The Saturday Read ‘LIT UP: One Reporter, Three Schools. Twenty-Four Books That Can Change Lives.’ by David Denby

If you believe that the humanities are as critical as STEM skills in the 21st century workplace, take a trip back to high school with David Denby and this week’s Saturday Read, ‘LIT UP’: One Reporter. Three Schools. Twenty-Four Books That Can Change Lives.

We have this basic disconnect in our workplace today that is pitting generalists against specialists. The consequences are trickling down into our public education system.

If you’re a parent considering where to invest in your child’s college education, you’re probably looking at ‘vocational’ programs that ‘guarantee’ a job at graduation. If you’re that same parent, but now in the role of organization executive, you realize your recruiting efforts must consider ‘cultural contribution’; potential in addition to skill set. If you’re a student, you hear ‘STEM good, humanities bad; or worse, a waste of time’.

Writing in The New Yorker in February, Mr. Denby addressed the challenge in advocating for the humanities in today’s skill driven education/employer complex. He cited recent state government efforts to offer ‘bonus premiums’ in financial aid to students enrolled in STEM degree programs by cutting funding to students in the humanities.

“Lifetime readers know that reading literature can be transformative, but they can’t prove it. If they tried, they would have to buck the metric prejudice, the American notion that assertions unsupported with statistics are virtually meaningless. What they know about literature and its effects is literally and spiritually immeasurable. They would have to buck common marketplace wisdom, too: in an economy demanding “skill sets”—defined narrowly as technical and business skills—that deep-reading stuff won’t get you anywhere.” 

In ‘LIT UP’ David Denby is searching for the magic that transforms a young reader into a lifetime reader. “How do you establish reading pleasure in busy screen-loving teenagers – and in particular, pleasure in reading serious work? Is it still possible to raise teenagers who can’t live without reading something good? Or is that idea absurd? And could the struggle to create such hunger have any effect on the character of boys and girls?”

He chooses to go back to school for the 2011-12 academic year at Beacon, a New York City magnet high school, at the time located on West 61st St, observing teacher Sean Leon‘s tenth grade English class.

“School was the place to find out. And students in the tenth grade, I thought, were the right kids to look at. Recent work by neuroscientists has established that adolescence, as well as early childhood, is a period of tremendous “neuroplasticity”. At that age, the brain still has a genuine capacity to change.”

The book is structured by months, and reading selections. Mr. Leon introduces each book with inventive assignments, questions and at one point, a ‘digital fast’. Mr. Denby provides thumbnail plot sketches to shake the cobwebs from our ‘required reading’ memories. And we meet the students, by pseudonym, in their reactions to the literature.

At one point, the author gives the students a questionnaire to find out what books they read on their own, and their favorite authors. He finds three ‘real readers’ in a class of 32. “…unfairly or not, I was sorry that among Mr. Leon’s students there were no mad enthusiasms, no crazy loves, no compulsive reading of every book by a single author…”

In writing the book, he was encouraged by colleagues to create a scalable review, contrary to his initial approach, resisting quantification, and observing “a single place where literary education seemed to be working.” 

He realized that you can’t clone Beacon’s Sean Leon. He wanted other teachers to learn from Leon’s methods, but realized additional perspectives would add to his narrative.

“Typicality and comprehensiveness remained impossible to achieve, but variety was not. I delayed finishing the book, and, in the academic year 2013-14, I visited tenth-grade English classes in two other public schools – shuttling up many times during the year to James Hillhouse High School, an inner-city school in New Haven with a largely poor African American population; and five times in the spring to a school in a wealthy New York suburb, Mamaroneck, a “bedroom town” in the language of the fifties, where people sent their kids to good schools.”

Mr. Denby’s appendix includes the reading lists for each of the schools he visited and a ‘where are they now?’ college destination roster of the Beacon English Class of 2014. “There is, of course, no ideal reading list, no perfect syllabus, no perfect classroom manner, but only strategies that work or don’t work. In a reading crisis, we are pragmatists as well as idealists.”

