Americans and Illusion

As a nation, Americans have generally been more optimistic than other countries, but how much of that optimism has been based on facts, and how much on the embracing of various illusions?

Some illusions are deep-rooted, such as the ideal of the United States as “the land of the free.” Well, yes, if, at the time of the revolution, you happened to be a male, white, and a property-holder, but not if you were black and in the American south. Not if you were female, and little more than a chattel of your father, husband, or other male relative.

Slavery was abolished in Great Britain more than 30 years before the U.S. did, and it didn’t take a brutal Civil War in which between 620,000 and 750,000 died. And even after the Emancipation Proclamation and two Constitutional amendments, it took another century, and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, for most blacks to even have decent chance at voting. Women didn’t get the right to vote until almost 150 years after the Declaration of Independence.

Illusions have also cloaked American political personalities from the beginning and have continued to this day. Franklin Roosevelt concealed, and the press abetted that concealment, the severity of his disability, as well as his several marital affairs. . Dwight Eisenhower had a public image as a genial, avuncular man, but in private was cold and calculating. John Kennedy was portrayed as a healthy vital young man with a solid domestic family life and a beautiful wife. The wife part was true – although even she hid her chain smoking – but Kennedy was having affairs continually and was actually a sick man racked with a bad back and Addison’s Disease, which required continual cortisone treatments, a condition so severe that when he underwent back surgery in 1954, he actually received the last rites. Yet Richard Nixon was perceived as far less healthy, despite his living to the age of 81. Such illusions haven’t always been favorable. Gerald Ford, possibly one of the most athletically gifted of American Presidents, was portrayed by the press as clumsy, because he had a terrible slice when he played golf and because he once stumbled on camera, but that illusion helped defeat him for re-election, combined with his pardon of Richard Nixon, enabling the genial, honest, and well-meaning Jimmy Carter to be elected, who was, unfortunately, also cloaked by an illusion, that as a governor, he’d been a good manager, when in fact he was an excessive micro-manager.

There’s also the American self-illusion that we happen to be a peace-loving people, except that, paraphrasing Citizen Kane, we’re peace-loving on our own terms… as are most nations. Despite the protection of two large oceans, we’ve managed to get involved in close to a hundred armed conflicts over the last three centuries, including fifteen large-scale wars. We’re also the most gun-toting nation on the planet with over three hundred million firearms in private hands. To me, that doesn’t exactly square with peace-loving.

Then there’s the illusion about having the best medical system in the world. Again, if you’re talking about medicine for those who can afford it, there’s no doubt we do have the most high-tech and advanced system, but if you’re poor – or even rich and ill-informed – it’s another story. We definitely do have the most-expensive health care system in the world and the most technologically advanced, hands down, but the best?

Then there’s the illusion of opportunity. While a century ago, it was truer than now, study after study shows that the odds of an individual’s economic improvement over a lifetime have dropped significantly over the past forty years. Most people who were born at the bottom of the economic ladder will stay there, and most born at the top will stay there. Although the United States is supposed to be a land of opportunity where young people can expect their quality of life will be better than their parents, a U.N. sponsored study shows that the U.S. isn’t even in the top 20 countries when it comes to opportunities for young people, ranking twenty-third on a list of 183 countries based on 18 indicators that measure progress for youth ages 15 to 29. Eight of the top 10 countries are in Europe, plus Australia and Japan. Now because, our standard of living is still higher than in most countries, it doesn’t mean young people are starving, but it’s another indication of an illusion – most young people aren’t going to live comparatively better than their parents did. The same perhaps, but not better.

And one of the problems with all these illusions is that people cling to them, rather than recognizing them, because you can’t change things without recognizing reality.

It’s one thing to have ideals, and to strive for them, trying to reach them, and another to profess that we’ve attained the ideals and that all is well when we’re falling short.

A Few Basics…?

Education today has become a battlefield of sorts. There are fights over charter schools, open schools, magnet schools, college preparatory schools, tech or vocational schools, and about how and what material should be taught and by whom. There are battles over paying teachers and whether vouchers should be allowed or shouldn’t, and there are great variations in educational systems across the United States. And there are good schools of almost every type and poor schools of almost every type.

Then there’s the battle over what constitutes a good or great teacher, and what kind of teaching works best. Is it a variation on “the sage on the stage” or the “guide on the side”… or somewhere in between? But I’ve also seen great teachers who differ widely in how they teach, and the same of teachers who aren’t that great.

