He who busies himself in mean occupations produces, in the very pains he takes about things of little or no use, an evidence against himself of his negligence and indisposition to what is really good.
“A focus on effort—not on intelligence or ability—is key to success in school and in life,” according to an article in Scientific American.
Our society worships talent, and many people assume that possessing superior intelligence or ability—along with confidence in that ability—is a recipe for success. In fact, however, more than 30 years of scientific investigation suggests that an overemphasis on intellect or talent leaves people vulnerable to failure, fearful of challenges and unwilling to remedy their shortcomings.
The result plays out in children like Jonathan, who coast through the early grades under the dangerous notion that no-effort academic achievement defines them as smart or gifted. Such children hold an implicit belief that intelligence is innate and fixed, making striving to learn seem far less important than being (or looking) smart. This belief also makes them see challenges, mistakes and even the need to exert effort as threats to their ego rather than as opportunities to improve. And it causes them to lose confidence and motivation when the work is no longer easy for them.
Praising children’s innate abilities, as Jonathan’s parents did, reinforces this mind-set, which can also prevent young athletes or people in the workforce and even marriages from living up to their potential. On the other hand, our studies show that teaching people to have a “growth mind-set,” which encourages a focus on effort rather than on intelligence or talent, helps make them into high achievers in school and in life. […]
Confronted by a setback such as a disappointing test grade, students with a growth mind-set said they would study harder or try a different strategy for mastering the material.
The students who held a fixed mind-set, however, were concerned about looking smart with little regard for learning. They had negative views of effort, believing that having to work hard at something was a sign of low ability. They thought that a person with talent or intelligence did not need to work hard to do well. Attributing a bad grade to their own lack of ability, those with a fixed mind-set said that they would study less in the future, try never to take that subject again and consider cheating on future tests.
This discussion of the primacy of effort reminded me of a fascinating anecdote in Outliers: The Story of Success, by Malcolm Gladwell. (The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study [TIMSS], is used to compare the academic ability of students from different countries.)
When students sit down to take the TIMSS exam, they also have to fill out a questionnaire. It asks them all kinds of things, such as what their parents’ level of education is, and what their views about math are, and what their friends are like. It’s not a trivial exercise. It’s about 120 questions long. In fact, it is so tedious and demanding that many students leave as many as ten or twenty questions blank.
Now, here’s the interesting part. As it turns out, the average number of items answered on that questionnaire varies from country to country. It is possible, in fact, to rank all the participating countries according to how many items their students answer on the questionnaire. Now, what do you think happens if you compare the questionnaire rankings with the math rankings on the TIMSS. They are exactly the same. In other words, countries whose students are willing to concentrate and sit still long enough and focus on answering every single question in an endless questionnaire are the same countries whose students do the best job of solving math problems.
On the radio today, an ad cheerfully inquired, “What if there was a pill that you could take that would make you have a good day?” The pill in question was a dubious homeopathic “positive mood formula,” but it is a precursor to more powerful options. In Our Posthuman Future, Francis Fukuyama writes that advances in neuropharmacology (the use of drugs to affect the nervous system) mean that “we don’t have to await the arrival of human genetic engineering to foresee a time when we will be able to enhance intelligence, memory, emotional sensitivity, and sexuality, as well as reduce aggressiveness and manipulate behavior in a host of other ways.”
As increasingly powerful drugs enable more precisely-targeted behavior modification with fewer side effects, a whole host of new ethical questions will arise. In the not-too-distant future, science may offer a pill that does make every day a good day. Happy. Cooperative. Friendly. Stress-free. Most dystopian prophecies of chemically-controlled personality assume the existence of a malevolent controller, but what if the reality is a future in which individuals freely and gladly use affect-enhancing drugs?
From a Christian perspective, one potential problem with such a “Good-Day Drug” is its impact on character development. Paul writes, “we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope” (Romans 5:3-4). Character is developed through difficult choices made well. Courage could not exist without fear, nor self-control without temptation, nor patience without trials. In a very real way, our choices make us, for better or worse.
If every choice shapes us to be either more or less like Christ, then drug-induced goodness would be an abdication of choice, leaving the part of us that chooses and wills – that actually matters in a long-term sense – as an undeveloped, infantile nullity. Withhold the daily tablet of virtue, and imagine the effect of a minor misfortune or a passing quarrel on a man whose rose-colored glasses have been suddenly removed, calling for reserves of fortitude or patience that never had a chance to develop. Stripped of artificial virtue, there is little else beneath.
