Sunday, June 20, 2010

Archerism and the Meritocracy Cult

This is another long post that is not particularly time sensitive because I am mostly out of blogging material, and because Pnin is not here to distract me with actual talking instead of writing. I suppose I could try to hook what I am about to say to an annoying William Deresiewicz essay about meritocracy, except that it is actually less annoying and does less in the way of getting educational meritocracy wrong than another annoying essay he wrote several years ago. A better hook would be the various interviews with Thomas Espenshade about his newish book on the racial achievement gap, in which he calls for "a new Manhattan Project" that would consist of social science researchers trying to find ways to close the achievement gap. I am not against a new Manhattan Project per se -- the racial achievement gap is certainly a serious enough problem -- except that my first blush reaction is that it is mendacious nonsense to pretend that we do not have any idea how to close achievement gaps. Of course we bloody do.

It requires a self-conscious act of charity for me to remember that the relevant achievement boosting principles may not be obvious to people who did not grow up immersed in a weird educational meritocracy cult. Like charity, immersion in the educational meritocracy cult begins at home, and so I refer to the eccentric belief system into which I was inoculated as Archerism. (Using the surname of my pseudonym also makes for a far prettier label than using my real last name.) I know that it is somewhat lame to take things that are not religious rites and compare them to religious rites, and that I am nothing if not a hypocrite for doing so. If it helps, this is not a new idea that I just came up with -- when I had to take World Religion as a seventeen-year-old high-school senior, I remember sitting up straight during a lecture that defined the words "millenarian" and "eschatology" and thinking that, while I did not know anyone who actually thought about Jesus this way, it accurately described my family's attitude toward elite higher education.

The core tenets of Archerism are simple, simple enough that young children imbibe them without much trouble. First, education and hard work are everything. Second, education and hard work are everything. Third, your parents and your aunts and your uncles have everything that they have through hard work. (Sometime in the 1950s, the superintendent of schools in my mother's town invited one of my uncles to discuss how every single kid in my mother's family had proven so adept at scaling the educational ladder, a story I heard a few dozen times growing up.) Fourth, scaling the educational meritocracy is a sufficiently difficult and important project that one cannot begin it too young. So infant Isabel learned to tell squares from triangles; so three-year-old Isabel took apart and put together a puzzle of the 50 states about 200 times, so many that telling the difference between Wyoming and Colorado was easy; and so it was that a typical visit to a department store housewares section was an occasion for an impromptu lecture on Josiah Wedgwood. Protesting that I was too young for any of this would have seemed as silly to my committed Archerist mother as saying that she was too short to do calculus.

A streak of quasi-Shintoist ancestor worship runs through Archerism. That is not because Archerism is rooted in any one religion; anything but. I grew up exposed to a Lutheran and Eastern Orthodox inflected strain of it; Archerism syncretically absorbed the Christian teachings about self-discipline, hard work, and some crusading Christian spirit, but almost nothing whatsoever about the virtues of charity and poverty. I first heard the line about it being as hard for a rich man to get to heaven as a camel through the eye of a needle and blanched when I was ten, as it was so much at odds with the Horatio Alger inflected values I had imbibed elsewhere. I liked the martial hymns I learned in church -- a delightfully Archerist frisson of excitement still goes down my spine whenever I hear the chorus of "Battle Hymn of the Republic" -- but I cannot for the life of me sit back and enjoy passively letting the spirit of the living God wash over me. We Archerists are hard-wired for marching. Eventually, the Christian values gave way to my Archerist values, which I suspect is the real reason that I am now an agnostic, aside from the glib rationalizations that I've advanced elsewhere.

