accountability

False accountability, in contrast, covers everything else—statistics, spreadsheets, cost centers, profitability, days and time in the classroom, teacher credentials, manuals, lesson plans, guidelines, athletic and fieldtrip budgets, and a thousand other things which have little correlation with how much and how effectively students learn.

Unfortunately, the term “accountability” as it is used today nearly always refers to the false kind, and in fact it is often wielded specifically to neglect and even directly undermine or attack the true type of accountability.

A teacher who consistently and demonstrably delivers graduates who have learned well and are excited to keep learning at high levels of excellence is told, for example, that she must change her classroom environment to meet the “accepted standards” of classroom time, testing or other arbitrary measures in order to be “accountable.”

Another teacher whose students show little interest in anything and whose academic performance is decidedly sub-par is held up as the example because she turned in all her paperwork on time and has the right master’s degree. These examples, and many similar, are far too often the norm in much of modern education.

In such an environment, false accountability is the nail used to seal the coffin of many of the best and most effective teachers and programs. Anyone who has spent much time in the educational system—unless they are part of the false accountability bureaucracy—can share stories of this sort.

Accountable to Whom?

“Being a teacher is all about politics,” one highly-awarded charter school English teacher told me the year she was asked to “retire” in order to make room for a new teacher with a more prestigious degree. The school had to meet government requirements and a prestigious degree on the new teacher’s resume would, in the estimation of administrators, make all the difference.

What were the results? Test scores went down through the entire school the next year; it is poignant to note that previously, all students in the small charter school studied with the outgoing teacher, and her influence was clearly missed.

If this were an isolated case, it would be sad. Unfortunately, such realities are commonplace to the point of a national tragedy. It seems that each time a new Presidential Administration attempts to legislate more requirements on teachers, the stack of paperwork grows, the percentage of education money going to administrators and their assistants increases, and quality learning slumps once again.

As Jacques Barzun, former Provost of Columbia University, wrote as far back as 1991:

“The lesson is plain. Children want to know how. Teaching helps them to learn how when able people teach. But they must be allowed to do it, with guidance and encouragement as needed, and with the least amount of dictation from outside.

“Teaching is a demanding, often back-breaking job; it should not be done with the energy left over after meetings and pointless paperwork have drained hope and faith in the enterprise. Accountability, the latest cure in vogue, is to be looked for only in results.

“Good teaching is usually well-known to all concerned without questionnaires or approved lesson plans. The number of good teachers who are now shackled by bureaucratic obligations to superiors who know little or nothing about the classroom cannot even be guessed at. They deserve from an Education President an Emancipation Proclamation….

“…the head of a department in a large state university, not a nostalgic elder, but a ranking scholar in mid-career [asked]: ‘Sitting on my desk is a four-volume institutional self-study filled with charts, figures, ‘mission statements’ and the paper from half a forest, but nothing about education except jargon and platitudes. Where have we gone wrong?’”

The “accountability” fad is unfortunately still spreading twenty years later in 2011. Yet the truth remains unchanged:

It is great teaching that creates great education.

Barzun wrote:

“The Army is not considered the most efficient of institutions, but when it finds a deficiency in fire power it does not launch a ‘Right to Shoot Program’ or a ‘Marksmanship Recovery Project.’ It gets the sergeants busy and the instructors out to the rifle range.”

It is time to stop the paperwork, the endless meetings and trainings, the constantly changing curriculum and standardized guidelines and lesson plans, and instead to put proven teachers in the classrooms and give them their head. As long as teachers deliver excellent educational results, we need to get out of their way.

Principal Teachers

The job of Principals (so named because they were originally the “Principal Teachers” in each school) should be to keep students and teachers safe and to keep all outside distractions away from teachers so they share their gifts and their passion, giving full attention to their students.

This would cause a revolution in American education, and the students and their parents would be the winners. It’s time for real accountability in American education, an accountability that encourages, rewards and settles for nothing less than great educational results—and which rejects every other type of “accountability” as mere distraction at best. This can hardly be stated in strong enough terms.

The growing Global Achievement Gap in our schools, as outlined by Tony Wagner’s book of this title, presents an ominous warning for Americans. We can change things if we choose, Wagner says, by adopting the following values and skills (among others) in our school curriculum:

  • critical thinking
  • agility
  • adaptability
  • initiative
  • curiosity
  • imagination
  • entrepreneurialism

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan quoted Wagner in Foreign Affairs:

“…there is a happy ‘convergence between the skills most needed in the global knowledge economy and those most needed to keep our economy safe and vibrant.’” He also foreshadowed the decades ahead by quoting President Obama: “The nation that out-educates us today is going to out-compete us tomorrow.”

