A Near-World Class Model in the African Forest

a story, by Jacques Delacroix

Long story short: In my thirties, I am part of a French crew going to film a commercial in Casamance. That’s the southern and forested part of Senegal, on the west coast of Africa. (It’s close to where the old and successful TV series “Roots” was filmed.) Senegal is a former French colony. French is widely spoken there, including by all formally educated Senegalese. We ride in a short caravan of VW buses from the local biggish city and into the forest. It’s hot. The commercial will be filmed the next day on a river next to the edge of the tropical forest. Where we will stay tonight, and probably the next night, is kept secret.

In the middle of the caravan, there is an older model Peugeot sedan, or maybe, it’s even a Mercedes. It’s the only air-conditioned vehicle in the procession. The star of the future commercial rides in it, in full comfort. She is actually a top model of near-world class fame. The client is a big French company selling informal but fairly chic women’s apparel internationally, kind of pricey apparel. The advertising agency in charge does not have any reason to try and cut corners. It’s gone for the best, or for the very-next-to-best talent in that line of work. The model is a tall, lithe blonde (of course) with a long elegant neck, long legs, long arms, and a torso like a ten-year old boy’s. She has a beautiful face, of course, not like some of my ex-girlfriends, for example, but like something a bit out of this world, ethereal, if you will. She is alone in the car, like royalty.

After about an hour, or 25 miles, riding on good dirt roads we, arrive at our place of rest in late afternoon. It’s a magnificent three story building of Moorish style made entirely of dried mud. I will learn later that local people erected it with their bare hands. There are windows on each of its façades that are separated by thick vertical ribs from bottom to top. The windows have no glass panes but each is neatly covered with fine white mosquito netting. There is just one small entrance on the ground floor near where we stop. It takes a while for all of use to file in for checking as one would in a regular hotel and, that gives us time to admire again the building’s dramatic architecture. Inside, there is a normal counter with two clerks taking our names and assigning us mostly each to a small room. There is enough light coming in from the outside for the registrations to proceed normally.

The rooms have no door but the walls are so thick that one would have to contort one’s neck quite a bit to get a good view of the inside of any of them. Each has a wooden table and two chairs. The broad bed is fixed to the wall and made of the same adobe material. There is a thin mattress, two pillows, and cotton blankets on each bed. All those items are sparkling white. Myself, I like it a lot already in that hotel that’s barely a hotel. As the night begins falling, quickly as it does in the tropics, a local teenager barefoot and in shorts coughs politely at the entrance to my room. I invite him in and he lights the oil lamp mounted on the wall and shows me where the matches are, just in case.

Evening preparations are interrupted by a shrill voice protesting in accented French. (The protester is Danish or Swedish; French is not her native language.) Miss Near-World Class Model is complaining because her room is on the third floor and there are no elevators. The producer immediately has her baggage moved to a new room on the second floor. She does not like it there either because there is no view, that floor being beneath the tree branch line. Back to the third floor she goes. Twenty minutes later, begins another vivacious exchange between Miss Near-World Class Model and the producer. I eavesdrop, of course. (Well, I am professional social scientist; what do you think?) It seems they had agreed that she would receive her fee in the form of a round-trip business class ticket Paris-New York. (It’s a common way to avoid some taxes.) Now Miss Near World Class Model demands that the ticket be for the costly supersonic Concord. I, and probably everyone else in the auditory loop, thinks it’s just a tantrum. The Concord shaves something like a little over one hour off that trip. She can’t be in that much of a hurry. She just wants bragging rights. Plus, we are in the middle of Africa, years before cell phones. There is nothing the producer can do right now except, perhaps, perhaps, promise. And that may be the whole point of the argument, before her works begins, in only a few hours.

Quickly, the whole company, around twenty-five of us, is called to dinner. It takes place under the trees, around a nice big wood fire. We all sit on the ground and each of us is handed a miraculously hot, big recipient made of clay (same as the building behind us) filled with a sort of rice porridge with hard-boiled eggs and pieces of hard chicken. There are old French biscuits for dessert. We drink the bottled water and the beer some of us were smart enough to buy while we were going through the town. Everyone is in a good mood and, probably being put in mind of the Boy-Scout camps of their childhood; a few begin singing. Two local young men enter the circle with their small hand drums. Most of the crew joins in and that bunch of white city people from far away have one of the best evenings in their lives, in the Casamance forest.