It is this potential for stunting personal character that should make us leary of any pharmaceutical quick-fixes. There is a legitimate and important place for drugs that help correct chemical imbalances or treat genuine pathologies. Such drugs may allow the patient to function normally, breaking through a neurochemical fog that had been preventing right choices, or perhaps any choices at all. However, when pharmacology transitions from offering normalcy to offering morality, from making right choices possible to making right conduct easy, we would do well to remember the danger of an endless succession of Good Days.
A judge has hailed the heroism of an 83-year-old war veteran who tackled a gunman during a robbery at a bookmakers while nine other men stood by.
Sidney Bannister, who served with the Royal Artillery Corps during World War II, put 30-year-old robber Henry Rockson in a headlock.
But the pensioner’s calls for assistance met a wall of silence and up to nine other men in the shop – most far younger than Mr Bannister – stood by as Rockson smashed him twice in the head with the butt of the gun. […]
[T]he widower, of Lees near Oldham, Greater Manchester, said: ‘There were nine other blokes in the shop and most of them were either half my age or younger. I just wish one of them had shown some gumption. […]
After the court case, Mr Bannister expressed his gratitude for the judge’s comments but added: ‘I wasn’t being brave that day – I just acted on human instinct which I would have hoped most men have.
‘I had seen this man raise a gun at a woman and grab some money … and when he started to make a run for it I just thought, “Why should he be allowed to get away with it?”
‘People don’t want to get involved these days. In my day we were brought up to have a go and not be a shrinking violet when we saw something happening that was very wrong.’
After the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, Mark Steyn remembered Canada’s most famous mass-murder.
Yet the defining image of contemporary Canadian maleness is not M Lepine/Gharbi but the professors and the men in that classroom, who, ordered to leave by the lone gunman, meekly did so, and abandoned their female classmates to their fate — an act of abdication that would have been unthinkable in almost any other culture throughout human history. The “men” stood outside in the corridor and, even as they heard the first shots, they did nothing. And, when it was over and Gharbi walked out of the room and past them, they still did nothing. Whatever its other defects, Canadian manhood does not suffer from an excess of testosterone.
One more: the story of a young Chinese woman, decapitated last week in a Virginia Tech cafe while half-a-dozen people watched.
Authorities gave this account: Virginia Tech police, responding to two frantic 911 calls about 7 p.m. Wednesday, found Zhu standing in the Au Bon Pain cafe on campus, with Yang’s severed head in his hands, according to an affidavit. A large, bloody kitchen knife lay nearby, and Zhu’s backpack, on the floor, was filled with other sharp weapons. Seven people witnessed the attack, which came without as much as a raised voice as the two drank coffee.
Decapitation is a bit more involved than simply stabbing someone. Did it not occur to any of those seven people that perhaps they could do something?
Perhaps not. In times of stress, higher cognitive functioning falls by the wayside while instincts and emotion take over. We can take it as a given that the instinct for self-preservation is going to be clamoring for attention, but, for men throughout history, another instinct would chime in: Protect the weak. Better death than dishonor. Note Sidney Bannister’s explanation of his actions: “I wasn’t being brave that day – I just acted on human instinct which I would have hoped most men have.” He doesn’t understand that the other nine men in that store also acted on instinct. They just had different instincts. In Deep Survival, Laurence Gonzales writes,
Stress releases cortisol into the blood. It invades the hippocampus and interferes with its work. (Long-term stress can kill hippocampal cells.) The amygdala has powerful connections to the sensory cortices, the rhinal cortex, the anterior cingulate, and the ventral prefrontal cortext, which means that the entire memory system, both input and output, are affected. As a result, most people are incapable of performing any but the simplest tasks under stress. They can’t remember the most basic things. […] Although strong emotion can interfere with the ability to reason, emotion is also necessary for both reasoning and learning. Emotion is the source of both success and failure at selecting correct action at the crucial moment.
Instinct – what Gonzales calls emotion – comes through practice. In a society where courtesy to women is an insult, where a disproportionate fear of pedophilia discourages male interaction with children, how exactly do we expect men to develop the instinct to protect those weaker than themselves? Describing the Lepine massacre mentioned above, Crime Library says, “They wondered whether they should try to overpower the gunman, protect the women, or leave. The choice as to what was best was unclear. But after a few moments, the male students and teachers walked outside. In weeks to come, many of them would have nightmares about this moment, reliving it over and over, wishing they had acted differently.”
