The Value of Being Cavalier

Friday, October 9th, 2015

Harold sees the value of being cavalier after realizing that all of the smartest and most dedicated people he knew from college were on incredibly conventional, though prestigious, career tracks:

You could almost draw a 2 x 2 matrix with the axes labeled “Courage” and “Capability” and see a vast yawning void where the right upper quadrant ought to be. I scratched my head about this puzzle for a long time, but no explanation was forthcoming.

So let’s tackle a different question: why is Donald Trump so interesting? I don’t mean his politics per se, but rather his personality. In a time when lots of politicians try to brand themselves an outsider to politics, he actually acts like one, for better or worse. He exudes an attitude of “I’ve already made it, I’m gonna do my thing, and maybe people will like it or not.”

And sure, he’s a billionaire, so it’s easy for him to do that sort of thing. But it’s notable that there are 536 billionaires in the US — just two short of the number of Congressmen and Senators — and almost all of them are fairly boring in their interests and activities. Trump, Soros, Musk, and Thiel are the ones that jump out as exhibiting, in very different ways, the sort of agency you’d expect from someone who’s already made it. Sure, most of us have day jobs and families to feed, so you’d expect us to veer closer to convention. But if anyone could be brashly unconventional, it would be billionaires. And yet that’s not what we observe.

My sense is that aristocrats were way more interesting, and this is not unrelated to their remarkable intellectual productivity. Darwin noodled around with naturalism after abandoning a career in medicine. Edward Gibbon wrote his famous Decline and Fall only after several equally ambitious failures, such as a panoramic history of Switzerland and a survey of contemporary English literature. These were not the equivalents of a grad student carefully publishing some cautious extensions of his PI’s work to get some guaranteed publications, they were bold, imaginative, and ambitious.

In a world where more people than ever could live materially quite comfortably, it seems notable that so few of our elites are demonstrating that level of ambition. It’s as though we had all the tools necessary to support enormous levels of human agency, and decided to just sit on them.

There are probably lots of causes for this shift, from changes in culture to differences in education. But one striking difference is that for past generations of elites, it was common to take a position as a military officer while growing up — whereas today, outside maybe Israel and a few other countries, it’s unheard of. Being a lieutenant in a cavalry regiment was as common then is going to grad school is today.

Part of this, sure, was carrying on the tradition of the nobility as being responsible for physical security. But part of it, too, is the sense that command over men in situations that matter fundamentally changes the way you see the world. As a leader, you have to be responsible both for planning and for execution. You have to closely monitor how the men under your command are behaving. And it forces you into a frame of mind where taking initiative and making decisions are the default, rather than the exception.

We don’t really have analogues of this anymore. Pretty much every prestigious career track involves not personal command but prolonged institutional subordination.

Why Are Little Kids in Japan So Independent?

Thursday, October 8th, 2015

Why are little kids in Japan so independent?

It’s a common sight on Japanese mass transit: children troop through train cars, singly or in small groups, looking for seats.

They wear knee socks, polished patent leather shoes, and plaid jumpers, with wide-brimmed hats fastened under the chin and train passes pinned to their backpacks. The kids are as young as six or seven, on their way to and from school, and there is nary a guardian in sight.

Parents in Japan regularly send their kids out into the world at a very young age. A popular television show called Hajimete no Otsukai, or My First Errand, features children as young as two or three being sent out to do a task for their family. As they tentatively make their way to the greengrocer or bakery, their progress is secretly filmed by a camera crew. The show has been running for more than 25 years.

It’s not exactly independence:

What accounts for this unusual degree of independence? Not self-sufficiency, in fact, but “group reliance,” according to Dwayne Dixon, a cultural anthropologist who wrote his doctoral dissertation on Japanese youth. “[Japanese] kids learn early on that, ideally, any member of the community can be called on to serve or help others,” he says.

This assumption is reinforced at school, where children take turns cleaning and serving lunch instead of relying on staff to perform such duties. This “distributes labor across various shoulders and rotates expectations, while also teaching everyone what it takes to clean a toilet, for instance,” Dixon says.