Everyone is in bed before ten nevertheless. That’s because the first and main scene of the commercial we are there to film is supposed to be caught against a rising sun. Our princess is nowhere to be seen or heard. She is not currently berating anyone. She may be eating cold sandwiches in her lonely room. Except that, around nine, she sends someone to tell the producer she is scared to sleep by herself in her room with no door. He proposes the company of any number of vigorous youthful dudes in the crew, including me. On her declining, he persuades a very young woman, an assistant’s assistant probably, to spend the night with Miss Model.

To be fair, Miss Model’s conduct is neither that surprising nor that awful in context. Put yourself in her position. The wildest place she has ever been is probably a rock club in Copenhagen or in Stockholm. No one around her in the crew can provide the comfort of her native language. She is almost certainly uncomfortable in French, which is not even her second language. (English is more likely.) Is it possible that being suddenly surrounded by black people dredges up primitive racist fears in a female citizen of a country with no colonial African past, and therefore no experiences of proximity to black people? To ask the question is to answer it. Finally, there is the tenacious influence of envy that gnaws at the hearts of simple-hearted girls, beginning in a high school. Miss Model has probably only five or six rivals to whom she compares herself, other tall, lithe, career-oriented young women in the same league as she is: Mary-Ann gets to fly in the Concord; I will die if I have to fly a regular commercial jet!

The next morning, everyone is forced to wake up at five. (Can’t miss the sunrise, remember?) Someone has managed to produce some coffee, weak stuff, obviously brewed and boiled in a large pot but hot enough, with milk and sugar. There is also day-old, or two-day old, French bread. Unfortunately, though there are flush toilets at every story – with a big bucket of river water near the commodes – there is no real running water. So, washing off your face demands a harsh decision. You hope you actually packed up towelettes. How do I know it’s river water in the buckets? Well, I am an experienced fisherman.

Some of the crew go directly to the river’s side to check on the physical preparations. The director goes there specifically to greet the twenty or so locals who will be an important part of the video. They must be shivering, wearing only a loincloth – as instructed – before sunrise, standing near the long canoe they will be paddling up river in a short time. Most are postal workers and teachers, and such. (They all have to know French well to be able to follow the director’s instructions. Real paddlers, if they were to be found, probably couldn’t.) Some are receiving last minute initiation to paddling. The storybook – such as it is – is a collection of colonial clichés, of course. Nobody cares then. (It’s the seventies.) The African extras care least of all. They will be earning fat money, paddling five times five minutes, if that, and sitting under a tree shooting the breeze between cuts.

Meanwhile, the rest of us are still near the hotel building; we stand around downing coffee and smoking cigarettes waiting for our marching orders. It’s a bit like being a recruit in the armed forces again: hurry up and wait. Miss Model is nowhere to be seen. No one says anything but I know I am worried. If she had another tantrum and managed to get a ride to town during the night, the whole project is dead. Then, she appears in the dimly lit doorway.

Her hair is impeccably combed and held in place in a style markedly different from yesterday’s. I am guessing this is the hairdo the storybook calls for. She is wearing perfectly pressed white linen pants and a simple yet somehow elegant form-fitting pink t-shirt. I am guessing, again, that those are clothes from the collection we will be advertising in the commercial. She is carrying a squarish box by its handle. A young local woman who might be a hairdresser is waiting for her. (I think she is a hairdresser because, unlike other women in the area, she is not wearing a head scarf and her hair is processed.)

