Consider it a warning. Perhaps someone who spent the better part of a decade – the seventies – teaching English at an absurdly expensive prep school in upstate New York should not be writing about politics. There are professional reporters and highly paid pundits, and those investigative folks with amazing insider contacts, who should be doing such things. Those folks have lunch with key senators and unnamed high-level administration officials – daily. Living through years of something like the Dead Poets Society – although the school was a co-ed day school – means that you don’t know about that political world, or the real world. You know about kids. What good is that?
Well, look at our politicians.
There’s the holier-than-thou John Ensign having his parents pay off the family of his mistress – one of his staffers, no less.
Josh Marshall sums it up nicely:
There’s a lot of salacious back and forth today about the Ensign scandal. But beneath the tabloid headlines there’s a critical question that needs to be asked:
Which is more emasculating? Getting paid a hundred grand by the guy who screwed your wife? Or being a fifty-something United States senator and still needing mom and dad to cut the check to pay off your mistress and her husband?
If you had spent years dealing with the irresponsible young of the very wealthy you’d get it. Someone always cleans up the mess, usually daddy.
And you’d get Mark Sanford – the lovesick puppy who doesn’t get why his wife might still be mad and the people of his state want him to be gone, even though he disappeared for a week to see his soul mate, his Argentinean mistress, and lied to everyone about where he was, and couldn’t be reached. Sure it happened a lot, as we know now, but he was in love. Why should he resign? You hang your head and say you’re sorry – and everything is all better. You know you’re special – you’ve been told that all your life. It must be so.
That’s how it was with the fifteen-year-olds at the prep school. With great privilege comes great responsibility, and actions have consequences, but, for the right people, not enough of either to ruin things.
And of course there’s Sarah Palin – the perpetually perky cheerleader type. Each year there was one or two of them – utterly sincere and exhaustingly enthusiastic, willing to give their all, with a big, willing smile – but not much good at anything. Such teenage girls were usually quite pretty, and they knew it, but they didn’t use that to get what they needed, or at least not primarily. That was just icing on the cake. They actually wanted points for their go-for-it attitude, even when reading each incomprehensible essay they turned in made your teeth hurt.
What grade would you give them? Their effort was admirable, sometimes stunning – but what they wrote was nonsense, or if not nonsense, just a string of likely sounding banalities they’d heard someone else say without even understanding the words, even a little. If you gave them a dispassionate and overly generous D – just for the sincere effort – you could expect tears, or anger and the call from the outraged parents, who each made in one day a hundred times what you earned in a year. What did you know? Little Sarah really tried – and, damn it, she needs to get into Mount Holyoke, and the family will simply not be embarrassed, particularly because of the likes of you.
It was all a bit exhausting. But it makes you able to understand Big Sarah – Palin. It’s the same sort of thing.
Of course the few scholarship students, and the one or two foreign exchange students, made up for the general madness. All you were trying to do was get the kids to read carefully and analyze what they read, and think about it – and not be fooled by anyone. That’s a useful skill, and it can be learned if you keep at it. And all you were trying to do was then get them to write down what they thought – whatever it was – clearly and convincingly. That’s also a useful skill. But except for the scholarship and foreign exchange students, something was always getting in the way. It was their self-esteem, which had been boosted to rather extraordinary levels because of their social milieu – an environmental thing, too much success, and the resultant excessive income, lying about at home. When the young Watson girl got the new top-of-the-line Mercedes convertible for her sixteenth birthday her essays made even less sense. Why should she bother? There’s something to be said for low or at least somewhat shaky self-esteem.
Angela Duckworth, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, sees the problem of oddly high self-esteem actually being almost universal now:
Self-esteem has gone up in the United States; achievement has not. If anything, compared with other countries, we have done worse, but our kids feel really good about themselves on average. What seems particularly interesting, and there is an article by J. P. Tangney on this, is that there is an uncoupling between your perception of your own competence and how much you like yourself. Many American kids, particularly in the last couple of decades, can feel really good about themselves without actually being good at anything. This is the problem with the “self-esteem at all costs” message. Self-esteem should be earned.
That seems rather obvious, but somehow we lost it.
But some folks still know this is so. Duckworth is writing in the magazine In Character – which “seeks to illuminate the nature and power of the everyday virtues – and how these virtues shape our vision of the good life.” That may seem like simplistic nonsense, but they do note that Duckworth “has been called in by West Point to predict which cadets have what it takes to survive the tough atmosphere at the academy.” Someone gets it, and the Duckworth item is actually about grit – the psychological state, not what’s under your fingernails.