So how does one measure what constitutes a great or effective teacher? Is it how much the students learn over the course of a semester or year? That sounds reasonable on the surface, but it doesn’t take into account the variables over which teachers have no control. Have the students had breakfast and a decent night’s sleep? Students who are lacking in these will have a harder time making progress. Do the students have the language skills to understand the teacher easily, or will the teacher have to spend additional time dealing with those problems?

In general, students from more affluent backgrounds do better academically and progress faster, but even students from these backgrounds may have difficulties, emotional problems, learning disabilities, and some may just be unmotivated, or more interested in their personal electronic communication systems.

The current educational attitude seems to be that none of these factors matter. Teachers are hired to teach, and they need to get results. This is a hard-nosed business approach.

As an economist, I understand the business model. What people who apply it to education don’t seem to understand is that businesses have a level of control over their businesses that teachers don’t over their students. If an employee doesn’t come to work or do his work, he can be fired [even in government, although it takes a very long time]. Also, businesses get to examine the skills of potential employees and select who they hire. They get to specify the raw materials and equipment needed to do the job, and they can change suppliers to get the least costly or highest quality raw materials, or the quality in between. Teachers are stuck with whoever or whatever “raw material” comes through the door,and usually have little choice over the facilities and equipment they have at hand. Not only that, but the “raw material” comes in different sizes and qualities, with different “properties.” All that doesn’t matter in the educational “business model.” The teachers are the ones held responsible.

Despite all the rhetoric and the need, often expressed by politicians, to make education more business-like, education was once actually more business-like than it is today. Teachers could flunk students. Students weren’t automatically promoted when they hadn’t learned anything. Troublesome students were expelled.

The problem with this approach was that it marginalized students from poor or disadvantaged backgrounds, even intelligent students with learning disabilities. It also didn’t accommodate students who had trouble learning with the listen, read, model format of more traditional education. And, equally important, with formal education being seen more and more as the key to financial success, there were too many students failing and dropping out, and that upset too many parents.

So… U.S. education has tried to change to accommodate a wider range of students, which is commendable, even though the results often have not lived up to the expectations, and the fact that they have not has largely been blamed on the teachers.

I’d just like to point out that no business could operate profitably or effectively if it had to accept any employee who wanted a job, regardless of that individual’s intelligence, dependability, and skills, or lack of skills. Nor could most survive without control over raw material and facilities. But educators are required to do just that, and then blamed if they don’t work miracles. The real miracle is that many of them do, and most of those miracles go unrecognized because they’re merely expected.

Fiction – What’s It All About?

According to A Handbook to Literature [Sixth Edition], fiction is “narrative writing drawn from the imagination rather than from history or fact,” but because of the intrusion of personal events, history, and other factors into such narratives, the Handbook then offers an alternative definition of fiction as “any of the ways in which writing seeks to impose order on the flux of thought or experience.” From my point of view, the first definition is too narrow and the alternative meaningless.

One of the aspects of the Handbook I also found most interesting was that I could discover no definition of “literature.” “Comparative literature,” but not literature. For a textbook/handbook that is all about literature, I found that omission unfathomable. But then, in the academic and critical worlds, what narratives are considered “acceptable fiction” and what are literature are all over the place.

At two universities I was considered qualified to teach writing, and one even found me qualified to teach introductory literature and a science fiction and fantasy fiction course. A third university allowed me to teach an honors seminar on F&SF literature and writing techniques, but wouldn’t let me near “regular” literature. Another writer I know never finished an undergraduate degree, but when that writer, who has published more than twenty genre fiction books [from major publishers] largely in the romance field and won awards, went back to school, the administrators of that university insisted on the writer taking a beginning course on fiction writing.

As that example indicates, there are many universities, colleges, and scholars that contend, if almost covertly, that genre fiction can’t be literature. That’s also why I found the absence of a definition of literature in the Handbook to Literature amusing. When there’s not even a written definition of what’s included, how can you logically exclude anything?

In her 2014 acceptance speech for the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters given by the National Book Foundation, Ursula K. LeGuin took dead aim at the fact that the corporate profit motive can be contrary to the art and truth that can lie in fiction and to the freedom necessary to express them. That’s true enough, but what often gets overlooked is that there are two other factors that can also strangle art and truth in fiction. One is sheer popularity. I have absolutely nothing against popularity. Any writer who does is a true hypocrite. But popularity has nothing to do with excellence. There are excellent books that are multi-million copy bestsellers, but damned few. Since most multi-million best-sellers range from almost terrible to fairly good, when publishers concentrate on finding and publishing primarily ginormous multi-million copy best-sellers, fiction and readers both suffer.