The African woman points to a downed tree trunk with a clean towel set on top. Miss Model sits on it and opens her case without a word. The local woman squats and hold a large mirror to her face. I get drafted to hold a flashlight just so, between her face and the mirror. I watch in amazement Miss Model create a work of art on her face in the semi-penumbra. She uses at least twenty different colors of make-up held in tiny square containers in her square case. I observe that she relies on six different brushes and several crayons in addition to four shades of lipstick. She handles her tiny tools without hesitancy. A few times, she signals to me to adjust the direction of the cone of light. Her other helper, being a woman, seems to know exactly what to do with the mirror. Miss Model soldiers on for forty-five minutes or more. Now, I have often looked at people working but I have never seen such attention to detail or such concentration, such seriousness. There, under a canopy of strange and vaguely threatening trees, in the middle of Africa, and in the darkness, Miss Model gives us all a lesson in perfect, cool professionalism.

Soon, she stands up and mutters a few words of thanks to the mirror lady and, in absent minded fashion, to me. The director has been standing there, watching and saying nothing. He guides her to the river for the opening shot just as the first premises of a rising sun show themselves.

If I forgot that I am talking here about a four-minute commercial destined only to be shown at intermission in French movie theaters, I would say the rest of the day is a triumph. Everyone does his or her job swiftly and intelligently; the parts fall into place with ease. The paddlers get into the spirit of the thing. They forget they are going to have to go back to work in an ironed white shirt tomorrow, or the next day. They produce from deep in their chests the satisfying sound of men pulling hard although they have only gone about fifty yards for each cut. It helps a lot that they have seen the same movies that inspired the storybook.

Miss Model herself responds exceedingly well to the modest requests for minimal acting in the storybook: She is asked to stand prettily in the bow of the long black canoe paddled by twenty half naked black men. She holds one hip slightly and graciously askew the better to display the embroidered back pocket of her pants. She has been told not to smile to avoid drawing attention away from the t-shirt she is modeling. There are several takes. In the end, she acquits herself fabulously. The apparel merchant, the sponsor, will be more than happy. And, I know you are curious about this: The producer was inflexible, Miss Model did not fly to New York and back on the Concord.

Nightcap

  1. Driving alone, listening to talk radio Addison del Mastro, New Urbs
  2. My history of manual labor Tyler Cowen, MR
  3. My first year in the Covid lockdown Maria Farrell, Crooked Timber
  4. Biden finally called up Netanyahu Michael Koplow, Ottomans & Zionists
  5. The Strastnoy of Ayn Rand Roderick T. Long, Policy of Truth
  6. Brand India Ravinder Kaur, Aeon

Nightcap

  1. A Coasian argument for a parliamentary system Asher Meir, Money Illusion
  2. Statesmanship as human excellence Daniel Mahoney, Modern Age
  3. Another Liberty Canon: Nietzsche Barry Stocker, NOL
  4. Working remotely Steven Malanga, City Journal

Nightcap

  1. A brief cultural history of work sucking Isha Aran, New Republic
  2. Why Jerry Taylor must resign from Niskanen Jason Brennan, 200-Proof Liberals
  3. How epidemic predictors got it all wrong Branko Milanovic, globalinequality
  4. Hayek, Mises, Slobodian, and federalism (pdf) David Gordon, QJAE

Nightcap

  1. The beguiling, troubling future of work Diana Pho, Wired
  2. “College is a distraction for most kids” Rick Weber, NOL
  3. Indonesia in the Cold War Ben Bland, War on the Rocks
  4. Pandemics in the Ottoman Empire Isacar Bolaños, Origins

Nightcap

  1. In defense of Cortez and the Conquest of the Aztecs Daniel Rey, Spectator
  2. Race and empire in Meiji Japan (1868-1912) Ayelet Zohar, A-PJ
  3. The political legacy of World War I John Moser, Cato Unbound
  4. How working from home will spur creativity Nick Bilton, Vanity Fair

Nightcap

  1. Dangerous myths about nuclear weapons David Logan, War on the Rocks
  2. Honest putdowns Robin Hanson, Overcoming Bias
  3. “Sitting next to Sally” John Quiggan, Crooked Timber
  4. Hopelessness and the new capitalism Hans Eicholz, Law & Liberty