Taking responsibility for shared spaces means that children have pride of ownership and understand in a concrete way the consequences of making a mess, since they’ll have to clean it up themselves. This ethic extends to public space more broadly (one reason Japanese streets are generally so clean). A child out in public knows he can rely on the group to help in an emergency.

Why study aristocracy?

Thursday, October 1st, 2015

Why study aristocracy?, Harold Lee asks:

The past, it’s said, is a foreign country. If so, that country lies firmly in the third world. Past societies were much poorer than ours, and had significant amount of inequality. The vast majority of people in medieval times were peasants, not nobles; most Romans were landless poor, and even in classical Athens citizens were outnumbered by slaves. In all these societies, only a tiny fraction of the population was wealthy enough and educated enough to do intellectual work.

What’s less appreciated is the obvious corollary, that a tiny fraction of aristocrats was responsible for the entire intellectual output of premodern civilization. Whether you’re reading Greek philosophy, Roman oratory, Indian Vedas, or the collected works of Darwin, what you’re reading is the product of the aristocracy.

Aristocrats were few. They weren’t particularly selected for intelligence; certainly compared to our modern Ivy League elites. And in many ways, they were poorer than we are – more servants, but fewer books, no Internet, no precision machining, no modern dentistry. And yet, despite all those disadvantages, they were able to produce work that we look up to as classics. You could certainly argue that in some areas, our artists and scientists could hold their own against the ancients. The best of HBO could probably stand up to the best of classical theater, for example. But the fact that the aristocrats were even in the same league, coming from impoverished societies with only a tiny class of knowledge workers, is a marvel.

We don’t have aristocrats today. Oh, we do have plenty of rich people, and even the middle class among us could outspend all but the wealthiest ancient aristocrats. But the key factor that made aristocrats productive wasn’t money; it was freedom. It was the freedom to tinker and engage in intellectual play, to focus on being an excellent person, on living well, and doing things. Being an aristocrat is not about having a lot of stuff, it’s about not having higher ups to please.

And that’s something that even the rich mostly don’t have today.

Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million donation to Newark public schools failed miserably

Tuesday, September 29th, 2015

In 2010, Mark Zuckerberg donated $100 million to Newark, New Jersey’s failing public-school system to turn it around in five years. Somehow this failed miserably. Shocking, I know.


Tuesday, September 29th, 2015

Henry Dampier contrasts modern and classical education:

The 20th century approach to liberal arts education has mostly been a creation of head-stuffing — encouraging students to memorize these sorts of pat reasoning chains so that they can buttress more political interventions and the growth of bureaucratic management. These stories are often supported by emotionally powerful tales that lend them some shrill urgency. Professors test for ideological conformity and passion, because knowing the party line and truly believing it generates a reliable sense of legitimacy for the state. This method is common to all rationalist politics regardless of what position the ideology has on the ‘spectrum.’

This differs from the classical liberal arts, which were heavy on the transmission of cultural experience from thousands of years of Western history. Rather than the reduction of history to the pat reasoning of a small number of liberals thinking over a short period of time, it was more about 1,000s of years of history recorded to the best of our ability. Students would then go on to further studies in their specialization. And those students were not the bulk of society — not even the bulk of the intelligent — but a tiny fraction of the elite.

Egalitarian political systems — like the United States after Andrew Jackson expanded the franchise — tend to be uncomfortable with gross disparities in knowledge, especially the kind which is supposed to elevate the student politically over others which the ideology considers politically equal. Simplifying the incredibly complex makes it easier for people who aren’t equal to see one another as equals, to maintain a pretense of egalitarianism, and the ability of an ordinary person to grasp the whole of human experience rather than only a tiny portion of it.

Someone Who Loves Learning and Hates School

Sunday, September 27th, 2015

Michael Strong revisits his essay on How to Give Your Child an Expensive Private Education for Less Than $3,000 Per Year:

(I’ve brought this up before.)

