It might strike you as an odd combination, but Damien Echols’, Life after death (2012, Blue Rider Press)- which I just finished- goes along well with Doris Goodwin’s classic Lincoln biography, Team of Rivals, which I’m currently reading.. Both books underline:
1) The individual traits producing resilience.
2) The incredible twists life can take
Actually, Damien Echols (of the West Memphis three), released from prison after spending 18 years on death row for a crime he did not commit, has an early life history with eerie similarities to Lincoln’s childhood: growing up in an Arkansas shack with no running water; enduring a harsh abusive step-dad; having little formal education.. How did this child withstand being sent to solitary confinement at 19, and emerge as a now famous author? : Towering writing gifts; a passion for knowledge; and an ability to get others to care… the very qualities that defined Lincoln’s life and are spelled out in chapter 7 of my book!
Echols’ engrossing life story, (used as an Xtra credit class option or supplemental reading) will be incredibly appealing to students and can be a great springboard for discussions relating to resilience, adolescent development, and, as I mentioned, the unpredictability of life . It vividly brings home the encouraging lifespan message, “It ain’t over till its over..” and, needless to say, offers a harrowing account of what prison is like.
For a less upbeat view, students majoring in criminal justice, might read The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, which spells out why it really CAN be over for teens when they are poor and of color once they get rounded up, labeled, and enmeshed in the prison industry . I also highly recommend Team of Rivals, but at 900 pages, that masterpiece is obviously not for an undergraduate class!.
Here is my top pick among the many books devoted to what ails contemporary colleges: “Higher Education? How colleges are wasting our money and failing our kids” by Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus.
Much of what you’ll find in this tour de force critique any academic generally knows: Universities have abandoned their primary mission, teaching, in favor of lusting after the holy grail of publications. An administrator creep has over taken campuses, with “support staff” now outnumbering faculty 4 to 1; an academic amenities arms race has pumped millions of wasted dollars into state- of- the art campus climbing walls and gourmet dining facilities even at places like my mainly commuter State University that students don’t need and can rarely afford. The average college president’s salary has doubled in constant dollars over 16 years. Actually, as of 2008, the authors point out, a dozen university presidents earned more than 1 million dollars per year! What makes this book a real landmark is that Hacker and Dreifus document their facts via a wealth of meticulously detailed statistics embedded in compelling prose.
Then—to my delight!--the authors move on to demolish other sacred cows. Hacker and Dreifus make the compelling case that tenure should be abolished, as this ossified structure encourages producing a wealth of pedestrian papers, and never taking chances, to make it to that lifetime prize. It tells the real truth about how much work hour- by- hour tenured professors actually do.(Who wouldn’t want a sinecure that secures you 100,000+ dollars per year for life with a teaching load of 9 hours per week, five months off during summers and vacations, plus an a sabbatical every 7 years—to free you from all that classroom work!). Hacker and Dreifus enter classrooms to argue that the boom in practical majors may not really be teaching students all that much, as they peruse the power-points and syllabi, to unravel the actual course content in hot button majors such as business. And I was amazed to learn that those vaunted money makers—athletic programs- are really money losers, with college varsity sports running a deficit of 3.6 billion dollars per year!
Finally –to add to my pleasure—Hacker and Dreifus take on our college status system. The “best colleges”, for all their lip service to being inclusive, are all about perpetuating class distinctions. (Check out the authors’ stats on the fraction of students getting Pell Grants at places like Harvard or UVA). And check out the reality of what happens to these students when the authors track what currently 50 ish graduates of the highest status “golden dozen” REALLY achieve compared to their counterparts in second tier schools in life.…
But this book is not just about offering a litany of what’s wrong. The authors travel to colleges where things are going right—places where excellent teaching is front and center, and students don’t have to mortgage their economic futures to really learn. I also like the fact that this book doesn’t blame this cohort of students for being uninterested in learning . It puts the real blame on educators who have forgotten their real mission is to educate… It is based on the startling premise, that, in the authors words “every student has a mind and is curious about the wider world”. It therefore stands in stark contrast to the other “what’s currently happening in higher education” book I’ll be reviewing next!
This review is of“ Generation on a tightrope: A portrait of today’s college student”, by Arthur Levine and Diane Dean (Jossey-Bass, 2012).
It’s the third in Levine’s series of books (he is the head of the Woodrow Wilson foundation ) offering a “definitive portrait” of a given college cohort. It draws on national undergraduate surveys, and student focus groups and interviews with administrators to sketch out what undergraduates today are really like (more about this methodology later in this post). It also beautifully serves as a perfect “lets blame the students for not learning “ counterpoint to the book I just reviewed.