Nightcap

  1. Mourning in place Edwidge Danticat, NY Review of Books
  2. Is working hard good? Jason Brennan, 200-Proof Liberals
  3. When hard work doesn’t equal productive work Mary Lucia Darst, NOL
  4. The actual work of trying to formulate truly alien conceptions of life, consciousness, and thought is mostly yet to be done” Nick Nielsen, GSA

Nightcap

  1. Cancel Culture and the discourse of Ad Hoc-ery Irfan Khawaja, Policy of Truth
  2. Should we admire the Vikings? Rebecca Onion, Slate
  3. A new theory of Western civilization Judith Shulevitz, Atlantic
  4. Our brave new remote work world Robin Hanson, Overcoming Bias

The Revolt of the Baristas

For several weeks, nearly every night, I have a déjà vu experience.

First, I watch Fox News where I see crowds of younger people in dark clothing breaking things, setting buildings on fire, and assaulting police. (I infer they are younger people because of the suppleness of their movements.)

Then, I switch to French news on “Vingt-trois heures.” There, I see young people in large French cities, breaking shop windows, damaging and burning cars, and assaulting police.

The supposed reason for the continuing rioting in several major American cities is police brutality toward Blacks and racial injustice in general.

The rioting on wealthy business arteries of French cities was, as of recently, occasioned by the victory of a favorite soccer club in an important tournament. A week later, the defeat of the same soccer club occasioned the same kind of behavior except worse, by what I am sure were the same people.

No common cause to these similar conducts, you might think. That seems true but the behaviors are so strikingly similar, I am not satisfied with this observation. I have to ask, what do the rioters have in common on the two sides of the Atlantic. Your answer may be as good as mine – probably better – but here is my take:

Two things.

First, both youngish Americans and youngish French people are counting on a high degree of impunity. Both American society and French society have gone wobbly on punishment in the past thirty years (the years of the “participation prize” for school children). Used to be, in France (where I grew up) that you did not set cars afire because there was the off-chance it would earn you several years of your beautiful youth in prison. No more. The police makes little effort to catch the perpetrators anyway. The charging authorities let them go with an admonition, maybe even a severe warning. In the US, the civil authorities often order the police to do nothing, to “stand down” in the face of looting and arson. And they refuse legitimate help. Here, the elected authorities are part- time rioters in their hearts – for whatever reason. The local DAs in Demo strongholds routinely release rioters on their own recognizance. It’s almost a custom.

It seems to me that in any group, from pre-kindergarten on, there are some who will not regulate themselves unless they feel threatened by powerful and likely punishment. Perhaps, it’s a constant proportion of any society. Remove the fear of punishment, it’s 100% certain someone will do something extreme, destructive, or violent. I don’t like this comment but I am pretty sure it’s right.

The second thing the rioting in France and in the US have in common is that they seem to involve people who don’t feel they have a stake in the current social arrangements. In the French case, it’s easy to guess who they are (a strong guess, actually). Bear with me. In the sixties and seventies, various French governments built massive, decent housing projects outside Paris and other big cities (again: “decent”). I was there myself, working as a minor government city planner. The above-board objective was to move people out of slums. It’s too easy to forget that the plan worked fine in this respect. With rising prosperity, inevitably, the new towns and cities became largely occupied by new immigrants.

Those who burn private cars on the Champs Elysees in Paris recently are their children and grandchildren. The immigrants themselves, like immigrants everywhere, tend to work hard to save, and to retain the strict mores of their mostly rural origins. Their children go haywire because the same mores can’t be applied in an urban, developed society. (“Daughter: You may go to the cinema once a month accompanied by your two cousins; no boys.” “Dad: You are kidding right?”) Misery is rarely or never an issue. In the French welfare state, it’s difficult to go hungry or cold. I have often observed that the French rioters are amazingly well dressed by American college standards, for example. Incidentally, the same children of immigrants frequently have several college degrees, sometimes advanced degrees. But, fact is, ordinary French universities are pretty bad. Further fact is that in a slow growing or immobile economy like France’s, few college degrees matter to the chance of employment anyway. The rioters feel that they don’t have a stake in French society, perhaps because they don’t.