What if we had a different goal?

It is difficult to imagine our public schools meeting these lofty needs if our teachers are expected to be anything but entrepreneurial, innovative and agile, when they in fact work in an environment that discourages and at times punishes precisely such behaviors. Entrepreneurial accountability is measured by the bottom line, the results, the outcome.

In contrast, bureaucracy frequently obfuscates the results to avoid losing budget share, instead defining “accountability” in myriad ways—none of which are directly tied to results. As former chancellor of the New York City school system wrote in The Atlantic June 2011 issue:

“Even when making a tenure commitment, under New York law you could not consider a teacher’s impact on student learning.”

Dozens, indeed hundreds of things are counted and accounted for in our schools—but not great teaching and its direct impact on learning. No wonder we have a failing education grade in so many places.

We need a widespread focus on real accountability in modern education, on the things that really matter: how much students are learning, how likely they are to keep learning, and how innovative and effective they are in the real world after they finish school.

This is the only real educational accountability. Everything else is something else, and until we reform education to focus on results we will fail to see the kind of education our children deserve or that our economy increasingly demands. It’s time to call for an accounting of our schools—and to redirect funds (without strings attached) to teachers and schools that are delivering what we want: great students who effectively achieve great education.

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odemille 133x195 custom Egypt, Freedom, & the Cycles of HistoryOliver DeMille is a co-founder of the Center for Social Leadership, and a co-creator of Thomas Jefferson Education.

He is the co-author of the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and USA Today bestseller LeaderShift, and author of A Thomas Jefferson Education: Teaching a Generation of Leaders for the 21st Century, and The Coming Aristocracy: Education & the Future of Freedom.

Oliver is dedicated to promoting freedom through leadership education. He and his wife Rachel are raising their eight children in Cedar City, Utah.

Category : Blog &Education

The Little Fix

May 4th, 2011 // 2:45 pm @

Sometimes small and simple things make all the difference. Malcolm Gladwell called this “the tipping point,” and an old proverb speaks of mere straws “breaking the camel’s back.” In my book FreedomShift I wrote about how three little things could—and should—change everything in America’s future.

Following is a little quote that holds the fix to America’s modern problems. This is a big statement. Many Americans feel that the United States is in decline, that we are facing serious problems and that Washington doesn’t seem capable of taking us in the right direction. People are worried and skeptical. Washington—whichever party is in power—makes promises and then fails to fulfill them.

What should America do? The answer is provided, at least the broad details, in the following quote. The famous Roman thinker Cicero is said to have given us this quote in 55 BC. However, it turns out that this quote was created in 1986 as a newspaper fabrication.[i] Still, the content of the quote carries a lot of truth:

“The budget should be balanced, the Treasury should be refilled, public debt should be reduced, the arrogance of officialdom should be tempered and controlled, and the assistance to foreign lands should be curtailed lest Rome become bankrupt.”

Consider each item:

  • Balance the budget. There are various proposals to do this, nearly all of which require cutting entitlements and also foreign military expenditures. Many do not require raised tax rates. But most Americans would support moderate tax increases if Washington truly gets its outrageous spending habit under control. Paying more taxes in order to see our national debts paid off and our budgets balanced would be worth it—if, and only if, we first witness Washington really fix its spending problem.
  • Refill the Treasury. This is seldom suggested in modern Washington. We have become so accustomed to debt, it seems, that the thought of maintaining a long-term surplus in Washington’s accounts is hardly ever mentioned.
  • Reduce public debt. This is part of various proposals, and is a major goal of many American voters (including independents, who determine presidential elections).
  • Temper and control the arrogance of officialdom. This is seldom discussed, but it is a significant reality in modern America. We have become a society easily swayed by celebrity, and this is bad for freedom.
  • Curtail foreign aid. The official line is that the experts, those who “understand these things,” know why we must continue and even expand foreign aid, and that those who oppose this are uneducated and don’t understand the realities of the situation. The reality, however, is that the citizenry does understand that we can’t spend more than we have. Period. The experts would do well to figure this out.

The question boils down to this: Is the future of America a future of freedom or a future of big government? Our generation must choose.

The challenge so far is that the American voter wants less expensive government but also big-spending government programs. Specifically, we want government to stop spending for programs which benefit other people, but to keep spending for programs that benefit us directly.[ii] We want taxes left the same or decreased for us, but raised on others. We want small business to create more jobs, but we want small businesspeople to pay higher taxes (we don’t want to admit that by paying higher taxes they’ll naturally need to reduce the number of jobs they offer).

The modern American citizen wants the government programs “Rome” can offer, but we want someone else to pay for it. We elect leaders who promise smaller government, and then vote against them when they threaten a government program we enjoy.