At the crucial moment, stress forced these men to operate instinctively. Their most basic selves stood bare in the face of danger. And stood. And blinked impotently. And quietly walked away, because at a fundamental, instinctual level, they had nothing to tell them what to do. They were not all cowards. Most likely, if they had had time for reflection, time to reason through what was happening and decide what they ought to do, at least some of them would have reacted differently. But they didn’t have that time, so they needed instincts that our culture gave them no chance to develop.
In the course of appeals to men to avoid promiscuity, remain faithful to their spouse, or otherwise seek sexual purity, many Christians rely primarily on a popular argument: Explain cheerfully that the moral way actually, really and truly, based on scientific studies, will lead to better sex. Few seem to find this at all odd; a fact which strikes me as, itself, rather odd.
Yes, sex will always be a significant motivator for men. Yes, since God invented it, one can assume that following his guidelines is as wise a course to full enjoyment of this gift as of any other. However, might there be more productive and less condescending ways to urge male sexual purity than to enthusiastically declare that Our Sex Is Better Than Your Sex? If the church was battling an epidemic of gluttony, would we be writing books explaining that moderation actually offers more pleasure for the discerning hedonist?
Rather than debating the sensual merits of monogamy versus promiscuity, abstinence versus premarital sex, perhaps the church would be better served to issue a stirring cry to honor, a reminder of duty to God and women. The man who believes abstinence will pay dividends of better sex in the future may be no less likely to remain pure than the man who believes premarital sex will defile and dishonor the woman he loves, but which motivation produces the better man?
In C.S. Lewis’ Out Of The Silent Planet, the ruler of the planet Malacandra says to Weston, who is willing to massacre other civilizations in his quest to spread mankind throughout the universe, “I see now how the lord of the silent planet has bent you. There are laws that all hnau know, of pity and straight dealing and shame and the like, and one of these is the love of kindred. He has taught you to break all of them except this one, which is not one of the greatest laws; this one he has bent till it becomes folly and has set it up, thus bent, to be a little, blind Oyarsa in your brain. And now you can do nothing but obey it, though if we ask you why it is a law you give no other reason for it than for all the other and greater laws which it drives you to disobey. Do you know why he has done this? […] He has left you this one because a bent hnau can do much more evil than a broken one.”
Our culture has similarly inflated a good and natural desire, setting it up as a little, blind god in the minds of men. Collaborating with the bent god, hoping we can persuade him to act as we would prefer, is to accept defeat before the battle has been joined.
Stony Brook University researchers looked at the brains of Bernstein and 16 other people who had been married an average of 20 years and claimed to be still intensely in love. They found that their MRIs showed activity in the same regions of the brain as those who had just fallen in love.
“It’s always been assumed that passionate love inevitably declines over time,” said Arthur Aron, a social psychologist at Stony Brook University and one of four authors of the study, presented in November at the Society for Neuroscience annual meeting in Washington, D.C.
“But in survey after survey we always have these people who have been together a long time and say they are intensely in love. It was always chalked up to self-deception or trying to make a good impression,” he said.
This study suggests that’s not the case, said Bianca Acevedo.
It is strange how much our instructions to those seeking to become a better husband, wife, parent, or leader sound like those which might be given to a spy taking on someone else’s identity. “You’ll need to take a walk every evening at 6:00, because Mr. Johnson did.” “You’ll need to buy her roses, because that’s what a good husband does.” “You’ll need to take up woodcarving, because Mr. Johson enjoyed it.” “You’ll need to praise him when he does chores, because that’s what a good wife does.” “Try not to talk so much, because Mr. Johnson was quiet.” “Be assertive, because leaders are assertive.”
It is as if someone watched a good husband and recorded everything he did, then turned it into a checklist to be handed out to other men. “Do these things and you will be the man you ought to be.” Instead of, “Be the man you ought to be and you will do these things.” One doesn’t catch pneumonia from coughing.
As long as we act as if the key to success in life’s various roles comes from doing certain things rather than becoming a certain kind of person, we will continue to produce tired, frustrated people who wonder why checking all the boxes still isn’t getting any easier or more effective.