Seen from TV and given their agility and sturdiness, American rioters seem to be in their twenties to early thirties; they are “millenials.” I don’t know what really animates them because I don’t believe their slogans. It’s not only that they are badly under-informed. (For example they seem to believe that policemen killing African Americans is common practice. It’s not. See my recent article on “Systemic Racism” for figures.) It’s also that they have not specified what remedies they want to the ills they denounce. An “end to capitalism” does not sound to me like a genuine demand. Neither does the eradication of a kind of racism that, I think, hardly exists in America any more. The impression is made stronger by the fact that they don’t have a replacement program for what they seem bent on destroying. (“Socialization of the means of production” anyone?) Their destructiveness inspires fear and it may be its only objective.

I don’t know well where the American rioters come from, sociologically and intellectually. They are the cohort that marries late or not at all. It is said that many never hope to become home owners, that they see themselves as renters for life. Few buy cars (possibly a healthy choice in every way eliminating a normal American drain on one’s finances). I think that they firmly believe that the Social Security programs to which they contribute through their paychecks will be long gone by their retirement age. (I hear this all the time, in progressive Santa Cruz, California.) I hypothesize that many of those young people have had the worst higher education experience possible. Let me say right away that I don’t blame much so-called “indoctrination” by leftist teachers; leftists are just not very good at what they do. Most students don’t pay attention, in general anyway. Why would they pay attention to Leftie propaganda? Rather it seems to me that many spend years in college studying next to nothing and in vain.

Roughly, there are two main kinds of courses study in American higher education. The first, covering engineers and accountants, and indirectly, medical doctors and vets, for example have a fairly straightforward payoff: Get your degree, win a fairly well paying job quickly. Graduates of these fields seldom have a sense of futility about their schooling though they may be scantily educated (by my exalted standards). The second kind of course of studies was first modeled in the 19th century to serve the children of the moneyed elites. I mean “Liberal Arts” in the broadest sense. Its purpose was first to help young people form judgment and second, to impart to them a language common to the elites of several Western countries. For obvious reasons, degrees in such areas were not linked to jobs (although they may have been a pre-requisite to political careers). Many, most of the majors following this pattern are pretty worthless to most of their graduates. A social critic – whose name escapes me unfortunately – once stated that American universities and colleges graduate each year 10,000 times more journalism majors that there are journalism openings.

As a rule, the Liberal Arts only lead to jobs through much flexibility of both graduates and employers. Thus, in good times, big banks readily hire History and Political Science majors into their lower management ranks on the assumption that they are reasonably articulate and also trainable. Then there are the graduates in Women’s Studies and Environmental Studies who may end up less educated than they were on graduating from high school. It’s not that one could not, in principle acquire habits of intellectual rigor though endeavors focusing on women or on the environments. The problem is that the spirit of inquiry in such fields (and many more) was strangled from the start by an ideological hold. (One women’s studies program, at UC Santa Cruz , is even called “Feminist Studies,” touching candidness!) It seems to me that more and more Liberal Arts disciplines are falling into the same pit, beginning with Modern Languages. There, majors who are Anglos regularly graduate totally unable to read a newspaper in Spanish but well versed in the injustices perpetrated on Hispanic immigrants since the mid 19th century.

Those LA graduates who have trouble finding good employment probably don’t know that they are pretty useless. After all, most never got bad grades. They received at least Bs all along. And why should instructors, especially the growing proportion on fragile, renewable contracts look for trouble by producing non-conforming grade curves? The grading standard is pretty much the same almost (almost) everywhere: You do the work more or less: A; you don’t do the work: B. But nothing will induce disaffection more surely than going unrewarded when one has the sentiment of having done what’s required by the situation. That’s the situation on ten of thousands of new graduates produced each year. And many of those come out burdened by lifetime debts. (Another rich topic, obviously.)

Incidentally, I am in no way opining that higher education studies should always lead to gainful employment. I am arguing instead that many, most, possible almost all LA students shouldn’t be in colleges or universities at all, at least in the manner of the conventional four-year degree (now five or six years).