Over time, however, we are realizing that we can’t have it both ways. We are coming to grips with the reality that to get our nation back on track we’ll need to allow real cuts that hurt. The future of America depends on how well we stick to our growing understanding that our government must live within its means.

[i] Discussed in Gary Shapiro, The Comeback: How Innovation Will Restore The American Dream.

[ii] See Meet the Press, April 24, 2011.

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odemille 133x195 custom A Case for InnovationOliver DeMille is a co-founder of the Center for Social Leadership, and a co-creator of Thomas Jefferson Education.

He is the co-author of the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and USA Today bestseller LeaderShift, and author of A Thomas Jefferson Education: Teaching a Generation of Leaders for the 21st Century, and The Coming Aristocracy: Education & the Future of Freedom.

Oliver is dedicated to promoting freedom through leadership education. He and his wife Rachel are raising their eight children in Cedar City, Utah.

Category : Blog &Citizenship &Culture &Economics &Education &Foreign Affairs &Generations &Government &History

The Clash of Two Cultures

April 26th, 2011 // 8:30 am @

America is in the midst of a major clash of two cultures. Most of the rich world, and the developing world as well, are experiencing the same challenge.

This contest is seldom cooperative, often violent, and increasingly heated. It has the passion of the age-old class debate between the rich and the middle classes, the political angst of Republican versus Democrat, or the intensity of Cold War America versus the Soviet Union. It is much more obsessive than raging sports rivalries which so many Americans have experienced.

This conflict is intellectual in nature, though its results are physical, economic and substantive. There have been such intellectual battles before, such as conservatism versus liberalism. But, given human nature, the conservative-progressive debate seldom gained the zeal or ardor of Democratic fights with Republicans. Somehow having professionals who make their living promoting each opposing side drastically intensifies the natural belligerence of skirmishing viewpoints. In fact, it has been intellectual wars that caused the greatest conflicts of history—from strife between religions to capitalism versus communism.

The sides of this new war are conformity and innovation. This may at first sound less hostile than some struggles, but it would be a mistake to underestimate this issue. It is remaking the world as we know it.

Of course, those who support conformity have been around for a long time. And innovation has always been a rowdy, if lucrative, minority movement. Ironically, the leaders of conformity have typically come from the upper classes—nearly all of whose wealth, family legacy, and status was created by one or more ancestral innovator(s). Innovation breeds growth, wealth, success and status. The old parable of the tree house, as told to me by a partner of a major Los Angeles law firm, is applicable: build the tree house, then kick out the ladder so only those you personally select can ever come up.

Of course, the extreme of either side is—as extremes tend to be—worse than the moderate of either. Pure innovation with no regard for the lessons of history is just as bad as dogmatic conformity without openness, toleration or creativity. When I speak here of Innovation I mean a bent toward innovation within the proven rules of happiness and wisdom, and by Conformity I mean a focus on fitting in but with some open-mindedness in times of challenge. Note that even these two moderate styles are almost polar opposites.

Nearly all of our schools have a hidden, compulsory curriculum of training for conformity, and innovative teachers or institutions are pressured to become like the rest or face widespread official rebuke. The classic movie Dead Poet’s Society portrays this well.

Our universities follow this pattern more often than not, as do most institutions in our society. Entrepreneurship, for example, which is the catalyst of nearly all great business growth, is considered “lesser” by most business students and MBA programs. Many great companies were founded and built by individuals whose resumes would not get past the first glance in personnel departments of those same corporations today. And, indeed, the company’s biggest competitors are likely to be led by innovative thinkers and leaders who likewise wouldn’t get a job at the company (too many Ivy League MBA’s to compete with).

A quick read of the bestselling Rich Dad, Poor Dad shows how these two mindsets sometimes present themselves in families. But these two cultures are found at all social levels and in every geographical setting. Blue-collar working fathers are as likely to spout conforming rules as silver-spoon fathers: “This is just how things are; so you better get used to it!” “But, dad…” “Don’t contradict me. The world is what the world is! I’m telling you how things are!”

Such rigid thinking is a symptom of the widespread doctrine of conformity. It rules in many families, communities, businesses, schools, churches, nations, associations—indeed, almost everywhere. It is, in fact, on the throne in nearly every setting and society. It has the benefit of learning from the best lessons of the past, but it seems to chronically ignore the lesson that innovation is both advantageous and desired.

Futurist Alvin Toffler argued that our schools will not be competitive in the world economy unless we replace rote memorization, fitting in, and getting the “right” answer with things like independent thinking, leadership practice, creativity and entrepreneurialism. Several of Harvard’s educational scholars and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have made the same point—repeatedly.

