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: http://goo.gl/uEF6M

** 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.