Where microaggressions really come from

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2015

Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning took Donald Black’s theory of conflict and applied it to the modern movement to call out microaggressions. Jonathan Haidt summarizes where microaggressions really come from:

We’re beginning a second transition of moral cultures. The first major transition happened in the 18th and 19th centuries when most Western societies moved away from cultures of honor (where people must earn honor and must therefore avenge insults on their own) to cultures of dignity in which people are assumed to have dignity and don’t need to earn it. They foreswear violence, turn to courts or administrative bodies to respond to major transgressions, and for minor transgressions they either ignore them or attempt to resolve them by social means. There’s no more dueling.

Campbell and Manning describe how this culture of dignity is now giving way to a new culture of victimhood in which people are encouraged to respond to even the slightest unintentional offense, as in an honor culture. But they must not obtain redress on their own; they must appeal for help to powerful others or administrative bodies, to whom they must make the case that they have been victimized. It is the very presence of such administrative bodies, within a culture that is highly egalitarian and diverse (i.e., many college campuses) that gives rise to intense efforts to identify oneself as a fragile and aggrieved victim. This is why we have seen the recent explosion of concerns about microaggressions, combined with demands for trigger warnings and safe spaces, that Greg Lukianoff and I wrote about in The Coddling of the American Mind.


The key idea is that the new moral culture of victimhood fosters “moral dependence” and an atrophying of the ability to handle small interpersonal matters on one’s own. At the same time that it weakens individuals, it creates a society of constant and intense moral conflict as people compete for status as victims or as defenders of victims.

The Trouble With Kids Today

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2015

Charles Murray reviews Robert Putnam’s Our Kids, which covers the same ground as Murray’s own Coming Apart, but with very different policy prescriptions:

But let’s face it: my strategy does not have more chance of working than Putnam’s does. The parsimonious way to extrapolate the trends that Putnam describes so well is to predict an America permanently segregated into social classes that no longer share the common bonds that once made this country so exceptional, accompanied by the destruction of the national civic culture that Putnam and I both cherish.

Why Zimbardo’s Prison Experiment Isn’t in Peter Gray’s Textbook

Wednesday, September 16th, 2015

Peter Gray explains why Zimbardo’s prison experiment isn’t in his textbook:

Twenty-one boys (OK, young men) are asked to play a game of prisoners and guards. It’s 1971. There have recently been many news reports about prison riots and the brutality of guards. So, in this game, what are these young men supposed to do? Are they supposed to sit around talking pleasantly with one another about sports, girlfriends, movies, and such? No, of course not. This is a study of prisoners and guards, so their job clearly is to act like prisoners and guards—or, more accurately, to act out their stereotyped views of what prisoners and guards do. Surely, Professor Zimbardo, who is right there watching them (as the Prison Superintendent) would be disappointed if, instead, they had just sat around chatting pleasantly and having tea. Much research has shown that participants in psychological experiments are highly motivated to do what they believe the researchers want them to do. Any characteristics of an experiment that let research participants guess how the experimenters expect or want them to behave are referred to as demand characteristics. In any valid experiment it is essential to eliminate or at least minimize demand characteristics. In this experiment, the demands were everywhere.

In order to assess the degree to which participants in the experiment could guess what Zimbardo expected to happen, Banuazizi and Mohavedi presented some of the details of the experimental procedure to a large sample of college students who had not heard of the experiment and asked them to write down what they thought the researchers wanted to prove and to describe how the guards and prisoners were likely to behave. The great majority guessed the results. In various words, they said that the purpose of the experiment was to prove that normal people placed into the position of prisoner or guard would act like real prisoners and guards, and they predicted that the guards would act in hostile, domineering ways and the prisoners would react in either passive or defiant ways or both.

Subsequent revelations about the experiment—published since the first edition of my textbook—reveal that the guards didn’t even have to guess how they were supposed to behave; they were largely told how by Zimbardo and his associates.