But our schools are run on conformity, and until we promote innovators to educational leadership such changes will be rare. And when we do put innovators in charge, the attacks from entrenched powers are incessant.

Likewise, our economic experts are those who conform to the “accepted” analyses—economists with divergent, and often more accurate, predictions based on innovative models are given little press by the conformist economics, academic and media professions.

I have long suggested that the way to fix American education is to get truly great teachers in more of our classrooms. But innovative teachers often don’t fit in the bureaucratic school systems. Many of the best teachers leave schools simply because they can’t innovate in a conformist system.

An article by Tim Kane in The Atlantic noted:

“Why are so many of the most talented officers now abandoning military life for the private sector? An exclusive survey of West Point graduates shows that it’s not just money. Increasingly, the military is creating a command structure that rewards conformism and ignores merit. As a result, it’s losing its vaunted ability to cultivate entrepreneurs in uniform.”

This seems indicative of our entire culture right now. Conformity is winning far too often. Companies and organizations which elect to encourage the innovative side of the debate are seeing huge success, but this is taking many of the “best and brightest” away from academia, the public sector and the United States to more entrepreneurial-minded environments in private companies and international firms.

In far too many cases, we kill the human spirit with rules of bureaucratic conformity and then lament the lack of creativity, innovation, initiative and growth. We are angry with companies that take their jobs abroad, but refuse to become the kind of employees that would guarantee their stay. We beg our political leaders to fix things, but don’t take initiative to build entrepreneurial solutions that are profitable and impactful.

The future belongs to those who buck these trends. These are the innovators, the entrepreneurs, the creators, what Chris Brady has called the Rascals. We need more of them. Of course, not every innovation works and not every entrepreneur succeeds, but without more of them our society will surely decline. Listening to some politicians in Washington, from both parties, it would appear we are on the verge of a new era of conformity! “Better regulations will fix everything,” they affirm.

The opposite is true. Unless we create and embrace a new era of innovation, we will watch American power decline along with numbers of people employed and the prosperity of our middle and lower classes. So next time your son, daughter, employee or colleague comes to you with an exciting idea or innovation, bite your tongue before you snap them back to conformity.

The future of our freedom and prosperity depends on innovative thinking, and the innovation we need may be in the mind of your fifteen-year-old son or your husband, wife or employee. This battle will ultimately be fought in families, where youth get their fundamental cultural leaning—toward either conformity, seeking popularity and impressing others or, in contrast, creativity, initiative, and innovation.

Thomas Jefferson Education is naturally pointed toward innovation, but it is up to parents, mentors and teachers to implement this leadership skill. I invite all to join this battle, and to join it firmly committed to the side of innovation. Do whatever you can to encourage innovation and be skeptical of rote conformity. That’s a change that could literally change everything.

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odemille 133x195 custom Obamas EconomyOliver DeMille is a co-founder of the Center for Social Leadership, and a co-creator of Thomas Jefferson Education.

He is the co-author of the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and USA Today bestseller LeaderShift, and author of A Thomas Jefferson Education: Teaching a Generation of Leaders for the 21st Century, and The Coming Aristocracy: Education & the Future of Freedom.

Oliver is dedicated to promoting freedom through leadership education. He and his wife Rachel are raising their eight children in Cedar City, Utah.

Category : Blog &Business &Culture &Education &Family &Government &Independents &Leadership

The Freud Doctrine

April 21st, 2011 // 7:35 am @

Freud has too much power in our current world. Those who practice in the mental health fields know that little of Freud is still used in modern psychology; and most others only read Freud, if at all, from a few selected readings in a basic psychology course from college. But Freud’s lasting legacy comes from another source—one that has significantly influenced our modern world in ways little understood.

Freud’s view of reality and truth dominates much of the modern world, even among people who have never closely read or studied his writings. One glaring example can be found in Freud’s teachings about science.

He wrote that science:

“…asserts that there is no other source of knowledge of the universe, but the intellectual manipulation of carefully verified observations, in fact, what is called research, and that no knowledge can be obtained from revelation, intuition, or inspiration.

“It is inadmissible to declare, that science is one field of human intellectual activity, and that religion and philosophy are others, at least as valuable, and that science has no ability to interfere with the other two, that they all have an equal claim to truth, and that everyone is free to choose whence he shall draw his conviction and in which he shall place his belief.

“Such an attitude is considered particularly respectable, tolerant, broad-minded, and free from narrow prejudices. Unfortunately, it is not tenable…. The bare fact is that truth cannot be tolerant and cannot admit compromise or limitations, that scientific research looks on the whole field of human activity as its own, and must adopt an uncompromisingly critical attitude towards any other power that seeks to usurp any part of its province.”