Many of this book’s generalizations seem right on target: this cohort of college students is terribly anxious about their futures, and more interested in going to college for utilitarian goals (versus learning)…namely to get a good job. They have little faith in our leaders and a dismal view of society, and their personal heroes are typically their parents, who they are excessively tethered to via facebook, calls and texts.. And, of course today’s undergrads. are totally tethered to technology, and use their devices as substitutes for the stresses of interacting face to face (Who doesn’t love to hate the way Facebook and texting have totally taken over your classes and student’s lives.) According to the authors, this is the first genuinely Lake Wobegon generation-- seeing their abilities as above average, never being allowed to fail, expecting to get A’s for simply showing up and doing “average” work.
In other words, while giving lip service to being balanced, this book is devoted to cataloguing what’s wrong with today’s undergraduates-- a generation the authors label as overly coddled, immature and dependent… timid rule followers, entitled, weak in social skills and unequipped to enter adult life (I’m using their exact phrases here!).
Give me a break! I take strong exception to the phrases coddled and entitled. In fact I see my students as much more hardworking, and adult, than I was at their age. It’s easy to denigrate today’s students for keeping their heads down and not protesting society (as the authors do) , provided you pass over the fact ( embedded in the surveys) that today far more undergraduates are forced to work insane hours to finance school. It’s easy to interpret fewer students traveling away to college as signs of excessive dependence, unless you realize that the decision to stay close to home is often prompted by financial need. And what’s wrong with viewing your parents (more often single moms) as your heroes, when you’ve seen them struggle to put your needs first, and our so called national heroes (Lance Armstrong is a perfect example) are revealed as charlatans and cads? Should rebelling against your parents—and not depending on their help—or protesting against society (using the benchmark of the baby boomers) really be the standard for becoming an adult?. Yes, previous cohorts of college students had the “courage” to reject authority, and focus more on deeper questions, but only because they were more apt to be coddled in ivory towers, never had to work to during college, and felt “entitled” to graduate to well paying jobs. Bottom line: many college student symptoms that the authors view as immature and problematic I see as realistic signs of the times. “ It’s the economy stupid”, and today’s undergraduates are responding in a clear-eyed way to the harsh realities they face in today’s world.
I think one problem with the authors’ analyses is that they uncritically accept student and administrators reports. I always hear my own students diss their contemporaries for being immature, superficial and uninterested in the world— succumbing to the widespread idea they are somehow deficient compared to my cohort who came of age in the l970s. If you listen to administrators, you are destined to hear horror stories about the (miniscule number) of helicopter parents who call up to arrange their students schedules and complain when their child gets a B.
But judging by what actually HAPPENS while I’m teaching, I’m convinced that these notions of a generation in trouble are wrong. My Freshmen and Sophomores are genuinely interested in learning, just as much as their counterparts were 10 or 20 years ago …although I would admit, students are more likely to expect A’s—but that’s our problem, not theirs.
And I have my own longitudinal sample as a comparison, as I’ve been teaching the same class for decades. In fact, last semester’s term paper critical thinking projects, were the most accomplished and thoughtful ones I’ve had in 30 years.
Far From the Tree, by Andrew Solomon, Scribner, 2012
I’m making the this review relatively short, even though the book, at 700 pages, is very long:.
Prompted by his own childhood experience of feeling different (having learning disabilities and, especially, being gay) acclaimed author and Times contributor Andrew Solomon decided to spend a decade researching and writing about what it is like to parent “different” kids.
Solomon’s heart wrenching (and uplifting) interviews with families who have children society sees as seriously abnormal is far from simply a tell all about their joys and sorrows. It’s a full semester course written in compelling prose!
After reading Solomon’s chapters- each devoted to a different disorder (or, better put, human difference)—you’ll become a mini expert in everything from Dwarfism, to Down syndrome, to Deafness, from autism to schizophrenia, to criminality, to being transgender, to having a child after being raped etc. You’ll understand the way things used to be done, the emerging research, and the latest treatments You’ll get a full look at the controversies: “Should we to try to correct my child’s differences or embrace his identity (for Dwarfism and the hearing impaired…and interestingly now Autism). “Am I copping out if I try to change my child, or copping out if I don’t?” You’ll learn about the deep divisions in various disability communities relating to these issues as well as about possible causes, interventions, and everything else.
Most of all, you’ll be inspired at how parents often step up to embrace this experience and use it to emotionally grow; how they willingly shoulder the 24/7 care and learn to adore their children for who they are. You’ll also get fascinating insights into the particular kinds of “far from the tree” conditions (or problems) for which redemption sequences-- adoring the child you have- are particularly difficult. ………..Not telling what they are. You’ll need to check out the book!
In sum, this monumental book could be a terrific 1) foundation/textbook for an appealing new course (especially for clinically oriented developmentalists); 2) supplement to an existing course ,not just in lifespan development, but related topics such as the family—provided you ask students to choose one chapter to read. 3) Be great to savor gradually, especially if you are a parent or any person considering having children.
This is a review of two widowhood books: Konigsberg (2011), The Truth about Grief, Simon and Schuster, and Bonanno (2009), The Other Side of Sadness, Basic Books…
My husband died two months ago and I feel fine!. We had a terrific 35 year marriage, and plenty of time to say goodby, as David was in Hospice for eight months, but wouldn’t you expect my equanimity to signal “denial”, or a cold, pathological response? (What a callous woman. She couldn’t really have loved her spouse!)