Rather, Archerism owes its filial piety strain to the fact that the world beyond the Archerist family home hearth is almost universally hostile to its tenets. When I got to kindergarten, I didn't think it extraordinary that my parents had already been working with me on reading for years. I was a bit shocked to discover that everyone else was still working on the alphabet, having apparently whiled the last five years away in playing with non-educational superhero figures and catch and stuff. Nor did things much change as I progressed through the system. By middle school, I was wasting what felt like unconscionable amounts of educational time kicking soccer balls and listening to lectures on safe sex at school, while my mother gently urged me to read Willa Cather and Theodore Dreiser at home. Meanwhile, most of my peers accepted what adults told them, which was that the pep rallies and dances were supposed to make us well rounded and well adjusted.

My high school released the seniors and juniors three hours early the afternoon of prom so that the girls could make their salon appointments. It occurred to someone on the faculty that some of the sophomore girls might have dates with seniors, and shouldn't they be let go early too? But, in the interest of preserving educational time for the non prom attending majority of sophomores, normal sophomore classes went on ahead as planned.

My lone social coup in high school was to secure a prom invitation from a boy two years older, a friend of mine from the Quiz Bowl team. He was a proto-Yalie then, the son of two mathematicians who went to get on a Ph.D. in biophysics from Harvard, and perhaps the only person I knew then who came of age in a family as solidly Archerist as mine. Either we knew each other from invisible crosses drawn on our foreheads, or perhaps it was the large repositories of trivia that we each knew from years of the impromptu lectures in housewares departments. We did not date -- that would have been succumbing to the official propaganda about well roundedness, which would have been beneath us -- but we made an exception for his senior prom.

So it was that I found myself sitting in a regular sophomore English class the afternoon of prom, when my teacher asked, "Why are you here?" I did not tell her the real answer -- that daring to ask my mother to miss a class, in a core subject like English, because of a salon appointment for prom would have been tantamount to volunteering for crucifixion. I instead mumbled something about the importance of not missing the regularly scheduled vocabulary quiz, not sure how to respond properly to an adult so fundamentally befuddled about what was sacred in life.

The problem apparently exists all the way up the socioeconomic ladder, what with all the upper bourgeois New York Times reading parents who fret about all stress in their children's lives. No wonder that, for the reasons David Friedman might observe, Archerist children naturally feel closer to their parents than to their peers.

All of this might sound rather suffocating, which is why there are so many news stories about Asian children who feel smothered by their demanding parents. But these stories miss the crucial tension at the heart of Archerism, which is that it has never quite decided whether it is a cult about salvation by works or a cult about salvation by grace. This is not necessarily a knock against Archerism; the Christians have not figured this out about themselves either, and indeed Europe went through several centuries of bloodshed while the partisans of salvation through works and salvation by grace tried to sort this out. To our credit, the internal conflict among Archerists has been much tamer, at least so far.

So far I've focused on the more conventional, Archerism as a cult of salvation through works story. Indeed, this hardscrabble immigrant story of success through hard work is a common one, and it has great power and purchse. But this narrative, alone, produces lots of burnout victims. Rather, there comes a moment in the lives of many Archerist teenagers when they discover the potential for... grace.... at the heart of their faith. Mine came through writing. And so too moments of almost religious ecstasy snuck up on me repeatedly as a teenager when I'd lose myself in some old book too big and probably too deep for me to understand. So I came to suspect that the Western literary canon embodied what was closest to what the more conventionally religious call the divine. If I were to experience grace on this earth, I had to learn how to work with words, and I had to be damn serious about it. My calling demanded nothing less than the most stoic self-discipline. My friend, the biophysicist in embryo, had the same kinds of almost mystical experiences about his chosen field of study.

We were not alone -- veterans of Archerist families keep writing memoirs and novels describing their experience of grace through knowledge and through books. We are all so deeply weird, and feel so misunderstood, that we cannot help but take pen to paper in the hopes that someday we'll actually be able to explain ourselves to the rest of the world.

It is perhaps impossible to reconcile these two strands of Archerism perfectly. Markets being what they are, I suspect that even in a more perfectly Archerist world, there would always be lower demand for ex-Archerist poets than for ex-Archerist bankers. Some Archerist children would have to choose less than ideal occupations.