The college graduates I have in mind, people in their twenties, tend to make work choices that correspond to their life experience devoid of effort. In my town, one hundred will compete for a job as a barista in one of the of several thriving coffee shops while five miles away, jobs picking vegetables that pay 50% or twice more go begging. I suspect the preference is partly because you can’t dress well in the fields and because they, the fields, don’t provide much by way of casual human warmth the way Starbucks routinely does.

Go ahead, feel free to like this analysis. I don’t like it much myself. It’s too anecdotal; it’s too ad hoc. It’s lacking in structural depth. It barely nicks the surface. It’s sociologically poor. At best, it’s unfinished. Why don’t you give it a try?

A last comment: a part of my old brain is temped by the paradoxical thought that the determinedly democratic revolt in Belorussia belongs on the same page as the mindless destructiveness in France and the neo-Bolshevik rioting in large American cities.

Nightcap

  1. Searching for consolation in Max Weber’s Work Ethic George Blaustein, New Republic
  2. Keep doing what you love Federico Varese, Times Literary Supplement
  3. The conservative origins of British socialism Johnathan Rutherford, New Statesman
  4. The question that tormented Søren Kierkegaard Morton Jensen, American Interest

When hard work doesn’t equal productive work

In March 2020, David Rubenstein gave an interview in which he lamented the vanishing of a system in which “hard work” guarantees success. While the source of nostalgia is understandable, there is an epistemological problem with the conjoined assumptions underlying the concept of hard work and also what a “system” promises, i.e. if one works hard, then one become successful. The issue appears to be one of qualifying and quantifying “hard work.”

My previous article “An aspirational paradox” mentions Abigail Fisher and her failed lawsuit against University of Texas – Austin over her non-acceptance to the institution. The case was a painful example of the disillusionment which must follow when believers in the exceptionality of the commonplace are finally made aware of its mediocrity. The Fisher saga represents the modern tragedy of familial ambition: a child’s parents place her on a systemic path, promised by wise public-school teachers and caring guidance counselors to lead to success, only to discover that the end is the furnace of Moloch. Caveat emptor.

The strange, disembodied entity called “the system” doesn’t fail; what fails is individual and collective concepts of what the system is and what it requires. Mankind has a capacity for filling a void of ignorance with figments of its imagination. In general, such practice is harmless. But when a person believes his own creation and builds his future upon it, that is when the ‘systemic failure’ narrative begins.

Drawing again from my own encounters, for many years I knew a music teacher who believed that one must never listen to repertoire. Yes, you read that correctly: a teacher of an aural art form believes that listening to music is detrimental. The person had many long, pseudo-pedagogical explanations for this peculiar belief. His idea was atypical. Professors at the world’s top conservatories and musicians from major ensembles all emphasize listening as a crucial part of study. Listening as a formal component of music study dates to the invention and mass distribution of the phonograph in the early 20th century. Even further back, students attended live concerts.

This teacher had a pedagogical system built around his beliefs, which included that students should neither learn basic keyboard skills nor how to play with accompaniment. Unsurprisingly, students who adhered to his system didn’t progress very well. Problems ranged from poor intonation and lack of ensemble skills to arriving for college auditions with no grasp of appropriate repertoire. Feedback from competitions was kind but completely honest. The more students failed, the more obstinately he insisted that political maneuverings or class biases were to blame. “The system,” by which he meant auditions, was “broken,” designed to not give people a “fair chance.”

Sadly, this man affected a large number of students, many of whom worked hard – practicing long hours, racking up credits, participating in multiple ensembles – only to discover that their “system” was a fraud. All of their hard work was for naught.

There was one particularly heartbreaking case of a young woman who applied to a fairly prominent private university. By her own account, her audition was catastrophic. In the lead up to the audition, she did her best to ensure success; she had two lessons a week, increased her daily practice time by an hour, and played along to background recordings. The amount of work she did, measured in terms of effort and time spent, was brutal. But she didn’t pass the audition and was understandably devastated.

A system she had followed religiously since fourth grade had failed her; moreover, her hard work was guaranteed to fail. There was no way for her to succeed based upon her training. In some ways, this girl’s story parallels Abigail Fisher’s history. For years both put in hours of effort only to discover that they had misjudged and misplaced their energies. Bluntly, these young women worked hard but not strategically.