“Teenagers, distracted, busy, self-obsessed, are not easy to engage – not by their teachers or by their parents. To keep them in the game, the teachers I watched experimented, altered the routine, changing the physical dimensions of the class. They kept the kids off balance in order to put them back in balance. They demanded more of students than the students expected to give.”

This is a book for parents, parents who are business leaders; teachers and the politicians who minimize their value; and students. We’re in a reading crisis and we need folks who have emotional intelligence, who can think, judge, make decisions and create a vision for an enterprise within a global world view.

“Teachers are the most maligned and ignored professionals in American life. In the humanities, the good ones are as central to our emotional and moral life as priests, ministers, rabbis, and imams. The good ones are not sheepish or silent in defense of literature and history and the rest. They can’t be; the children’s lives are right before them. In high-school English, if the teachers are shrewd and willing to take a few risks, they will try to reach the students where they live emotionally. They will engage, for instance, with “naïve” existential questions (what do I live for?) and also adolescent fascination with “dark” moods and the fear of being engulfed by adult society. Shakespeare, Mary Shelley, Poe, Hawthorne, Twain, Stevenson, Orwell, Vonnegut, and many others wrote about such things. And if teachers can make books important to kids—and forge the necessary link to pleasure and need—those kids may turn off the screens. At least for a few vital hours.”

The week@work – A vacancy on the Supreme Court, the power of creative cross training, deciding to ‘jump ship’ and targeting teachers

The headline story of the week@work came with the late Saturday evening announcement of the death of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. The theme of transition was echoed in other stories this week, on creative cross-training and deciding when to make your next career move. If you are a teacher, you may be considering both, as educational reform efforts seem to be targeting those leading the classroom vs. students.

A few hours before the Republican candidates were to take the stage in their on-going interview process for the job of U.S. president, news broke that conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia had died. Within seconds, it seemed, politicians were redefining the rules on the naming of a successor. In terms of job openings, it’s one of the most coveted appointments in government. The vacancy in the judicial branch will be added to the open position of President and 469 seats in Congress on November 8. It’s enough to overwhelm your average Human Resources manager. Oh, wait, we are the human resources manager here. Time to start paying attention to resumes and experience.

Most of us hope to find meaning in our work, and make some impact on our community with our efforts. For Justice Scalia, his impact was described by Jeffrey Toobin for The New Yorker.

“The loss of Justice Antonin Scalia is immensely significant on two levels. First, Scalia himself ranks among the most influential Justices in American history, alongside such figures as John Marshall, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., and William Brennan. Second, Scalia was the linchpin of the Supreme Court’s five-justice conservative majority. His departure gives President Obama—or a Democratic successor—the opportunity to reshape the ideological balance among the Justices.

When Scalia joined the court, in 1986, the leading school of constitutional interpretation was the “living Constitution”—the claim that the meaning of the document evolves with changes in American society. Scalia brought with him the concept of “originalism”—that the Constitution should be interpreted as its eighteenth-century framers understood it. In practical terms, originalism gives constitutional sanction to conservative politics.

In interpreting laws, he was the leading spokesperson for “textualism,” the idea that, when interpreting laws, courts should look not to legislative history, or congressional “intent,” but rather only to the words of the law itself. While originalism remains controversial within the legal community, textualism won support from nearly all his colleagues (all except Stephen Breyer). This means that the Justices will limit the reach of laws to their precise terms, expanding the court’s power over Congress.”

Srinivas Rao writes about ‘The Power of Creative Cross Training: How Experimentation Creates Possibility’.

Although he is describing the careers of creative professionals, his suggestions to immerse  yourself in tangential activities to broaden your thinking and portfolio, has broad application across career disciplines.

“For most creative professionals, we have a tendency to live within the limitations of our labels: copywriter, web designer, filmmaker, illustrator, and author. Those are the things we do and we get paid for.