One of the character traits I loved about the late David Hartwell, who was my editor for 36 years before his untimely death not quite a year and a half ago, was his ability to make quite a number of good and sometimes excellent books “popular” enough that their authors could continue to be published, rather than merely seeking the best-selling and the popular. David’s editorial and marketing skills, and his mentoring of a huge percentage of editors, contributed markedly to the improvement of “literary” quality in F&SF, while still ensuring a good storyline. In a time when publishing margins are razor-thin, it’s going to be very interesting to see what happens to David’s legacy in this area.

The other factor that has a tendency to strangle good and great fiction is the proliferation of so-called impartial or judged awards that are essentially “insider” awards, awards given on the basis of criteria judged “great” or “vital” by a small group. No matter what any “expert” declares, there are too many ways in which writers can artistically convey great ideas, images, action, thoughts, and more for those ways to fit inside a fixed mold. Ironically, critics from both Salon and The New York Times have declared that the annual National Book Awards have become awards for insiders. There’s also a set of F&SF awards that is fact similar [and it’s not the Hugo awards, which are a straight fan popularity contest].

So… long live all kinds of fiction, especially all kinds of F&SF, because without all kinds, we won’t have the gems buried among the others.

The War Against Rational Thought

We have a President who cannot accept the fact that he lost the popular vote count and that his inauguration crowd wasn’t the largest ever. Despite innumerable scientifically proved facts, such as increasing global temperatures, the massive shrinkage and loss of glaciers world-wide, the unprecedented [in the last hundred thousand years] loss of arctic sea ice, the arrival of spring weeks earlier than any time in human history, roughly fifty percent of Americans deny that global warming is caused by human activities, even though more than 97% of the 12,000 published scientific papers since 1991 on climate change recognize that the major component of rapid global warming is human caused. The Republican Party is the only major political party in the world, including all major conservative parties, that rejects the need to address global warming.

Now, this “anti-science” attitude isn’t just a conservative problem. A recent study cited by New Scientist found that a significant proportion of liberals reject published scientific findings on vaccines, genetically modified foods, and the causes of autism.

So it appears that what scientific findings people accept or reject are determined in large part by their political leanings. The problem is, however, that when roughly half the population rejects certain scientific findings, and the other half rejects others, science and rational thought end up taking a beating.

While the much-maligned John Maynard Keynes said, “When the facts change, I change my mind,” most people, when confronted with facts that contradict their beliefs, either ignore those facts or scurry to find or invent facts to support their beliefs. Donald Trump, unfortunately, follows this practice all too often.

It’s been said that science progresses one funeral at a time, but the problem today is that we’re facing problems that need to be addressed a bit more quickly than that. Part of the problem is that we’ve become a technological world, and technology multiplies everything. Benefits become vastly greater; problems do as well; and everything moves more quickly because technology multiplies the rate of change. Yet human beings are conservative by nature and by evolution, and that conservatism means we don’t respond well to rapid change, particularly change we don’t agree with, and this means our own behavior and beliefs all too often war against rational thought.

Add to that the difficulty that humans are supreme rationalizers. There’s a quote from the movie The Big Chill about the impossibility of getting through the day without rationalizing. Unfortunately, it’s getting too late to keep rationalizing about the issues of science, not without incurring extraordinarily high costs that will be passed on to our children and their children.

Folk Wisdom?

For the past month and a half the temperature here hasn’t dropped below freezing even at night, and the high temperature has been in the high 70s [Fahrenheit] or low 80s almost every day. It’s also been not only warm, but dry, and I had to turn on the sprinklers a month ago to keep the lawn from turning to straw.

So, last week, I got to thinking that perhaps, just perhaps, I could plant my tomatoes. I don’t do gardening, except for a single modest flower bed, some perennials… and the tomatoes. The tomatoes are because my wife truly loves garden-fresh tomatoes. So we have a moderate sized tomato garden, and I thought that planting them a week or so earlier would mean they’d be ripe a week or so earlier.

When I mentioned this, she shook her head. “Not until a week after Mother’s Day. That’s the local saying.”

Ignoring that bit of folk wisdom, I made the mistake of saying, “We’re suffering global warming.”

She gave me a look that chilled the local warming, and I deferred on planting the tomatoes.

Two days after Mother’s Day, the temperature dropped 45 degrees, and it snowed on and off for two days. As I write this, it’s forecast to freeze again tonight.

But the forecast for the weekend is warm and sunny. I might plant the tomatoes early next week, more than a week after Mother’s Day.