Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Equality, morality and quality among kids and beyond

Few days ago I was flipping the  January 2013 issue of Smithsonian magazine. There I got this exciting article- Are babies born good? New research offers surprising answers to the age-old question of where morality comes from. Yes, babies are born with basic morality and ability to differentiate between 'right' and 'wrong'.

It reminded me of a discussion on whether to be strict to our kids to make them more quality conscious or follow the current tradition of encouraging our kids for whatever they do. Now majority parents in countries like the US encourage their kids even for a very sloppy job and say awesome. Does that “awesome culture” increase the chance of future success by boosting confidence or encourage kids to continue sloppy work that need to be criticized to encourage him/her to do better or help him/her to try something else? Of course, I do not buy the extreme of “tiger mother” concept prescribed by Prof Amy Chua in her controversial book “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother”. In fact, Prof Chua’s portrayal of typical Chinese mother is becoming less common among Chinese mothers these days. More compelling evidence of why Prof Chua may not be right comes from the fact that countries like India and China where such 'tiger mom' culture is perceived to be more prevalent, do not do well to promote leadership, original thinking and minimize high level of corruption in public lives. Both the countries rank at the very bottom so far creativity and innovation are concerned. The more intriguing question for me is- what should be the right proportion of criticism and encouragement.

I do acknowledge the power of praise and encouragement to make our kids more confident. But we often forget that our praise need to be sincere and with reason. We just cannot keep on saying 'awesome', 'great' in a casual fashion without showing much interest or have time to evaluate what the kid has done. If a kid is intelligent enough to understand 'right' and 'wrong' from a very early age, s/he probably understands what a genuine praise is and what is just a habit. Nonetheless they are confused to evaluate their work and take the easy way of congratulating themselves for even a sloppy job.

Now coming to a trickier issue. Does confidence really breeds success? Evidently mere high confidence does not breed success. But our effort to make our kids more confident resulted in "narcissism epidemic", at least in USA. Few recent studies concluded that narcissistic attitude among US students are increasing since 1979. Many factors are blamed for that trend, including "parenting styles, celebrity culture, social media and access to easy credit, which allows people to appear more successful than they are". It has been concluded that "there is very little evidence that raising self-esteem leads to tangible, positive outcomes."

Few probable consequences are- increasing dominance of mediocrity in almost every field of life, consolidation of wealth and power in fewer hands with decreasing social mobility. Published data show that rate of innovation and invention is slowing. Nobel Prize winning US economist Joseph Stiglitz recently said, "The US has one of the worst opportunity rates of any of the advanced economies. A child's life chances are more dependent on the income of his or her parents than most other industrial economies".

Now success depends more on networking, ability to agree with majority than raw talent and ability to solve problems. One can gauge this trend more clearly in social networking sites like Facebook. Number of ‘like’ depend more on who is posting it, rather than its relevance or quality. It can also be argued that many people who have less knowledge and/or critical thinking tend to give 'expert' opinions. Such opinions are readily available to others by virtue of media and internet. Higher acceptance or 'agreeability' can give rise to a sense of confidence and seemingly more influence among peers with  long term consequences in democratic societies. The same media, internet and social networking sites also make common people aware that some of our leaders, famous public figures, top executives are no genius. Sycophancy, nepotism, stealing ideas, telling lies are not taboos anymore but a ‘desired’ character for increasing number of people to become successful. People who succeeded via that route are less likely to accept constructive criticism or failure. That puts extra pressure among colleagues, junior staff and students. The trend is expanding due to increasing reach of news-hungry media and internet. More we know about our ‘leaders’ more we tend to think that s/he is just one of us, nothing special. If others consider that person a genius, then I’m no less a genius! Recently I watched a news report on famous american president, John F Kennedy (JFK). It included some of his affairs, mainly with a former white house intern Mimi Alford. Few people who were previously fond of JFK started 'severely disliking' him after they came to know JFK more intimately. Such reversal of fortune, erosion of public faith will continue to rise as internet and other media coverage increases its reach and investigative ability. 

It’s yet to be proved if increasing reach of internet and other media add or counter-balance its power to promote mediocrity in the name of talent in this era of reality shows. But we can be reasonably assured that increased scrutiny would help to promote transparency. Evidences now indicate that social media is making us more honest. Now many well groomed people, ambitious enough to succeed and occupy influential positions would try avoiding such media scrutiny and taking extra precaution to leave less digital footprint.

