Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Practical Benefits of Philosophy 8. The End of It

For my money, there seem to be more essentialists or fixed mindset people walking around than existentialists.  People tend to believe they are restricted  at least in some ways by pre-ordained unchangeable boundaries.  But, every once in awhile you run into those who don’t imagine themselves so limited.  They adjust to the situation at hand, however imperfectly, and don’t make excuses.  Mostly, they see themselves in control of their own fate.  If they don’t succeed, it’s only because they didn’t make enough effort or took the wrong approach, and not because some outside agency thwarted them.I recently heard an installment of This American Life called “Back to School.”  This hour-long episode argued that our ultimate success in life has very little to do with raw intelligence or I.Q. scores.  It suggested that there is a “dark matter” of resources in each of us which is much more difficult to quantify than an intelligence quotient.  The best term they could come up with for this “dark matter” was “non-cognitive skills.”

Paul Tough, a reporter who writes about education, including the book, How Children Succeed, describes non-cognitive skills like this:

Well, there's not sort of a master list of non-cognitive skills right now. The ones that Heckman [James Heckman, Nobel Prize winning economist at the University of Chicago, who also writes about this stuff] would refer to and that I think are most important, some of them have to do with self-control.  There's a number of different terms – things like self-regulation skills, self-control, conscientiousness.  So that, I think, is one set of things.  Just the ability to delay gratification, to resist impulse. When you're about to make a bad decision, to think twice about it. To keep your temper. All of those things, I think, matter a lot.
The thing is: according to Heckman and others, while IQ may be fixed, non-cognitive skills can be taught and mastered by almost anyone.

The “Back to School” episode then went on to discuss a program that operates in 23 Chicago high schools, called OneGoal, whose purpose is to improve academic achievement and help students get into college.  Its focus, however, is teaching non-cognitive skills to students rather than any academic content.

The NPR program highlighted one of the graduates of OneGoal.  And it’s a rather spectacular story.  Kewauna Lerma was a child featured in Tough’s book who grew up poor in Chicago.  As Tough describes it, “She had a really chaotic childhood. Her parents split up. She moved around a lot. She was homeless for a while. Just all the bad things that happen to poor kids were happening to her.”

At one point Kewauna got arrested.  When she got out of jail, she had a very emotional heart-to-heart talk with her great grandmother and her own mother.  It produced a lot of tears and caused her to start taking school a little more seriously.  In her sophomore year in high school, Kewauna started doing her homework, and she stopped skipping class.  But perhaps most importantly, she signed up for OneGoal.

In her freshman year before this talk and OneGoal, Kewauna’s GPA was 1.8. In her sophomore year, it was 3.4.  Then in her junior and senior years, she managed a 4.1 average.  She’s now at Western Illinois University.

How did this young woman from the South Side of Chicago end up in college?  By thinking existentially, and being responsibility for who she was.  Here’s what she said about her approach to her classes at the university:

The first thing I did when I first got to every class, I introduced myself. First – no, first, I sat in the front. If everybody else was sitting in the back, no. I sat in the front, like right on it. Like I'm nearly touching your desk and let them know, let them see my face, and let them remember it. And then after I go, the first step is to make sure they see your face, like they know who you are. As long as they know who you are.

And I always, like after class or before class, I introduce myself. Ask them about their office hours. And have like a little calendar on my wall and say, "This day." I always did a check-in to see how I was doing.

I will go to a teacher. I will go to a professor and get help. I have no shame in my game no more.

I think it fair to say that Kewauna has decided to be responsible for her own existence.

And I have a less dramatic but more personal example of existentialist thinking that I’ve mentioned to people before.  Back when she was in high school, Ellen had a biology teacher we shall call Mrs. C.  By all accounts, Mrs. C. was an impossible person to deal with and a terrible teacher.  She behaved irrationally and could fly into rages without warning.  Sue matter-of-factly calls her a psychopath.  One day, shortly after Ellen started her biology course, I happened to hear her make some mildly favorable reference – I don’t recall the specifics – to this teacher.  A little surprised, I said to her, “I thought you told me that you hated Mrs. C.”  “Trust me, Dad,” she said with just the slightest smile, “by the end of this semester, Mrs. C. is going to love me.”

Sartre no doubt would be proud.

This concludes the series.  There will, however, be a test following this last installment.  Please reveiw the past material.

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