Boys with Sticks

Tuesday, September 15th, 2015

Simcha Fisher tells a tale of boys with sticks:

Several years ago, a nice family came over our house. It was partly for a social call, and partly to see if our family would do well as a daycare for their two kids when the mom went back to work. The girl was about four, and the boy was about six.

As we adults chatted, the kids explored the house. At the far end of the living room were the toys, including a tidy bucket full of weapons belonging to our sons and daughters. There were bows and arrows, swords of all kinds, scimitars, light sabers, pistols, slingshots, rifles, daggers, and machine guns. I watched a little nervously, because I knew this mom leaned progressive, and was raising her kids to be non-violent.

Her little girl immediately found a baby doll, sat down, and put the doll to bed. The little boy scuttled over to the weapons, and before I could say more than, “Um–” he had grabbed two swords and swung them, with a natural expertise, in a gleeful arc over his head.

“HAHH!” he shouted, and held that pose for a moment, swords raised. Eyes on fire, happiest boy in the world.

I slewed my eyes over to his parents, not sure what I would see. Horror? Disgust? Outrage? Dismay?

They both looked . . .  immensely relieved. “Well, there goes that,” said the dad, apparently referring to the no-weapons policy they’d followed strictly for the last six years. I tried to apologize, but they both said, “No, no, it’s fine.” And it was fine. There was no tension in the room. Their son had hands made to hold weapons, and now he had some.

I wasn’t surprised to see the boy taking so naturally to swordplay, but I was fascinated to see his parents taking so naturally to the rules of our house, which were so different from the rules in their own home.  Once their son’s unsullied hands first made contact with the weapons of war, the whole family relaxed into that reality immediately.

There’s a larger point:

It doesn’t make violence go away when we always tell boys, “Put that stick down.” Instead, it’s making a world where people, boys and girls alike, have no idea what to do about unjust violence.


Boys who are never allowed to be wild are boys who never learn how to control that wildness.


Don’t banish fighting; banish cruelty.

In the issue of violent play, as with so many other issues, we’re forgetting there’s such a thing as balance and middle ground. Parents believe that there are only two choices: we can raise our sons to be quiet, passive, nurturing empaths who could easily slide into a princess dress without making a ripple — or we can raise them to be swaggering, slavering beasts who exist only to give orders and mow down anything in their path.

There is, of course, an in-between. There are men who are strong and tough and in control of their strength, and these men were once boys who grew up with both weapons and rules.


Violence doesn’t take over when boys are allowed to have sticks. Violence takes over when no one tells boys what sticks are for.

Money And School Performance

Monday, September 14th, 2015

In 1985 a federal district judge took partial control over the troubled Kansas City, Missouri, School District (KCMSD) on the grounds that it was an unconstitutionally segregated district with dilapidated facilities and students who performed poorly:

For decades critics of the public schools have been saying, “You can’t solve educational problems by throwing money at them.” The education establishment and its supporters have replied, “No one’s ever tried.” In Kansas City they did try. To improve the education of black students and encourage desegregation, a federal judge invited the Kansas City, Missouri, School District to come up with a cost-is-no-object educational plan and ordered local and state taxpayers to find the money to pay for it.

Kansas City spent as much as $11,700 per pupil–more money per pupil, on a cost of living adjusted basis, than any other of the 280 largest districts in the country. The money bought higher teachers’ salaries, 15 new schools, and such amenities as an Olympic-sized swimming pool with an underwater viewing room, television and animation studios, a robotics lab, a 25-acre wildlife sanctuary, a zoo, a model United Nations with simultaneous translation capability, and field trips to Mexico and Senegal. The student-teacher ratio was 12 or 13 to 1, the lowest of any major school district in the country.

The results were dismal. Test scores did not rise; the black-white gap did not diminish; and there was less, not greater, integration.

The Kansas City experiment suggests that, indeed, educational problems can’t be solved by throwing money at them, that the structural problems of our current educational system are far more important than a lack of material resources, and that the focus on desegregation diverted attention from the real problem, low achievement.