Some of our great leaders like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln did not have formal education. But lately most US presidents are coming from privileged background with Ivy League university degrees while past US presidents were from all over the country and from different colleges and universities. Of course, I’m not talking about Obama. I consider him as a rare exception in this regard. The trend deteriorated further after Ronald Reagan, who practically transformed US education mainly higher education, to another for-profit industry. It does not seem to be a mere coincidence that all the US presidents are from Yale or Harvard since 1980s. One can observe the same trend for many influential positions in US, including supreme court judges. All nine current supreme court judges in US are from either Harvard or Yale, except one (justice Alito). 

It's not so surprising that quality of education, which is considered the silver bullet for social mobility and fulfilling the so-called ‘American dream’, is deteriorating. Education is becoming more of manufacturing workers and consumers than to groom a complete human being with the ability to understand the difference between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ to act accordingly. Now money and influence plays a more important role in deciding college admission (12). Such students enjoy even more competitive edge in admission in very selective and costly Ivy League universities where many of our current leaders in both corporate and government sector  now comes from. The famous book, "The Price of Admission" by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Daniel Golden shows, "how America’s ruling class buys its way into elite colleges and universities – and who gets left outside the gates".

Einstein once said, “everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid”. It’s not that hard to understand the consequences of encouraging a fish to think that it is equally talented to climb a tree. The situation gets worse if climbing tree is far more financially rewarding than swimming. In that situation, many parents will try to coerce their fish-kids to climb. The culture of imposed equality may not be that great to infuse a sense of quality and mentor talent. Deliberate or not, it seems to help kids from privileged background who are destined to be 'successful' irrespective of their ability and talent at the cost of the society and the nation in the long run. I'm not sure though if infatuation to wealth management and not wealth creation by talented or ambitious students since last few decades is related to it.

We seem to destroy the in-born morality that I told earlier. More people feel less ashamed  to accept awards/scholarships/credit that they don't deserve. The tendency probably continues when such kids grow up and occupy influential positions, be it in academic-research, corporate management or public policy. It probably makes a run-of-the-mill decent worker but not a natural leader who is able to earn respect and lead effectively.

Now we live in an increasingly smaller global village with more aggressive news media, increasing reach of internet and social networking sites. People feel comfortable with mediocrity. Many people don't like to take the pain to find out what they are good at, what they love to do (particularly if that is not financially rewarding) but prefer to impose themselves on a subject that they are not so good at. Best prepared candidates are not always the best or most talented ones to succeed. Gradually talent is replaced by mediocrity. More kids are groomed with that objective. They are less encouraged to excel what they are good at if that does not fit the objective. We see its consequence more clearly during selection of top bureaucrats in India through, arguably, the most competitive selection processes in the world with less than 0.3% success rate. Yet  ‘Indian bureaucracy the worst in Asia’.

We can see its influence not only in schools, universities and screening for a specific career but also in many other forums and cultural programs. Many, if not majority, cultural organizations promote children and adults who have proper connections or influence. Such parents feel elated simply by seeing themselves, their spouses and children on the stage. Many times we witness reduction of performance time even for expensive artists from abroad to accommodate such whims of influential members. They seem to be totally ignorant on the larger implications of such act of nepotism. Many organizers of such programs proudly assert that cultivating equality, mass participation is the goal; not promoting talent or leadership. The sense of justice, professional ethics are severely damaged for the kids too. Talented kids are not only demoralized but also start accepting corruption and nepotism as part of life, as the main (sometimes, only) criteria to be recognized and enjoy what they are good at. They too will try to take advantage of the same in areas where they are not so good at. 

In a sense, imposition of equality helps maintaining the status-quo. It encourages people who believe in dynasties, give effort to establish their children towards same success and power. We need to keep in mind that kids from privileged families sometimes are under more pressure to succeed. Regular evaluation, defeat in the hands of more talented student help such kids to accept defeat,  remain humble and empathetic. It help promoting talent, grooming worthy leaders. 

No, I am not suggesting that kids from privileged families cannot be good or genius. Yes, they have equal probability to excel. We need to encourage students who are good- irrespective of his/her background. I believe that every child has talent. We must acknowledge specific talent and not lower the bar to make almost everyone feel like a genius. Students who cannot see the bigger picture start believing that if many mediocre people become so successful then why not they. In the long run, the rot will become clearer in form of deterioration of governance, declining ability to innovate and invent, erosion of product quality (both goods and creative art) resulting deterioration of industrial competitiveness, and overall quality of life. It's impact will be on whole society, including our children. Many of us often forget that we and our own children, who may not be that excellent in a specific area, would have a far more productive and happier life if s/he is under a competent professional and governed by an able leader- academic, corporate or political. 