Here’s how she defines it:
The gritty person approaches achievement as a marathon. The gritty person sticks with it, whereas others might be distracted by boredom, failure, adversity, or plateaus. The intuition behind grit – well, the definition of grit – is trait-level perseverance and passion for long-term goals. What I mean by “trait-level” is that it is generally characteristic of the person’s approach to achievement. When somebody happens to love soccer so much that he pursues it passionately and with perseverance over adversity for years and years, that doesn’t necessarily reflect something about his character. Gritty people don’t have to be gritty about everything. But the point is that grit is how they pursue their most serious objectives. A gritty person is one who takes things to completion, who focuses interests, as opposed to letting them become very diffuse.
Sarah Palin, who claims to be a fighter and not a quitter, who suddenly quit the job of Governor of Alaska, seems to claim to have something like grit. Duckworth might disagree. Anyone who has spent years teaching reluctant adolescents the rudiments of critical thinking and clear expression would also disagree. We know the type.
And, like Duckworth, we know that intelligence isn’t the issue:
When I was teaching, it became pretty obvious to me that IQ didn’t explain why so many of my students had reading skills that were far below their grade level. Based on our studies and intuition, I’d say that self-discipline is at least as important as IQ for earning good report card grades. Now, like all boring academics, I am going to hedge my answer a little bit and just say that this is what our studies show. We’d want to see these findings replicated in other labs, but we found that self-discipline is more important in all the studies we have done.
Palin, Ensign, Sanford – not exactly models of self-discipline (and there’s no reason to bring up Rush Limbaugh, as that would be too obvious). Each may be smart as hell, in their own way, but something is missing.
As for West Point, see this:
We’ve shown at West Point that grit predicts retention at Beast Barracks, that very difficult summer after you’re first recruited and before you actually start classes at West Point. Grit predicts who lasts through the summer. We’ve replicated our study over four or five years, and every summer we get the same findings: grit not only predicts retention, but also predicts it better than any other predictor that West Point has, including SAT scores, class rank in high school, and physical fitness. The first cadets we’ve studied are now starting to go on to their careers, and we’re going to follow them to see if it predicts long-term success.
They’re certainly not training politicians there. You stick to it. No one bails you out. That’s odd, and refreshing. It’s no wonder that very few career military guys end up in politics – it must seem stupid stuff to them.
As for our schools, Duckworth simply reports what all teachers know:
We took their self-control ratings from parents and teachers and the kids themselves. We tracked them every year, and we kept their grades from school records, not from their own reports on their grades. We pitted self-control and self-esteem – we also took measures for both – against each other. Here’s what we found: When kids increase in self-control, their grades go up later. But when kids increase their self-esteem, there is no effect on their grades. The bottom line is that our research shows that self-control is more important than self-esteem in determining achievement.
But you need immense self-esteem, bordering on narcissism, to be a truly successful politician. Something is wrong here. You have to be a fifteen-year-old.
Way back in October 2002, Andrew Sullivan, writing about Senator Robert Torricelli (who no one remembers now) was saying much the same thing:
New research has found that self-esteem can be just as high among D students, drunk drivers and former Presidents from Arkansas as it is among Nobel laureates, nuns and New York City fire fighters. In fact, according to research performed by Brad Bushman of Iowa State University and Roy Baumeister of Case Western Reserve University, people with high self-esteem can engage in far more antisocial behavior than those with low self-worth.
And that does explain a lot about the current crop of Republicans, perhaps.
And this detail:
…the New York Times ran a story on the fate of the concept of self-esteem. You know what self-esteem is: according to decades of psychological and educational theory, it’s the essential building block for a successful life. A few generations of children, especially minority kids, have been educated according to the theory that they lack self-esteem, that this deficiency is central to any problems they may have in making their way in the world and that the worst thing you can ever do to a child is to tell her that she isn’t all that.
Well, guess what? Self-esteem isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. In fact, as a brief recounting of Bob Torricelli’s career would usefully illustrate, it can be a huge part of the problem.
He asks you to think about it:
Racists, street thugs and school bullies all polled high on the self-esteem charts. And you can see why. If you think you’re God’s gift, you’re particularly offended if other people don’t treat you that way. So you lash out or commit crimes or cut ethical corners to reassert your pre-eminence. After all, who are your moral inferiors to suggest that you could be doing something, er, wrong? What do they know?
And that too explains a lot about the current crop of Republicans. Listen to any Palin press conference:
It’s hard to accept that we may not be the best at something or that we genuinely screwed up or that low self-esteem can sometimes be fully justified. But maintaining a robust self-image, while being able to absorb difficult criticism, is surely worth the effort. It could lead to all sorts of strange occurrences: kids working harder, adults exercising self-control, thieves experiencing – yes – guilt, even grownup politicians taking full and painful responsibility for their actions and words.
