"Malaysia Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and the Sultan of Johor are seen in a blue Proton Saga... "When asked whether there is any tension with the sultan, Dr Mahathir said: “No, I don’t see anything because I went to see him and he drove me to the airport. I don’t want to comment on the sultans because if I say anything that is not good then it’s not nice because he is the sultan”"

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Thursday, October 21, 2010

Your mileage may vary, but a Hummer's bad for Al Gore

"Humor is everywhere, in that there's irony in just about anything a human does." - Bill Nye


This rather problematic advice from Libba Bray (a writer) to a high school student is currently doing the rounds:

If I were coming up in the rigid, narrow educational model of today with its fetishizing of standardized tests, I would probably fail. I certainly would not be in the top ten percent of my class as I was then. I am absolutely hopeless at standardized tests. I cannot test for crap. I will look at those multiple choice questions and be able to give you a good argument for about three of the four. I will think, Why? Why is that the only right answer? What a bullshit system. You want me to write an essay to explain something? Fine. Done. But bubbling in answers? No can do...

I hear about the thousands of dollars spent on Kaplan tutors in order to pass the tests, to give the answers the colleges seek. This is not learning or thinking. This is regurgitation. (There is also a whole element of socioeconomic advantage at play here that should be acknowledged.) It feels so…programmed. Does it teach you to think? To feel empathy? Does it make you a better person? Can it help you weather tough times or adapt to different circumstances? Or will you stand in the changing tides and say, "But the answer is C. I took the Kaplan course. The answer is C," instead of improvising? My personal opinion is that this leads to a rigidity of thinking, a calcification of process that does not allow for adaptation, for being able to bend. Being able to bend and adapt is important. More on this later.

(Your mileage may vary)

In a very long-winded and indulgent fashion, Bray advises the high school student to pursue her dreams and go to a small school and then become an artist, instead of following her father's advice and going to an Ivy League college and becoming an English professor.

Naturally, Bray's advice (in the midst of all the rambling and the life story) is for the girl to follow her dreams. Equally naturally, I think this advice is problematic.

First though, I must say that the father's advice is quite lousy too. Does he know the job prospects in academia?! In English, no less! And also I am as pissed off with the high school counsellor (who said she should do what her father wanted) as Bray.

My response to Bray's advice can best be summed up with an extended quote; the 2009 film Fame wasn't very good, but it did have a good exchange at the end:

Teacher: I'm sorry, but I can't write you that letter [of recommendation]. Sometimes we get students who are promising, but they never progress past that early promise.
I know you want to be a ballet dancer, but I don't believe that's going to happen for you. Not on a professional level.

Kevin: I work harder than anyone else.

Teacher: I'm sorry, Kevin. You're just not a strong enough dancer. You will never, in my opinion, be able to support yourself as a dancer. It's my responsibility to tell you that.
Kevin, there are students who are going to get picked up by Ailey, City Ballet, Complexions. And there are other students who are going to have to pursue other options. Like, you might make a wonderful teacher.

This is, of course, the case even for people who are "promising". Even for those who have talent, hard work and passion may not be enough - and not all failed artists make wonderful teachers in the end. While loans to get through state college won't take as long to pay off as those for an Ivy League one, it's not clear that a starving artist would be more able to repay them than someone in a "proper" job paying off the Ivy loans.

Sure, "no one knows how your life is going to go", "there is no such thing as "a safe road"" and "you cannot program a life". But nobody knows how the lottery will turn out or whether their houses will burn down either. That doesn't mean a lottery ticket is a possible retirement plan (because hey, who knows, you just might win) or that you shouldn't buy insurance (because your house might not burn down). Sure, life cannot just be gone through with one correct answer to every question, but there are plenty of questions where there are correct answers:

"If someone is having a heart attack, should you perform CPR or the Heimlich Manoeuvre?"
"If I am receiving a client from Rwanda, should I ever use the words 'Tutsi' or 'Hutu'?"
"Have you ever had sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky, as that term is defined in Deposition Exhibit 1, as modified by the Court?"

The truth is that depending on your risk profile, some choices might be wise, while others might be less so. In America, the stigma of living with your parents post-graduation is so strong that many college graduates would rather live on their own than buy medical insurance. While I'm sure many of them find this a life-changing experience which is great for personal development, many others are, in a word, screwed.

One common response to this criticism is that working towards goals that are less than likely to be achieved is still a worthwhile endeavor, even if you don't achieve the goals in the end. It is about the journey, rather than the destination. This sounds suspiciously like one of the arguments to justify prayer in the face of determinism and/or an omniscient god - even if prayer does not change what is going to happen, or if your god already knows what you are going to pray for, prayer is still good for personal development. This is assuredly not a coincidence - when you can't justify an imprudent course of action , there is nothing left but to appeal to the mystical and intangible.

Just after graduation, I read this book called The Career Guide for Creative and Unconventional People. It pointed out that Creative and Unconventional People do not have to work in Creative and Unconventional Jobs: you can do Creative and Unconventional things on the side, as a hobby, or use your "real" job to finance your passion.

For example, take the case of famous 20th century American composer Charles Ives. While a prolific composer, he did not make his living from music - he was an insurance agent/executive, but we don't think any less of him (or his music) for that. Just because some artists are starving does not mean that you need to be starving to be an artist.

Besides these problems, Bray's advice also suffers from the problem of Survivorship bias. If I talk to all of the people who have made a lot of money stock trading who all say good things about it, and conclude that stock trading is a good idea, this is not a wise move on my part - since I ignore the people who have been burnt by the market and leaped to their dooms. Similarly, the high school student needs to go and talk to a failed writer for some perspective.

I would also note that Bray's husband, Barry Goldblatt, is a literary agent. As in the field of stockbroking, where it's much easier to earn a living as a stock broker than as a trader (as a broker, even if your clients lose money you earn it), it is much easier to earn a living as a literary agent than as a writer - as an agent you get paid to send out rejection letters, while as a writer a rejection letter might mean you will miss your next meal. So even if Bray weren't already a successful writer, she could afford to have her husband stabilise the household income (and feed the children).

But then, the high school student is a girl, so she can do the same thing.
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