But my reaction is normal, according to the two clear eyed bereavement books I’m recommending above. What makes these books special is that the authors, a journalist and a premier researcher, draw on QUANTITATIVE studies to debunk the widely accepted principle that normal widows should be immersed in grieving for at least 6 months or a year..
I found the first book, by journalist, Ruth Konigsberg especially appealing because she takes bulls-eye aim at that premier bereavement myth: Kubler-Ross’ five stages of dying . Despite decades of research showing people don’t face death in any patterned way (see chapter 15 of my book), why are Kubler-Ross’s stages so emblazoned in our consciousness, that I can’t possibly convince my students they are wrong?
One reason, the author argues, is that the stage theory satisfies our need for predictability…Moreover, its simplicity, has helped mutate these five stages into widely accepted guidelines for how we react to any type of loss- from being downsized, to divorcing, to departing for college, to the death of a spouse. Could this idea—and the associated principle that we must help people “process their trauma”- have propelled a whole grief work industry aimed at helping us cope with events that we probably would naturally come to terms with without any grieving “help” ? For provocative answers, as well as a fascinating account of the growth of the grief counselor movement, I highly recommend Konigsberg’s book.
If this critique piques your interest in knowing the scientific facts about bereavement in greater depth, then turn to the second book above. It’s written by the person who has done the major research in this field: George Bonanno. Bonanno details his decades of research following widowed people and people exposed other traumas, such as September 11. It explains what happened when the author ventured to China, to illustrate how different this culture’s bereavement practices are from ours.
Here you’ll get compelling evidence that normal grieving has nothing to do with stages. People who have experienced the death of a loved one or lived through traumatic events naturally feel a range of emotions, from fear to anger to (yes!) joy. Moreover, the author argues, our species seems wired for resilience and rebounding fairly quickly is the dominant pattern after major losses. In fact, studies suggest that by impeding this normal resilience through insisting that people go into therapy to dwell on life traumas can have clear negative consequences for the majority of adults!. Yes some people are totally incapacitated after the death of a spouse (a popular example comes from Joan Didion’s “Year of Magical Thinking”). But these anguished anecdotal accounts, although sexier, are more apt to signal problems in mourning. They are the exception, not the rule.
Unfortunately however in consulting amazon, I discovered that Didion's book is far more popular. Several reviewers got extremely angry at Bonanno's ideas... Which tells me there is a basic attraction to the idea that widowhood must be an unremittingly devastating event... and that there must be something "wrong" with people like me.
Now, I’m continuing my blog (as I just revised my website in 2016!!!
" Behold this Oedipus—him who knew the famous riddles and was a man most masterful, not a citizen who did not look with envy on his lot. See him now and see the breakers of misfortune swallow him! Look upon the last day always. Count no mortal happy till he has passed the final limit of his life secure from pain". (Sophocles, Oedipus the King, circa, 1400 B.C)
This beautiful final quotation—from Oedipus the King is just a sample of the incredible lines I’ve read this semester in my course on Greek tragedies. Getting a Master’s in Liberal arts turns out to be one of the best decisions I’ve made. Great literature offers a broader perspective on life. It’s taught me about what’s missing in our psychological/scientific world view. And,—for me personally- it’s not that developmental science is simply missing a faith in a higher power. There are concrete truths we psychologists skate over about the realities of living in this world.
Because developmental science is optimistic (and we want to tell students everything can turn out right), we spell out a clear roadmap for success: If you think post-formally, manage your emotions; care for others; and especially work hard-provided you live in the right society- you will triumph in life. The Greek tragedies offer a more tragic (and accurate) view. Success is ALWAYS wavelike. Life-events are more random. We really have far, far less control than our U.S. Protestant ethic, emphasis on self-efficacy spells out.
I’m 1000 percent in favor of self-efficacy. This passion to achieve gives living purpose. It’s at the root of all of our human advances. It’s basic to who we are ( Erikson captured this idea in his beautiful concept of industry) But this biological press to triumph in life, is at the root of all our problems too—from bullying to war. Worse yet, getting there gives us the illusion that we will stay there. It breeds the sense that we are smarter, superior, immune from disaster, totally in control. And that very attitude breeds the hubris that ENSURES we ultimately fail.
I’m not asking you to assign Oedipus to your students (maybe a supplemental reading????) … But at a minimum might you want to clue your classes into the fact that there are dangers to self-efficacy, success and, the unbridled self-esteem it evokes. At the very least, reading these 1400 B.C. tragedies, has given me an incredible perspective on the tragedy unfolding during this crazy political season in the U.S.
In these next blogs …I’ll be sharing some other quotations perfectly tailored to current politics, and the essence of good living, from the Greeks. They REALLY had it all together in making sense of human life!