The point of creative cross training is to immerse yourself for a short period of time in an art form that is not your primary one. For a writer that could mean designing or drawing something. For a visual artist, that could mean learning to write code.”

An entrepreneur doesn’t have the luxury of labels, and must continually cross train to develop a suite of skills in marketing, finance, customer relations and communication. If you have the mindset of an entrepreneur, creative cross training will become your mandatory daily ritual to stay competitive irrespective of profession.

Creative cross training allows you to take ownership of your career and be prepared for changes @work. Paul Sullivan explored the risks for folks who have ‘jumped ship’, leaving  a stable career to pursue a passion.

“…a Gallup Poll in October found that when American workers make a career change, they almost always do so by leaving their employer instead of taking a new job within the company. Some 93 percent said they took a new role elsewhere. The survey found this was true whether the job change occurred 30 years ago or within the last year.

…consider the tale of DeJuan Stroud, a former Wall Street broker and compliance officer…he gave up his well-paid job and put their modest savings at risk to turn a hobby — floral design, which he had learned from his grandmother growing up in Alabama — into a business.

Now, two decades later, Mr. Stroud is one of the most sought-after floral and event designers in New York City.

His is a success story. But there are big risks in following a similar path — giving up a regular salary and losing your savings for one; throwing away the security of a career is another. For those who go forward, the payoff may be more psychic than monetary, and they need to feel comfortable that the chance of a more modest lifestyle is worth it.”

For some reason, its become ok in our society to devalue the folks who inspire, encourage and transfer knowledge to each generation. Well, it’s not ok and David Denby urges us to ‘Stop Humiliating Teachers’.

“A necessary commonplace: Almost everyone we know has been turned around, or at least seriously shaken, by a teacher—in college, maybe, but often in high school, often by a man or a woman who drove home a point or two about physics, literature, or ethics, and looked at us sternly and said, in effect, You could be more than what you are. At their best, teachers are everyday gods, standing at the entryway to the world. If they are fair and good, they are possibly the most morally impressive adults that their students will ever know. For a while, they are the law, they are knowledge, they are justice.

Our view of American public education in general has been warped by our knowledge of these failing kids in inner-city and rural schools. In particular, the system as a whole has been described by “reformers” as approaching breakdown. But this is nonsense. There are actually many good schools in the United States—in cities, in suburbs, in rural areas. Pathologizing the system as a whole, reformers insist on drastic reorganization, on drastic methods of teacher accountability. In the past dozen or so years, we’ve seen the efforts, often led by billionaires and hedge-fund managers and supported by elected officials, to infuse K-12 education with models and methods derived from the business world—for instance, the drive to privatize education as much as possible with charter schools, which receive public money but are independently run and often financed by entrepreneurs. This drive is accompanied by a stream of venom aimed at unions, as if they were the problem in American education. (Most charter schools hire non-union teachers.) In the real world, however, highly unionized areas of the country, such as the Northeast, produce students with scores higher than the national average in standardized tests; the Deep South, where union teachers are more scarce, produces scores that are lower. So unions alone can hardly be the problem.”

Many recent college graduates, and career changers consider teaching as a career. In reality, our society values the profession at 70% of what peers in other professions earn.  Teachers may not be motivated by money, but that doesn’t allow the rest of us to abdicate our responsibility. It’s time to place a higher premium on those who significantly influence our future.

Two additional articles of interest to consider this week@work:

‘Women in Company Leadership Tied to Stronger Profits, Study Says’ by Daniel Victor “Having women in the highest corporate offices is correlated with increased profitability, according to a new study of nearly 22,000 publicly traded companies in 91 countries.”

‘Why do my co-workers keep confusing me with other people? Because I’m Asian.’ by Iris Kuo   “All my life I’ve been mistaken for other people of my race. It’s a degrading and thoughtless error that boils away my identity and simplifies me as one thing: “that Asian.”