Seven years have passed since he wrote that. Some things never change.
And Little Sarah will not get that generous D – in fact, Rasmussen reports this:
Alaska Governor Sarah Palin is the top choice for those Republicans who put national security first and ties Romney for first among voters who list economic issues alone as the priority.
So in some circles, you do get points for that go-for-it attitude. Nonsense does not seem to be an issue.
Drilling down into the numbers, some are just amazed:
Two-thirds of Republicans want Palin, the party’s vice presidential nominee in 2008, to be “a major national political figure” in the future. …
Let me get this straight. The woman QUITS because of ETHICS complaints filed against her by her CONSTITUENTS and that makes her MORE Presidential?
I knew the GOP was in bad shape but this is absolutely unbelievable.
But she is sincere and exhaustingly enthusiastic, willing to give her all, with a big, willing smile. That seems to count for something. And you can tap dance around the nonsense, if you’re clever, like Paul Whitfield in Investor’s Business Daily with this gem:
In 1754, Lt. Col. George Washington quit the Virginia militia, an obscure fact that now seems a bit more interesting in the wake of Gov. Sarah Palin’s resignation in Alaska.
We’ve all had students like Paul. You write one word in the margin. What?
But the media doesn’t help, as Anonymous Liberal explains:
It is nothing short of astonishing what Palin has been able to get away with while still being taken seriously. During the presidential campaign, she was kept completely away from the media for nearly a month after being selected – something that is completely unprecedented. When she was finally permitted to be interviewed, she flamed out in spectacular fashion, displaying a profound lack of policy knowledge and a near total inability to express her thoughts coherently or logically. Her stump speech was riddled with easily falsifiable claims about her record, claims that she continued to repeat even after they had been repeatedly and exhaustively debunked. She never held a press conference or appeared on any of the Sunday news shows. Toward the end of the campaign, polls were conclusively showing that she was a drag on the ticket and her own staff was trashing her in the media. Rather than send her to contested states, the McCain campaign began shipping her off to reliably red states, a clear acknowledgment that she was doing more harm than good in the states that mattered.
Yet despite all of this, many within the media continued to treat Palin as if she was a serious presidential candidate in her own right. They continued to pretend that the Emperor’s new suit was, if not spectacular, at least well-tailored.
And Time Magazine is still at it:
Palin’s unconventional step speaks to an ingrained frontier skepticism of authority – even one’s own. Given the plunging credibility of institutions and élites, that’s a mood that fits the Palin brand. Résumés ain’t what they used to be; they count only with people who trust credentials – a dwindling breed. The mathematics Ph.D.s who dreamed up economy-killing derivatives have pretty impressive résumés. The leaders of congressional committees and executive agencies have decades of experience – at wallowing in red ink, mismanaging economic bubbles and botching covert intelligence.
So knowing nothing is in again, or something. No one is now saying greed is good, like in that Wall Street movie. Now Time tells us that ignorance is good, at least the right kind of gritty ignorance:
If ever there has been a time to gamble on a flimsy résumé, ever a time for the ultimate outsider, this might be it. “We have so little trust in the character of the people we elected that most of us wouldn’t invite them into our homes for dinner, let alone leave our children alone in their care,” writes talk-show host Glenn Beck in his book Glenn Beck’s Common Sense, a pox-on-all-their-houses fusillade at Washington. Dashed off in a fever of disillusionment with those in power, Beck’s book is selling like vampire lit, with more than 1 million copies in print.
David Corn in his comments on this finds it odd that Time is citing Glenn Beck as proof that Americans are eager to turn to a politician with pretty much no expertise in national policy:
…didn’t the country just have an election? And didn’t a significant majority vote for the guy with two Ivy League degrees who talked about bringing professionalism, science, and expertise back to policymaking in Washington?
But of course Time is saying that Sarah Palin is pure Alaska and that to know her, well, you have to know Alaska – all that rugged individualism and practical fatalism that is so natural up there, which Corn says is a tad absurd:
The sole reason most Americans know anything about Palin is that a fellow from Arizona picked her to be his running mate. Without that, she would still be the answer to a political trivia question. So, obviously, it was the unique and rough-hewn libertarian frontier spirit of the American Southwest – where lone riders settled on arid plains to escape the confining conventions of back-East civilization – that was responsible for Palin’s comet-like ascent to public prominence. Or maybe not. Perhaps it was just John McCain’s bad judgment.
Or maybe it’s that all these people are the same crew you knew back in high school, the perky cheerleaders and surly jocks – on top of the heap, high on self-esteem, and low on most everything else. It sure seems so.
Hell, ask a teacher.