The Fall of the Meritocracy

Friday, September 11th, 2015

Toby Young discusses the fall of the meritocracy:

In 1958, my father, Michael Young, published a short book called The Rise of the Meritocracy, 1870–2023: An Essay on Education and Equality. It purported to be a paper written by a sociologist in 2034 about the transformation of Britain from a feudal society in which people’s social position and level of income were largely determined by the socio-economic status of their parents into a modern Shangri-La in which status is based solely on merit. He invented the word meritocracy to describe this principle for allocating wealth and prestige and the new society it gave rise to.

The essay begins with the introduction of open examinations for entry into the civil service in the 1870s — hailed as “the beginning of the modern era” — and continues to discuss real events up until the late 1950s, at which point it veers off into fantasy, describing the emergence of a fully-fledged meritocracy in Britain in the second half of the twentieth century. In spite of being semi-fictional, the book is clearly intended to be prophetic — or, rather, a warning. Like George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), The Rise of the Meritocracy is a dystopian satire that identifies various aspects of the contemporary world and describes a future they might lead to if left unchallenged. Michael was particularly concerned about the introduction of the 11+ by Britain’s wartime coalition government in 1944, an intelligence test that was used to determine which children should go to grammar schools (the top 15 per cent) and which to secondary moderns and technical schools (the remaining 85 per cent). It wasn’t just the sorting of children into sheep and goats at the age of eleven that my father objected to. As a socialist, he disapproved of equality of opportunity on the grounds that it gave the appearance of fairness to the massive inequalities created by capitalism. He feared that the meritocratic principle would help to legitimise the pyramid-like structure of British society.

In the short term, the book achieved its political aim. It was widely read by Michael’s colleagues in the Labour Party (he ran the party’s research department from 1945 to 1951) and helped persuade his friend Anthony Crosland, who became Labour Education Secretary in 1965, that the 11+ should be phased out and the different types of school created by the 1944 Education Act should be replaced by non-selective, one-size-fits-all comprehensives. Crosland famously declared: “If it’s the last thing I do, I’m going to destroy every f***ing grammar school in England. And Wales and Northern Ireland.” Today, there are only 164 grammar schools in England and sixty-eight in Northern Ireland. There are none in Wales.


Suppose we do manage to create the meritocratic education system referred to above. It would produce a good deal of upward and downward social mobility to begin with, but over the long term, as the link between status and merit grows stronger, you’d expect to see less and less inter-generational movement. Why? Because the children of the meritocratic elite would, in all likelihood, inherit the natural gifts enjoyed by their parents. In time, a meritocratic society would become as rigid and class-bound as a feudal society. Let’s call this the ossification problem.

This is precisely what happens in the dystopian future described in my father’s book. The sociologist narrator writes:

By 1990 or thereabouts, all adults with IQs of more than 125 belonged to the meritocracy. A high proportion of the children with IQs over 125 were the children of these same adults. The top of today are breeding the top of tomorrow to a greater extent than at any time in the past. The elite is on the way to becoming hereditary; the principles of heredity and merit are coming together. The vital transformation which has taken more than two centuries to accomplish is almost complete.

Most people think of this as a wholly theoretical danger that won’t arise until some distant point in the future, if then. The conventional wisdom among social commentators in Britain and America is that their societies can’t possibly be meritocratic because of the low levels of social mobility. But a lack of movement between classes is only evidence of this if you assume that natural abilities are distributed more or less randomly across society. What if that’s not true? It could be that two things have been happening in the advanced societies of the West that have been obscured by the intense focus among policy-makers on the impact of environmental factors on children’s life chances. First, our societies could be more meritocratic than they’re generally given credit for; and, second, the “vital transformation” described by my father, whereby the meritocratic elite is becoming a hereditary elite, could already be under way.

I was honestly surprised that he went on to cite The Bell Curve.