In an interesting review of the execrable Twilight series for The Atlantic, Caitlin Flanagan suggests that a major factor in the series’ popularity with teenage girls is the unique dynamic between Bella, the female protagonist, and her love interest Edward, who inconveniently happens to be a vampire. Flanagan writes,
Twilight centers on a boy who loves a girl so much that he refuses to defile her, and on a girl who loves him so dearly that she is desperate for him to do just that, even if the wages of the act are expulsion from her family and from everything she has ever known. We haven’t seen that tale in a girls’ book in a very long time. And it’s selling through the roof. […]
As he gradually explains, Edward has been avoiding and scorning Bella not because he loathes her but because he is so carnally attracted to her that he cannot trust himself to be around her for even a moment. The mere scent of her hair is powerful enough that he is in a constant struggle to avoid taking—and thereby destroying—her. […]
The erotic relationship between Bella and Edward is what makes this book—and the series—so riveting to its female readers. There is no question about the exact nature of the physical act that looms over them. Either they will do it or they won’t, and afterward everything will change for Bella, although not for Edward. Nor is the act one that might result in an equal giving and receiving of pleasure. If Edward fails—even once—in his great exercise in restraint, he will do what the boys in the old pregnancy-scare books did to their girlfriends: he will ruin her. More exactly, he will destroy her, ripping her away from the world of the living and bringing her into the realm of the undead. […] In the course of the four books, Bella will be repeatedly tempted—to have sex outside of marriage, to have an abortion as a young married woman, to abandon the responsibilities of a good and faithful mother—and each time, she makes the “right” decision. The series does not deploy these themes didactically or even moralistically. Clearly Meyer was more concerned with questions of romance and supernatural beings than with instructing young readers how to lead their lives. What is interesting is how deeply fascinated young girls, some of them extremely bright and ambitious, are by the questions the book poses, and by the solutions their heroine chooses.
It appears that young women are tired of a culture where being a gentleman means not forcing yourself on the girl after she says no. There is something wrong with a relationship dynamic where it is the woman’s role to persist in holding off an infantilized male bent on going as far as she will allow, and ironically enough, we have left it up to a moody, vegetarian vampire to remind us of that fact.
One of the ideas that I found most interesting in A Return to Modesty is Wendy Shalit’s suggestion that modesty is inherently more erotic than today’s overt sexuality. A quick mental comparison of Katharine Hepburn with Paris Hilton supports Shalit’s thesis that the blunt appeal of “nothing left to the imagination” sexuality does little to compensate for the accompanying death of mystery. We want dim, flickering candles – not a bank of fluorescent lamps – when we plan a romantic evening.
I am reminded of a passage from Quo Vadis in which a debauched Roman patrician glances at a floating barge of nude women and comments that a thousand naked women are somehow less appealing than a single one. In a sex-permeated culture, we have lost the mystery that makes sex anything more than a biological act. If you’ve already seen everything, and done most of it, sex becomes nothing but masturbation with a partner – certainly nothing to get particularly excited about, which might be why increasing numbers of otherwise-healthy young men are having trouble getting, err, excited.
Nudists insist that naturism isn’t about sex. One almost immediately becomes used to the nudity of those around you, they explain, and it ceases to be sexually appealing. Familiarity, it seems, does indeed breed contempt, or at least disinterest.
My earlier post on my most formative books reminded me of another book I read recently that didn’t affect my foundational worldview enough to warrant inclusion on the list, but which I nonetheless highly recommend. Boys Adrift by Dr. Leonard Sax is the best examination I’ve seen of the various factors contributing to, in the words of the subtitle, “the growing epidemic of unmotivated boys and underachieving young men.”
Anyone who has spent much time around young men knows the problem Sax is describing, but he provides plenty of statistics to back up the anecdoctal evidence (only 42 percent of current college students are male; one in three men ages 22-34 lives at home with his parents). At a prominent seminary where I have taken some classes, faculty recently put out a request for missionaries. I am told they intentionally worded the appeal to emphasize the danger and excitement of the proposed mission, in the hope of attracting male volunteers. Seventeen students signed up. Seventeen of them were women. One professor explained the result by noting that it’s hard to power a Wii on the mission field.
Sax suggests five factors that are creating a generation of young men who don’t care that they don’t care, discussing changes in schooling, video games, medications for ADHD, endocrine disruptors, and a lack of male mentoring. It’s a fascinating and disturbing book, backed by copious references to peer-reviewed research. Well worth the read. (Also worth reading is Sax’ Why Gender Matters.)