In short: In the Freudian worldview, science is the only source of truth for any and all fields of knowledge, and it must take “an uncompromisingly critical attitude” toward any other source of knowledge.  We might call this The Freud Doctrine.

The debates between “science” and “religion” are well known. In fairness, religion has often taken half of the same stance—that God’s wisdom applies to all areas of knowledge—and at times even the second half of the model—that religion should therefore have a critical attitude toward science and other sources of knowledge. Indeed, the injustices heaped upon Copernicus and Galileo, among others, are clear examples of church overreach into the works of science.

But it is Freud’s argument that science is above philosophy that has perhaps had the most negative impact on modern politics and society. Science gets its knowledge through experimentation, and it has become a field dominated by experts and specialists. Most religions claim knowledge through revealed writings, and they are also nearly all subject to the authority of official leaders. Indeed, the professionals of science and religion have long battled each other in many arenas.

In contrast, philosophy, as much as it had accepted leaders in ancient times, is now wide open to the masses. Freud’s attack on philosophy therefore amounts in our day to a decree that the common sense of the regular citizen and the reason of the average person must be overseen by the “true” and “accepted” wisdom of the experts—who, of course, base their conclusions on research, scientific methodology and therefore “real truth” rather than the “inferior thinking of the common man.”

Whether Freud meant by “philosophy” the work of philosophy professionals in the academy or the daily reason of the people is irrelevant; in our time a literal elite class of professionals, experts and officials apply his teaching like a prime directive—without questioning assumptions and with immediate rancor for any who question the dogma of the primacy of scientific research. “The Freud Doctrine” is a reality in our world.

There are a number of problems with The Freud Doctrine, the idea that only the professionals and experts understand the truth because only they rely entirely on credible research, and that the rational thought of non-experts and the non-credentialed (and even those with prestigious credentials whose conclusions are outside the expert consensus) is simply inferior.

First, this idea isn’t even internally consistent. For example, the accepted experts in this model systemically disagree with each other—the top experts in the social sciences, hard sciences and mathematical fields often come up with widely divergent conclusions as they attempt to deal with a given problem. At a deeper level, few mathematical schools of thought agree on many of the basics, and the gaps in agreement between biologists, chemists and physicists are legendary. Add the practical fields like medicine and engineering, and the conflicts are epic. How can we truly trust the experts when so many of them disagree on so much?

Second, on a logical level, the Freudian-based worldview isn’t even tenable. For example, Freud’s insistence that only experimental knowledge has any basis of truth, that everything else is “not tenable” and must be resisted in “intolerant” and “uncompromising” ways, leaves out at least two important fields of knowledge that are highly credible in the modern perspective: mathematics and logic. Put simply, neither mathematics nor logic is experimental. In fact, all the major arguments against using religion or reason to find truth also discredit the validity of logic and math. Yet the modern faith in experts includes mathematics and formal logic along with the hard sciences.

Third, and this is the most significant problem with the modern system of leaving our leadership to the experts, this approach hasn’t worked very well. As David Brooks wrote in The Social Animal:

“Since 1983 we’ve reformed the education system again and again, yet more than a quarter of high-school students drop out, even though all rational incentives tell them not to. We’ve tried to close the gap between white and black achievement, but have failed. We’ve spent a generation enrolling more young people in college without understanding why so many don’t graduate.

“One could go on: We’ve tried feebly to reduce widening inequality. We’ve tried to boost economic mobility. We’ve tried to stem the tide of children raised in single-parent homes. We’ve tried to reduce the polarization that marks our politics. We’ve tried to ameliorate the boom-and-bust cycle of our economics. In recent decades, the world has tried to export capitalism to Russia, plant democracy in the Middle East, and boost development in Africa. And the results of these efforts are mostly disappointing.

“The failures have been marked by a single feature: Reliance on an overly simplistic view of human nature. Many of these policies were based on the shallow social-science model of human behavior. Many of the policies were proposed by wonks who are comfortable only with traits and correlations that can be measured and quantified.”

There are many other examples. Legislatures have trusted experts, the citizenry has trusted experts and legislators, and the results have been less than exemplary. When policy is based on research and experimentation, common sense is sparsely applied and, it turns out, desperately needed.

This is not an indictment of science. Most scientists would observe the limp results of too much Ivory Towerism and alter their hypotheses and policies. The major problem with The Freud Doctrine as it has evolved to date is that our policies give full lip service to science, use the gravitas of “science” to shut down views from religion or art or worst of all common reason, and then ignore science as it becomes entirely politicized in our legislatures and especially in bureaucratic implementation and judicial oversight.