Shooting Records

Monday, September 7th, 2015

Exhibition-shooter and fast-draw record-holder Bob Munden noticed that The Guinness Book of Records dropped most shooting records:

In 1981, the year most shooting records disappeared from the Guinness Book, I called David Boehm of the Sterling Publishing Company and asked why. He told me that there is a committee that approves books to be used in school libraries across the nation. The committee informed Mr. Boehm that it would only approve the Guinness Book for continued use as a reference book in school libraries if gun records were removed. To protect the Guinness Book from a black list, that’s what the publishing company felt it had to do.

If you look at recent editions of the Guinness Book of World Records, you will notice that most gun records by shooters using real firearms (not gimmicked with things like light-weight aluminum barrels,) are no longer listed, including those set by the famous Annie Oakley, Ed McGivern, Tom Frye and myself. It is a shame that a small group of people on that education committee, people who probably grew up in cities away from the shooting sports millions of Americans and citizens of many other nations appreciate and enjoy, can have the power to effectively erase history.

Training a Bureaucratic Population

Wednesday, September 2nd, 2015

Our educational system is all about training a bureaucratic population, Henry Dampier argues:

What’s important about developing a bureaucrat is creating the correct emotional temperament. It doesn’t have much to do with cultivating excellence, because the presence of excellence tends to be disruptive to any bureaucratic setting, as excellence tends to be unpredictable and challenging to account for. Adult bureaucrats tend to complain a lot about ‘stress,’ in part because they have been trained from an early age to respond to distress resulting from verbal disapproval by authorities and peers. This takes a lot of repetitive operant conditioning, which is one of the top reasons why school curricula tend to be so repetitive and pointless on the surface. The purpose isn’t to create good calculators or a labor force aware of trigonometry, but to create a mass of people who are docile, predictable, and easily frightened into compliance.

The long term consequence of this has been an overproduction in clerk-like personalities. Because the state mandates that everyone go through clerk training, you wind up with a homogenous population marked by the character traits that have been historically associated with clerks — bad physical health, obedience to authority, intense respect for arbitrary rules, a weak aesthetic sensibility, an obsession with official approval, and androgyny.

Ruminating vs. Problem-Solving

Wednesday, August 26th, 2015

We may be training the next generation to be unhappy anti-Stoics, Lukanioff and Haidt argue, because the modern fashion for spotting microaggressions and demanding trigger warnings amounts to negative cognitive behavioral training.

Negative repetitive thinking is linked to depression, anxiety, substance abuse and eating disorders:

Rumination has been found to predict both the onset of depression as well as the continuation of it in a number of studies. In the lab, participants’ symptoms worsen when they are asked or taught to ruminate, according to Ed Watkins, a professor of experimental and applied clinical psychology at the University of Exeter, who has conducted some of the studies.


In addition, researchers have found that the more one dwells on problems in an unhelpful way, the more one gets locked into the pattern, until even small triggers can spark a cycle automatically.


Dr. Watkins and his team at the University of Exeter have found that there are helpful ways to dwell on difficulties, such as to think concretely about a situation and focus on sensory details, how it happened and how to do it differently next time. In contrast, people who engage in unhelpful, depressive or stressful rumination tend to focus on the issue more negatively, globally and abstractly. They often focus on “why” questions such as “Why does this always happen? Why do I always do this?”

In one study, Dr. Watkins trained ruminators and depressed people to think more concretely by giving them daily mental exercises that focused on solving the problem. After one week, they saw significant decreases in self-reported rumination and depression relative to the placebo control group. Later they found similar effects on patients with major depression.


Beyond cognitive retraining, two other techniques can be helpful, experts say — mindfulness, in which people learn to observe but not judge or evaluate themselves, and cognitive behavioral therapy. In the latter, people are taught to evaluate how likely it is that their worry will actually happen, and to reinterpret situations in a more positive way. They learn to problem-solve rather than ruminate, according to Nilly Mor, a professor in the school of education at Hebrew University who studies rumination.