• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.

Title

Friday Fragments

Responding to "no fair"; concepts of meritocracy; "Network" on Broadway.

March 22, 2019
 
 

Jessica Calarco has a thought-provoking thread on Twitter this week about how to respond to young kids when they’re denied something they want, and scream “no fair!”  

I like it a lot because it gives kids credit for being smart. It assumes that if you give them a thoughtful answer, they’ll rise to it. That’s often true.

Check it out; she wrote it better than I could.

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As a followup to the post earlier this week about shadowboxing with Calvin -- which may have to be the title of my next book, with a hat-tip to @Infamous_PhD for the suggestion -- it’s worth remembering that the term “meritocracy” was originally satirical.  It was popularized by the British sociologist Michael Young in a dystopian novel published in 1958.

The idea gained currency as an alternative to overt racism and sexism, and to the extent that it is, it’s certainly preferable.  But it still assumes stratification, and it conflates social rank with moral standing. That was the point of the satire, and it’s why the concept is so insidious.  It offers folks on the top all of the rewards and self-regard of the older aristocracy, but without any of that annoying noblesse oblige.

Anyone on top who doesn’t have a healthy sense of “there but for the grace of God go I…” doesn’t get it.  I’ve tried to teach that to my own kids. They’re good kids, they study, they follow the rules, and they try hard.  That’s to their credit. They were also born to educated parents in an affluent country, physically healthy, in a home without mental illness or substance abuse, and with family histories that suggest a high likelihood of long and healthy lives.  They get credit for those, too, but none of those is their doing. They just happened to do pretty well in the birth lottery.

I hope they continue to work hard, and that they’re able to live the lives they want to lead.  I hope that they’re safe, and happy, and that when the time comes, they’ll find partners who love them as much as we do.  But I also want them to understand, at a visceral level, that luck is never far from the surface. That we have moral obligations to treat people decently, and to try to nudge the world in a direction where more people are treated fairly.

Having grown up in second-tier suburbs of an out-of-the-way city, and then attended a college full of rich kids with last names some folks would recognize, I can attest that material success and moral decency are, at best, uncorrelated.  The basic myth of meritocracy is false. I know some admirable people with unremarkable careers, and I’ve met some folks who embody the term “stinking rich.” People are just people. Don’t defer to them for being rich, and don’t lock them in cages for being brown.  Just be decent, and build a decent society. The rest is commentary.

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Last week TW and I decided to play “tourist” in our own city -- to the extent that NYC is our own city -- so we caught the production of “Network” with Bryan Cranston, followed by a pizza tour of Brooklyn.

I still have a hard time seeing Cranston without picturing “Malcolm in the Middle,” but he was terrific. In the movie, Peter Finch played Beale’s “mad as hell” scene as angry; in the play, Cranston plays it almost fragile, like he’s desperately grabbing onto anger in an attempt to keep the demons at bay. It was more affecting than I expected.

Tony Goldwyn was weirdly miscast in the William Holden role; I really don’t know what they were thinking there.  The Faye Dunaway role -- horrifically written in the movie -- was played more for laughs, which was about the only thing you could do. 

The pizza tour was more tour than pizza, which was too bad; the premise was excellent.  Imagine a barbecue tour of Memphis or Kansas City, or a cheesesteak tour of Philly. (Maybe not a garbage plate tour of Rochester, if only for fear of heart attacks…)  The Sicilian pizza at L&B in Bensonhurst was a work of art. According to the tour guide, they bake the cheese onto the crust before adding the sauce, which was cooked separately so it would sweeten; that way, they could apply enough sauce to satisfy without making the crust too soggy.  I don’t usually order Sicilian, but this was extraordinary. And it came on plastic plates with thick plastic cups of soda, like God intended.

Pizza Hut is bigger, but I’ll take this one anytime.  Meritocracy? Fuhgeddaboutit...



 

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