Coming from a developing country, l personally feel little worried witnessing the same trend in a developed country like the USA.

Shorter URL:

** Modified version of the blog is published in one of the most influential science and technology policy forums in USA, Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes (CSPO) at Arizona State University and Washington DC. 


  1. Conditioning of some sort takes place from such a young age that a child's fundamental nature becomes clouded... of course environment matters.

    For me it was interesting to know that even on the kindergarten playground most kids exhibit a strong preference to befriend white race children rather than black or indian (UK study).. these attitudes are imbibed much earlier than one would think.

  2. Anonymous9:45 AM

    Excellent thought provoking article. I was wondering why US is not doing so well lately. Why influence of religious fundamentalism so high; deterioration of education and research, public health , gun culture, political polarization so prevalent here.

  3. Anonymous2:10 PM

    Agreed 100% and well written. But I am clueless how to reverse the flow. In today’s market it is impossible to get a job without contacts as most people who are making decision don’t know what they want and going through the easy way – using contacts. Look around your relatives and friends how many got the job by their own virtue. How much you been successful in your own circle? The reality is mediocre people have been always the majority and the occasional genius make their way from that situation. Imagine how much frustrated Galileo was when his deduction that “Earth moves around the Sun” was rejected just because it was against the popular belief. I would like to follow your suggestion that let your kid choose what he does best rather than making the fish climbs the tree just because he can earn more money that way. It is more important to be happy than being successful and rich.

  4. Check the excellent series of talks in TED on the issue discussed here.

    A better you (9 talks)

  5. Majority of the professionals, including professors and scientists are no different than most used car salesmen. The only difference is that used car salesmen are known to cheat people directly while the professors, scientists do that via government grant agencies without much public interaction.
    The car salesmen complement themselves with silk ties and gold watches while the professors with number of grants, publications, number of people working under them and, most importantly, a carefully maintained self-imposed aura behind their heads as we see in the portraits of Jesus and other Gods. Of course there are few who are addicted to silk ties, brands like Rolex and Mercedes. But that does not make much difference in what they actually do. Of course not all of them belong to that category just like all used car salesmen are not any cheat.

    It’s all pervasive. Leadership positions are severely compromised. Titles like MBA (e.g. "It's fine to get an MBA but don't be an MBA"), PMP, Six Sigma (oh, many have “lean” too) are no different. Those are mostly rote memorization and network building more than developing leadership quality and problem solving ability. It simply makes trained clerks to do routine managerial duties. They can never be a real leader or manager- just like the way a PhD degree or a trained technician who can follow protocols and crank data, can never a real scientist.

    I got my PhD from a very prestigious university in US. Wasted some more years as an Associate Research Professor. These glorified postdoc designations sounds really glamorous, more so for people who hardly know the reality of academic research. I had many excellent publications in great journals. Used to think that I have great ideas to solve scientific problems. Then I decided to go out and join private company, mainly for money and also as I did not get tenure track position with decent salary to start with. I came to the “real world” (as corporate scientists say) to show my potential. So far so good; in fact, great.

    My realization started when I was given the task to develop something that we so routinely claim in our grant applications in academic research. I am told to develop a drug or a viable treatment for a famous disease- a specific cancer. The company casually told that they are not interested in publication! What? It was rude shock to me. But they were honest as I myself claimed to have the capability to develop exactly what they are demanding. Within a short time I realized that I'm not trained, not ever held accountable for what we ourselves claim. I had no idea what development of drug or treatment means, despite of so many publications in the same field and almost every publication promised the same goal towards that single objective. First time in my whole research (or whatever) life I came to realize how we cheat people and how similar minded majority scientists compete to become a better cheater. Our goal was not development of a drug or treatment but to get grants and publications. That’s what we are held accountable for. Only a miracle can give a real drug or treatment. Probably 95% of scientists are average or below. About 4% are good, i.e above average. Only 1% is different. They are really good. Some probably genius. In that sense, if we consider that there are 100,000 scientists in a specific field (at least that’s true in my broad area of work), only 1000 is really capable to do something. Is that not a huge number? Majority (i.e 99%) just exploit that 1% to build that aura behind their heads, justify grant applications to get free government money.