The tragedy is that the whole process flies above the active participation of the common citizen. After all, unless you are a professional scientist or researcher, Freud’s system has discredited anything you have to add. Professional politicians get around this by citing the experts, as do professional journalists. But the citizens—they are relegated to the gallery, where they are told to observe as long as they stay quiet and don’t disturb the process.

The Internet has changed all this, or at least it has started the change. The experts (predictably) complain that much of what is written online doesn’t meet rigorous scientific standards. Thank goodness for that! The shift is evoking the return of a long-underutilized human ability among the regular citizenry—listening to and learning truth from analytical reason. Lots of the online analysis is shallow, misleading or false, which causes readers to turn on their reason and really think things through. A new period of deep-thinking citizens is emerging.

The war between “truth by experts” and “truth from widespread individual reason” (Freud vs. Jefferson) has just begun, but the results seem inevitable. Barring a shut-down of open dialogue, the future of independent thinking and the freedom it usually engenders is bright.

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odemille 133x195 custom Is America a Democracy, Republic, or Empire?Oliver DeMille is a co-founder of the Center for Social Leadership, and a co-creator of Thomas Jefferson Education.

He is the co-author of the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and USA Today bestseller LeaderShift, and author of A Thomas Jefferson Education: Teaching a Generation of Leaders for the 21st Century, and The Coming Aristocracy: Education & the Future of Freedom.

Oliver is dedicated to promoting freedom through leadership education. He and his wife Rachel are raising their eight children in Cedar City, Utah.


Category : Blog &Culture &Education &Generations &Government &Leadership &Postmodernism

The Social Animal

April 20th, 2011 // 7:31 am @

A review of the book The Social Animal: A Story of Love, Character and Achievement by David Brooks

There are at least three major types of writing. The first might be called Shakespeare’s method, which includes the telling of stories with deep symbolic and archetypal lessons. Many of the great world religious texts used this approach. The Greeks referred to this as poetry, though the meaning of “poetry” is much more limited in modern usage. In the contemporary world we often call this type of writing fiction, though this is a misnomer since the stories used are not actually untrue—they are, many of them, literally true, and nearly all of them are symbolically true. This could also be called the Inspirational style of writing.

A second kind of writing can be summarized as Tocqueville’s method, or the philosopher’s style. Called prose, non-fiction, or editorializing, this type of literature consists of the author sharing her views, thoughts, questions, analyses and conclusions. Writers in this style see no need to document or prove their points, but they do make a case for their ideas. This way of writing gave the world many of the great classics of human history—in many fields of thought spanning the arts, sciences, humanities and practical domains. This writing is Authoritative in style, meaning that the author is interested mostly in ideas (rather than proof or credibility) and writes as her own authority on what she is thinking.

The third sort of writing, what I’ll call Einstein’s method, attempts to prove its conclusions using professional language and appealing to reason, experts or other authority. Most scientific works, textbooks, and research-based books on a host of topics apply this method. The basis of such writing is to clearly show the reader the sources of assumptions, the progress of the author’s thinking, and the basis behind each conclusion. Following the scientific method, this modern “Objective” style of writing emphasizes the credibility of the conclusions—based on the duplicable nature of the research and the rigorous analysis and deduction. There are few leaps of logic in this kind of prose.

Each type of writing has its masters, and all offer valuable contributions to the great works of human literature. This is so obvious that it hardly needs to be said, but we live in a world where the third, Objective, style of writing is the norm and anything else is often considered inferior. Such a conclusion, ironically, is not a scientifically proven fact. Indeed, how can science prove that anything open to individual preference and taste is truly “best?” For example, such greats as Churchill, Solzhenitsyn and Allan Bloom (author of The Closing of the American Mind) have shown that “Tocqueville’s” style is still of great value in modern times—as do daily op eds in our leading newspapers and blogs. Likewise, our greatest plays, movies and television programs demonstrate that the Shakespearean method still has great power in our world.

That said, David Brooks’ new book The Social Animal: A Story of Love, Character and Achievement manages to combine all three styles in one truly moving work. I have long considered Brooks one of my favorite authors. I assigned his book Bobos in Paradaise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There as an undergraduate and graduate college text for several years, and I have recommended his book On Paradise Drive to many students and executives who wanted to understand American and modern culture. In one of the best descriptions of our society ever written, he outlined the new realities experienced by the “average” American citizen, who he called “Patio Man.” I have also enjoyed many of his editorials in The New York Times—and the ongoing, albeit unofficial and indirect, “debate” between his columns and those of Thomas L. Friedman, Paul Krugman, George Will and, occasionally, Peggy Noonan.