The failure of these girls was unrelated to the broader “system,” whether that system was auditions or college applications. To argue that “the system” is broken on the basis that hard work is not rewarded is irrational, albeit understandable on an emotional basis. Before rushing off to denounce “the system” for not rewarding hard work, one should critically examine the foundational premise and ask: Was this hard work or was it productive work?

Nightcap

  1. What kind of war was the Second World War? Nick Nielsen, The View from Oregon
  2. The politics of colonial reparations (Tunisia) Al-Jazeera
  3. The UK’s economy is heading for disaster Chris Dillow, Stumbling & Mumbling
  4. How social skills improve group performance Deming & Weidmann, NBER

Foundering in academia

For the last couple of weeks, I have been reading and re-reading Gerard Klickstein’s book The Musician’s Way: A Guide to Practice, Performance, and Wellness. Klickstein is a musician and professor who has spent much of his teaching career helping other musicians recover from physical injury or overcome psychological issues, such as performance anxiety. Klickstein argues that the vast majority of musicians’ problems, physical and psychological, are a result of poor formation at critical stages of development. Reversing problems engendered by “unqualified,” i.e. incompetent, teachers is an overarching theme in the book. Reading Klickstein’s anecdotes in which many of his students are recent college graduates, one becomes alarmed at the sheer number of incompetent teachers present in “higher education.”    

Several summers ago, at a music festival, I sat with an opera singer friend and we assembled her audition book. An audition book is a selection of opera arias which a singer provides to producers during the audition process. My friend and I were deep into research and consideration, when another musician, also a singer, joined us. His contribution was to question us as to why we bothered with the book at all.

He went on to reveal that he wasn’t planning on attempting the opera house and festival audition cycle, nor was he considering trying for a choral ensemble. Instead, he was applying for faculty positions at small colleges. He was a recent doctoral graduate from a university which is overall relatively famous but not particularly well-regarded for its music school. At that time, the three of us were roughly at the same level. His experience and education were slightly above average for the types of small, regional institutions he was targeting.  

Behind his dismissive behavior lay a mentality of minimal effort. Why should he go to the trouble of researching roles, evaluating musical suitability, and learning parts when his résumé would satisfy the expectations of small, provincial colleges? He lacked the vocabulary to explain his vision, but what he described was a sinecure. Before the festival ended, he had secured a full-time position at an institution in a backwater of the American southwest.

One side of the proverbial coin says that the institution was lucky to have him – his background certainly was above anything the college could expect on the basis of its own reputation and musical standing; the other side of the coin says that it is concerning that someone like him could see academia as a safety net. 

Now American colleges have begun to furlough staff. As you can imagine, many of my Facebook friends are people who attended and are now staff at small liberal arts colleges and small state universities throughout the country. In the atmosphere of uncertainty, my own FB feed has filled up with people lashing out against a society, which, they insist, doesn’t value them. There is an underlying financial element; few can afford to be furloughed. But there is a deeper issue present: a professional inactivity that has pervaded American small liberal arts academia for the last few decades.  

In truth, financial concerns are more a symptom of professional inactivity than they are representative of some overarching truth about poor pay for teachers. I recall how one of my Columbia professors told my class never to rely on a single income stream. He would talk about how all breaks are opportunities to be productive. He told us about how when he was starting his career in the 1960s, he deliberately accepted a part-time position, rather than a full-time one, so that he could finish writing his first book. In terms of his career, the book was more important than his job at a small city college because the book paved the way for the big opportunities. To tell the truth, it didn’t matter that he taught at a small city college, outside of gaining some official teaching experience which he could have obtained through teaching just one class. There’s a difference between being professionally active and simply being busy or being employed.

There is a species of person who follows the same MO as the singer from the music festival. Academia is a safety net, and the goal is to rush into a full-time position and sit there for a lifetime. Their attitude is that of a career teacher, not a professor. They lecture and grade, however there is no professional contribution or creativity on their part. Such people tend to be barren of original thought and to react with hostility to new ideas or concepts. A quick search of academic databases shows that they don’t write articles, they haven’t written books (their theses don’t count), and they don’t write for think tanks or journals. An egregious example is a college professor who writes movie reviews for popular art enthusiast magazines; he’s been passing this activity off as “publishing” and “being published” for years. 