    1. Can you do a favor? Can you disclose who you are? Your real identify, NAME , AFFILIATION etc so that we can cross check what you said is backed up by real facts and not some imaginary examples to tally with the blog? If dishonesty is so badly haunting you, why you keep yourself anonymous? Just tell us who you are in only that much detail that we can goolge or pubmed/medline you. Please do that in first step before we dismiss your posting as vague and artificially created

    2. Anonymous12:38 PM

      Well said.
      I think more ignorance, incapability and resulting lack of confidence provokes one to show off his degrees like PhD, MBA, PMP, FRCS, FNA, BSc, MSc ... blah blah more.

  6. Now I realized what I am not capable of- but what do I do next? I followed the classical path. I started talking even lesser, maintain a well cultivated distance from people- people who do not know me, people who are above me (in hierarchy) and people below me.
    By then company invested money on me. I also now know some tricks of the trade. I shifted to management. Yes, MBA. Of course at company’s expanses. Now I’m a certified manager, a leader. All my outgoing emails and visiting cards started having all the glamorous degrees like PhD, MBA etc besides my intimidating (at least, I used to think that way) official designation. Whenever possible, I put the names of the universities and the fortune 500 company I worked with. I took extra precaution to mention- USA/America when I communicate or went to India or similar 3rd world countries. My Honda Civic became Audi A6. My 3 bed room house in a decent neighborhood became a 6 bed room mansion in a more prestigious locality. Now I’m certified as successful. My own family members, even my parents and wife started looking at me with awe and fear. They too started saying - I am too busy! Funny, right? But that gave me extra confidence and sense of power. In the meantime, I particularly started avoiding talented juniors and, of course, job seekers. I practically and particularly started hating those job seekers who are talented. I started feeling more comfortable with a specific type of people and also increased my inclination towards more successful people. I started giving more in charity and make it a point to mention at every possible opportunity.

    Now I am retired. One of my two sons and the only daughter are on their ways to become successful via the same way. The other son, 2nd one, is with an UN agency, not so successful, despite all of my effort by putting all of them in private schools and then Ivy League university training. No, not education, but training. That 2nd son now travels to different countries, so passionate about his work. I envy him. I wish I could have done the same! Strange thing is- I feel more attached and also comfortable to that unsuccessful son who still drives a Subaru and not a Mercedes like his elder brother or a Porsche like his sister.

    Now I can look back. Have a more complete view of my life. In reality, the only successful thing I ever achieved, quite unintentionally though, was to have my 2nd son who is trying his best to fight a losing battle to make this world a battle place! I have absolutely no clue what did I do wrong that motivated him towards that very “stupid”, “unrealistic” goal and “waste” his entire life. Probably he is too talented or naïve but, no doubt, brave to refuse living in this “real” world and trying his best to change as he likes it to be. The more strange part- I am encouraging him to do just that! Can you believe it?

    No, I do not have the guts to gamble my hard earned reputation and success for a stupid blog. Your blog provoked me to open up after such a long time. Initially I thought to post this rather lengthy message as anonymous. Then realized that too many anonymous is no fun. So putting the source (BBC) from where I got your blog link.

    Looking forward to read more from you.

    1. "Then realized that too many anonymous is no fun. So putting the source (BBC) from where I got your blog link"

      Oh really !

      Your still is anonymous ! BBC is not your name ! post your "real" name ,else it is as good as posting BBC and writing anonymous . Where is the fun??

  7. Anonymous12:46 AM

    Pointing problems without offering a solution or ever becoming part of the problem solving drill is the worst case of hypocrisy. It is way easier to talk philosophy and passion in life but at the end 99.99% want to live a life of luxury and wealth given any choice to select.

  8. Interesting read...thanks for writing..Sarah (

  9. Many people asked me the basis for 'blaming' Reagan. Here are some.

    Ronald Reagan fiercely campaigned to abolish newly created US Department of Education. Reagan consistently and effectively opposed additional funding for basic education, leading to increases in local taxes and deterioration of public school system. He also made drastic cuts in the federal education budget. Over his eight years in office he diminished it by half. Reagan was far more successful in giving corporate managers unprecedented influence over the future of public education (that practically made US education just another for profit industry that contributed to the current state).

    Once elected as Governor of Californa, Reagan, GOP's Presidential lobbyists for Industrialists and 'elites' also called-
    a) for an end to free tuition for state college and university students,
    b) annually demanding 20% across-the-board cuts in higher education funding,
    c) declaring that the state "should not subsidize intellectual curiosity.

    1. Source:
      1. The Educational Legacy of Ronald Reagan:


      3. Why Ronald Reagan Couldn't Abolish the Department of Education-

      Ronald Reagan on Education-

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