The Social Animal is, in my opinion, his best work to date. In fact, it is downright brilliant. I am not suggesting that it approaches Shakespeare, of course. But who does? Still, the stories in The Social Animal flow like Isaac Asimov meets Ayn Rand.  It doesn’t boast deep scientific technical writing, as Brooks himself notes. Indeed, Brooks doesn’t even attempt to produce a great Shakespearean or scientific classic. But he does effectively weave the three great styles of writing together, and in the realm of philosophical writing this book is similar to Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. The content of the book, in fact, is as close as we may ever see to a 21st century update to Tocqeville (1830s) and Bryce (1910s).

I know this is high praise, and in our modern era with its love of objective analysis, such strong language is suspect in “educated” circles. But my words are not hyperbole. This is an important book. It is one of the most important books we’ve seen in years—probably since Fareed Zakaria’s The Post-American World or Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind. This book is in the same class as Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations, Strauss and Howe’s The Fourth Turning, or Philip Bobbitt’s The Shield of Achilles. It is as significant as any article in Foreign Affairs since Richard Gardner’s writings. It reads like Steven Pinker channelling Alexis de Tocqueville. The language is, well, beautiful, but beautiful in the modern sense, like the writings of Laura Munson or Sandra Tsing Loh.

The book also manages to bridge political views—I think liberals will find it moving and conservatives will find it convincing. It is not exactly Centrist, but neither is it patently Right nor Left. It will appeal to independents and people from all political perspectives. If it has a political leaning, it is the party of Common Sense—backed by meticulous research.

Moreover, The Social Animal clouds typical publishing stereotypes. I’m not sure where big bookstores will shelve it. It is a book on culture, politics, education, and career. It is a book about entertainment, marriage and language. It is about the upper, middle and lower classes in modern American society, how they interrelate and what challenges are ahead as they clash. It is about current events and future challenges. It is, above all, a book about success. It goes well beyond books on Habits or The Secret or even “Acres of Diamonds.”

As Brooks himself put it:

“Over the centuries, zillions of books have been written about how to succeed. But these tales are usually told on the surface level of life. They describe the colleges people get into, the professional skills they acquire, the conscious decisions they make, and the tips and techniques they adopt to build connections and get ahead. These books often focus on an outer definition of success, having to do with IQ, wealth, prestige, and worldly accomplishments.

“This story [The Social Animal] is told one level down. This success story emphasizes the role of the inner mind—the unconscious realm of emotions, intuitions, biases, longings….

“…we are not primarily the products of our conscious thinking. We are primarily the products of thinking that happens below the level of awareness.”

Brooks argues:

“The research being done today reminds us of the relative importance of emotion over pure reason, social connections over individual choice, character over IQ, emergent, organic systems over linear, mechanistic ones, and the idea that we have multiple selves over the idea that we have a single self.”

The book deals with such intriguing topics as:

  • Modern dating and courtship
  • Today’s marriages and what makes them succeed—or not
  • The scientific versus popular views of child development
  • Cultural trends such as global-warming awareness assemblies in high schools
  • The scientific foundations of violence
  • The kind of decision-making that leads to success versus mediocrity and failure
  • A veritable manual for success in college
  • The powerful leadership techniques of priming, anchoring, framing, limerance, fractals, metis and multiparadigm teams, among others (it is worth reading the book just for this)
  • How to “ace” job interviews
  • The new phases of life progression
  • Effectively starting a new business—the steps, techniques, values and needed character traits
  • Leadership in the modern corporation
  • How to win a revolution by only making a call for small reforms
  • The effectiveness of a talent for oversimplification
  • The supreme power of a life’s viewpoint

The Social Animal struck a personal note with me because it brilliantly describes the true process of great mentoring that more of our teachers need to adopt and that I wrote about with Tiffany Earl in our book The Student Whisperer. I have seldom seen truly great teaching described better.

This book is primarily about success—specifically success in our complex modern world—but at a deeper level it is about happiness. Brooks writes:

We still have admissions committees that judge people by IQ measures and not by practical literacy. We still have academic fields that often treat human beings as rational utility-maximizing individuals. Modern society has created a giant apparatus for the cultivation of the hard skills, while failing to develop the moral and emotional faculties down below. Children are coached on how to jump through a thousand scholastic hoops. Yet by far the most important decisions they will make are about whom to marry and whom to befriend, what to love and what to despise, and how to control impulses. On these matters, they are almost entirely on their own. We are good at talking about material incentives, but bad about talking about emotions and intuitions. We are good at teaching technical skills, but when it comes to the most important things, like character, we have almost nothing to say.

