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.”

After a 50 year absence, the humanities return to medicine

Medicine remains one of the fields that is defined by a hierarchy that would rival the world of Downton Abbey at its pinnacle. Over fifty years ago medical training lost track of the humanities and with it the ability to effectively connect with colleagues and patients as fellow humans.

The intensity of preparation for acceptance to a top medical school only deepens with competition for internships and residencies. Doctors in training represent the best and the brightest, but often not the top of the class when it comes to emotional intelligence.

At a time when college is increasingly defined as vocational prep, with students choosing majors based on perceived guarantees of post-grad employment, medicine is stepping back from its singular focus on the sciences and reintroducing the humanities to remove barriers created by hospital hierarchy, promote teamwork and improve patient communication.

Dr. Tara Narula, a medical contributor for CBS This Morning, reported Thursday on a program in Boston that “teaches physicians in training to use their eyes and ears to connect with patients and enhance the practice of medicine.”

“At the Brigham and Women’s Hospital, doctors, nurses and Harvard medical students are helping reshape medical education. By day, members of the integrated teaching unit, or ITU, focus on treating patients. But at night, they fix their sights on works of art.

At the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, art becomes a catalyst to strengthen clinical and interpersonal skills, softening the hard science of medicine with creative expression.

Dr. Joel Katz designed the art curriculum at Brigham and Women’s, which has become a model for other hospitals.

Katz chose the art museum because it “allows everybody to focus on an external object in a way that I would say takes the personal aspects out and lets them solve problems together.”

Activities are carefully designed to enhance team-building, and to break down the hospital hierarchy, junior staff members are paired with more senior colleagues. Observing and describing art is used to promote problem solving, communication, thinking outside the box and appreciating other perspectives.”

Increasingly, schools of medicine are recognizing the need to ‘humanize’ medical practitioners, including Columbia University’s program in Narrative Medicine and Stanford University’s Medicine and the Muse program. And a quick review of the best seller lists over the past decade, will reveal an impressive list of physicians who have exercised their talents in the humanities: Adam Verghese, Atul Gawande, Oliver Sachs, Siddhartha Mukherjee, and this month, Paul Kalanithi.

“With this program, Dr. Joel Katz hopes to find some of the human interaction that has been lost in medicine.

In fact, as recently as 50 years ago, humanities were at the core of medical practice. While research into this program’s effects is still ongoing, there is strong anecdotal evidence that both patients and practitioners benefit.”

 

 

 

 

The ‘gig economy’ and ‘the new romantics’

The ground is shifting the foundations of our world@work. New economic models are emerging of mosaic careers where freelancing is the predominant driver of income. In order to flourish workers will have to reimagine their life@work and add skills previously delivered through full time employers. This is the conversation that should be taking place in corporate boardrooms, university classrooms, state legislatures and presidential debates.

Don’t believe me? How did you get to work? Uber? Where did you stay on vacation? Airbnb?

The initial repercussions of the new world@work are being felt in the halls of justice as folks try to fit old definitions of work and workers into new, entrepreneurial business models.

Sarah Kessler writing for Fast Company summarized the dilemma.

“What’s at stake with these lawsuits and protests? The very definition of “employee” in a tech-enabled, service-driven 21st century American economy. Gig economy companies do not own cars, hotels, or even their workers’ cleaning supplies. What they own is a marketplace with two sides. On one side are people who need a job done—a ride to the airport, a clean house, a lunchtime delivery. On the other are people who are willing to do that job. If Uber and other companies are going to be as big as some claim, a new deal has to be brokered, one that squares the legal rules governing work with new products and services. What benefits can you expect from a quasi-employer? What does it mean to be both independent and tethered to an app-based company? The social contract between gig economy workers and employers is broken. Who will fix it, and how, will determine the fate of thousands of workers and hundreds of millions of dollars.”

James Surowiecki writing in The New Yorker described just how difficult it is to define the difference between an employee and an independent contractor.

“We hear a lot these days about the gig economy, but the issue of whether a worker is an employee or an independent contractor has been the subject of intense legal battles for decades. The distinction can be surprisingly hard to make. The I.R.S. has a list of twenty factors that it takes into account, but other federal agencies have different criteria, as do most states. The fundamental issue is usually whether an employer has “control” over the work being done, but defining control isn’t always easy.”

This is where it begins in the U.S., in the court system. Meanwhile, entrepreneurs will continue to connect clients with products and hire workers who will supplement their income performing a variety of part-time professional services. Eventually the laws will catch up with the workplace reality. But in the interim, universities have to decipher the emerging skill set and prepare the next generation of workers for success.

Joseph Aoun, President of Northeastern University in Boston conducted an informal survey of the university community, tweeting the question, “What skills will graduates need for success in the gig economy?”

“…we can see five skills that will be invaluable for thriving in the gig economy:

Generativity: How to create something unique, be it a product, a service, or an idea. E.g., coming up with the idea for a widget.

Entrepreneurship: How to spot an opportunity and act on it effectively. Discovering a market for widgets.

Originality: How to view an existing subject through an unexpected lens. Realizing that the widget can be made more sustainably from recycled water bottles.

Interdisciplinary thought: How to bridge concepts from different fields to form new ideas. Combining engineering and design so that the widget is not only functional, but beautiful.

Dealing with ambiguity: How to confidently address a problem with no clear solution, often by using a blend of experience, intuition, and grasp of human nature. Faced with plunging stock prices, reinventing the company as a widget-sharing app.”

The ‘new gig workers’ will also need a basic understanding of business law and finance. Arun Sundararajan writing in The Guardian assesses the micro and macro implications of the new model.

“There’s certainly something empowering about being your own boss. With the right mindset, you can achieve a better work-life balance. But there’s also something empowering about a steady pay cheque, fixed work hours and company-provided benefits. It’s harder to plan your life longer term when you don’t know how much money you’re going to be making next year.”

In many countries, key slices of the social safety net are tied to full-time employment with a company or the government. Although the broader socioeconomic effects of the gig economy are as yet unclear, it is clear we must rethink the provision of our safety net, decoupling it from salaried jobs and making it more readily available to independent workers.”

Fundamentally, the new ‘gig worker’ will focus on human interaction vs. transactional activities. We are back to the core curriculum of a liberal arts education. The lawyers, politicians and business folk will figure out the structure and protections. The humanists will find job security in the ‘gig economy’.

David Brooks writing in The New York Times imagines the new world@work.

“What are the activities that we humans, driven by our deepest nature or by the realities of daily life, will simply insist be performed by other humans?”

“Secure workers will combine technical knowledge with social awareness — the sort of thing you get from your genes, from growing up in a certain sort of family and by widening your repertoire of emotions through reflection, literature and a capacity for intimacy.”

“I could imagine a time when young thinkers discard the strictures of the academic professionalism and try to revive the model of the intellectual as secular sage. I could see other young people tiring of résumé-building do-goodism and trying to live more radically for the poor. The romantic tries as much as possible to ground his or her life in purer love that transforms — making him or her more inspired, creative and dedicated, and therefore better able to live as a modern instantiation of some ideal.”

Gig learning is lifelong learning. We will need leaders in both education and business who will welcome the feedback of their constituencies and be nimble in their response to a world@work that is driven by human interaction in the relational and supported by technology in the transactional.