So, to return to the first paragraph of this post: we know how to raise achievement. It's easy. Just get everyone to mimic the ways of Archerist families. Some of us have a tendency to hold forth at great length on the charms of our cult, and as I said above, there are plenty of memoirs and novels written by people who survived this sort of upbringing and came to love it.

Relatedly: stop feeding taxpayer money to schools that are hostile to Archerist ways. Stop throwing taxpayer money into teacher training classes about the merits of giving children math problems on red vs. purple paper (yes, I had a friend who went through a teacher training course on this very topic.) Stop feeding prospective teachers this nonsense about well-roundedness. Start talking to them about the power, beauty, and grace of having knowledge instead. Order principals to give a stern reprimand to any librarian who ever tells a child not to read a book because it will be too hard for her. When fifteen-year-old girls in inner cities have babies and bring them to school, have each teacher tell the young mother that it is really wonderful that she lives in a town with a public library, and that it is highly important that she takes her DaShawn there at least once each week. Starting now, preferably, even though DaShawn is only one and cannot read yet, because he would appreciate being read to from the picture books. (This last is a particularly time-honored tactic of Mother Archer.) Heck, make it unthinkable to institute a program for girls to leave class three hours early to get ready for prom. I could go on this vein, but you get the idea, sans a multi-million-dollar Manhattan Project...


  1. Interesting post.

    I don't think either the family I grew up in or my present family quite fits your Archerist pattern. I was taught to read by my sister not my parents, although they continued the process, and my younger son taught himself to read (age two) while observing his sister (five) being taught by her mother. I read voraciously growing up, but I can't remember any emphasis on "good literature," and doubt that Dreiser would have been on the list if there had been one.

    I can remember no emphasis at all on educational toys. I did briefly experiment with a system for teaching very small children to read, but abandoned it when my daughter lost interest. And our view was that almost any toy–Pokemon on gameboys, for instance–could be educational if a child was sufficiently interested to actually focus on it.

    A lot of my daughter's practice writing has come from battle reports written for World of Warcraft,and my (younger) son's storytelling activities have the twin inspirations of role playing games and games he plays by himself with figures constructed from zoobs (ingenious ball and socket pieces that can be fitted together to make things).

    The emphasis I experienced was less on the virtue of hard work than on living up to one's potential–getting, not good grades, but grades good for me. And the background assumption, I think, was the importance of reason, both as a way of making sense of the world and of interacting with others. My father would never argue about whose fault something was–his standard response to such arguments was to short circuit them with "my shoulders are broad--it's my fault."

    Perhaps mine was the 18th century version and yours the 19th century?

  2. Mr. Friedman -- Thank you for your long and thoughtful comment. I have to tell you, your father has been one of my intellectual heroes for many years, and I'm tremendously flattered to meet his son (even if only electronically.)

    Perhaps I should clarify the original post to reflect this, but I originally meant to say only that Archerist families tend to fit the special case where one's family is one's peer group. There are, of course, plenty of other instances in which one's family is not one's peer group. You yourself mention the case of more conventionally religious families, for example, most of which are not especially Archerist.

    It's interesting also that you mention Dreiser. His world view and mine now are nearly diametrically opposed. Nor are his policy views all that close to Mama Archer's, although I think that reflects a historical quirk. She grew up in a blue collar area where nearly everyone was an FDR loving Democrat, and she herself embraced the feminist movements of the 60s and 70s. Sometime in the mid 80s, she slowly started moving right -- though she never quite got around to abandoning the novels she loved in college. Although I would never go so far as to say there was a reading list in our household -- I read all kinds of things both high and low, too -- Dreiser was thus one of the authors she warmly encouraged me to read.

    I do rather like the idea, though, of saying that you encountered the 18th century version of Archerism, and I the 19th century version...