The book, like any true “classic” (and I am convinced this will be one), is deep and broad. It includes such gems as:

  • “The food at their lunch was terrible, but the meal was wonderous.”
  • “For example, six-month-old babies can spot the different facial features of different monkeys, even though, to adults, they all look the same.”
  • In his high school, “…life was dominated by a universal struggle for admiration.”
  • “The students divided into the inevitable cliques, and each clique had its own individual pattern of behavior.”
  • “Fear of exclusion was his primary source of anxiety.”
  • “Erica decided that in these neighborhoods you could never show weakness. You could never back down or compromise.”
  • “In middle class country, children were raised to go to college. In poverty country they were not.”
  • Jim Collins “…found that many of the best CEOs were not flamboyant visionaries. They were humble, self-effacing, diligent, and resolute souls who found one thing they were really good at and did it over and over again. They did not spend a lot of time on internal motivational campaigns. They demanded discipline and efficiency.”
  • “Then a quiet voice could be heard from the other end of the table. ‘Leave her alone.’ It was her mother. The picnic table went silent.”
  • “Erica resolved that she would always try to stand at the junction between two mental spaces. In organizations, she would try to stand at the junction of two departments, or fill in the gaps between departments.”
  • “School asks students to be good at a range of subjects, but life asks people to find one passion that they will do forever.”
  • “His missions had been clearly marked: get good grades, make the starting team, make adults happy. Ms. Taylor had introduced a new wrinkle into his life—a love of big ideas.”
  • “…if Steve Jobs had come out with an iWife, they would have been married on launch day.”
  • “Epistemological modesty is the knowledge of how little we know and can know.”

There are so many more gems of wisdom. For example, Brooks notes that in current culture there is a new phase of life. Most of today’s parents and grandparents grew up in a world with four life phases, including “childhood, adolescence, adulthood and old age.” Today’s young will experience at least six phases, Brooks suggests: childhood, adolescence, odyssey, adulthood, active retirement, and old age.

While many parents expect their 18- and 19-year-old children to go directly from adolescence to the adult life of leaving home and pursuing their own independent life and a marriage relationship, their children are surprising (and confusing) them by embracing their odyssey years: living at home, then wandering, then back home for a time, taking a long time to “play around” with their education before getting serious about preparing for a career, and in general enjoying their youthful freedom. Most parents are convinced they’re kids are wasting their lives when in fact this is the new normal.

The odyssey years actually make a lot of sense. The young “…want the security and stability adulthood brings, but they don’t want to settle into a daily grind. They don’t want to limit their spontaneity or put limits on their dreams.” Parents can support this slower pace with two thoughts: 1) the kids usually turn out better because they don’t force themselves to grow up too fast like earlier generations did, and 2) the parents get to enjoy a similar kind of relaxed state in the “active retirement phase.”

Most odysseys pursue life in what Brooks calls The Group—a small team of friends who help each other through this transition. Members of a Group talk a lot, play together, frequently engage entrepreneurial or work ventures with each other, and fill the role of traditional families during this time of transition. Even odysseys who live at home for a time usually spend much of their time with their Group.

This book is full of numerous other ideas, stories, studies, and commentaries. It is the kind of reading that you simply have to mark up with a highlighter on literally every page.

Whether you agree or disagree with the ideas in this book—or, hopefully, both—it is a great read. Not a good read, but a great one. Some social conservatives may dislike certain things such as the language used by some characters or the easy sexuality of some college students, and some liberals may question the realistic way characters refuse to accept every politically-correct viewpoint in society—but both are accurate portrayals of many people in our current culture.

The Social Animal may not remain on the classics list as long as Democracy in America, but it could. At the very least, it is as good a portrayal of modern society as Rousseau’s Emile was in its time. It provides a telling, accurate and profound snapshot of American life at the beginning of the 21st Century. Reading it will help modern Americans know themselves at a much deeper level.

This is a book about many things, including success and happiness as mentioned above. But it is also a classic book on freedom, and on how our society defines freedom in our time. As such, it is an invaluable source to any who care about the future of freedom. Read this book to see where we are, where we are headed, and how we need to change. The Social Animal is required reading for leaders in all sectors and for people from all political persuasions who want to see freedom flourish in the 21st century.

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odemille 133x195 custom Is America a Democracy, Republic, or Empire?Oliver DeMille is a co-founder of the Center for Social Leadership, and a co-creator of Thomas Jefferson Education.

He is the co-author of the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and USA Today bestseller LeaderShift, and author of A Thomas Jefferson Education: Teaching a Generation of Leaders for the 21st Century, and The Coming Aristocracy: Education & the Future of Freedom.

Oliver is dedicated to promoting freedom through leadership education. He and his wife Rachel are raising their eight children in Cedar City, Utah.


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