There is, I know, a perception of a double standard on some level. For example, Kingsley Amis taught English Literature at Oxford for the majority of his career. He published comparatively little on the academic side in contrast to some of his peers, and much of his lighter work took the form of reviews, essays, and opinion pieces for newspapers and magazines, such as the London Times or The New Yorker. But he averaged a novel a year. Recognized in his own lifetime as a giant of twentieth century English literature, no one questioned his publication record or his ability to teach the field.

The subtle stagnation at the liberal arts college level has contributed to a culture of belief in talent and luck, rather than good decision making and hard – by which I mean calculated and carefully weighed – work. There are many people today who would classify my Columbia professor’s story as one of privilege and make assumptions about a background of wealth that allowed part-time work. In actual fact, he did not come from a particularly “privileged” background: he simply settled on his priorities, thought ahead, and made his decisions accordingly.

One thing one learns very quickly in the arts is that one must create without expectation of immediate payment. Singers learn arias, instrumentalists study concerti, filmmakers shoot reels all so that when the moment is right, they can produce a piece that demonstrates ability and wins a commission. One tidbit my professor included was that he had to write several critically acclaimed books before he began to receive advances for his work. The principle is the same: create first then receive a reward. A person who works according to the parameters of payment is a drone, and it is unsurprising that such people do not create new works, make discoveries, or have groundbreaking insights. If one considers that American small colleges have populated themselves largely with professional drones, one must reevaluate their worth to education.    

Last Time You Heard of “Flattening the Curve”?

We were told that many or most Americans workers had to be idled to “flatten the curve” of contaminations. This means simply that it was desirable to avoid having a sudden upsurge of people infected so that hospitals would not be overwhelmed. Officials – including the president and the Gov of California, Nancy’s nephew – never gave us any other reason for confinement.

Notably, limiting the total, final number of contaminations was not the reason. Instead, and since no vaccine is in our short sights – herd immunity will save us. But the slower the rate of contamination, the later we will enjoy herd immunity. Thus, a policy of confinement may cause more deaths that it avoids. I am not saying it’s the case; I don’t know. It’s just plausible based on the info I am given, including by my government(s).

Well, I am reasonably sure that to-date, C-virus patients have not overwhelmed American hospitals except in New York City. How do I know? The end-of-time loving, Trump-hating media would make sure I would know it if any American hospital were in a catastrophic situation caused by an unexpected influx of patients. That main danger seems past. It does not mean that individuals should not take common sense precautions, including social distancing. I know I do (but I am old).

In the meantime, the American economy is undergoing an unprecedented disaster; I mean, unprecedented in my lifetime. No mystery: When people don’t work, wealth is not being generated. The solution to this problem is as obvious as it seems: More people have to go back to work. In this connection, I think it’s time to discuss something that should also be obvious: Working at close quarters leads to contamination, and thus, for some categories of the population, to death. Economic contraction leads to sectorial poverty which also kills people. Panic also kills people: surgeries and other medical interventions are being re-scheduled all over the country. No doubt, patients are dying as a result, indirect victims of the pandemics. (And many doctors are complaining of loss of income.)

Who should go back to work? A is always the case, this issue must be resolved as close as possible to those most directly concerned. In this case, it’s the employees themselves and their employers. This principle does not necessarily lead to the wisest decisions; it makes bad decisions less consequential than would be the case for decisions taken by government at the federal level. It makes rolling back bad decisions more likely.

During all this confinement period, my fellow-citizens’ general submissiveness horrified me. (I had two postings on this.) It seems that submission is over. There is a mass automobile protest going on in Lansing, Michigan as I write. It’s directed at the governor of that state, an extreme example of schoolmarmism gone mad. (“Why do I have to do it?” “Because I say so!”)

By the way, if you fear the rise of America fascism, don’t look for guns, look for ballpoints.