Good News of 2022; What Success at College Means

NY Times, Nicholas Kristof, 31 Dec 2022: Cheer Up! The World Is Better Off Than You Think.

Kristof begins with a key point (which I’ve oft repeated) to understanding how the world works.

Human beings have a cognitive bias toward bad news (keeping us alert and alive), and we journalists reflect that: We report on planes that crash, not planes that land. We highlight disasters, setbacks, threats and deaths, so 2022 has kept us busy.

But a constant gush of despairing news can be paralyzing. So here’s my effort to remedy our cognitive biases. Until the pandemic, I wrote an annual column arguing that the previous year was the best in human history. I can’t do that this year. But I can suggest that broadly speaking, much is going right and this may still be the best time ever to be alive.

He goes on to discuss technological strides: solar power and other energy issues; health technology; AI; progress against global poverty, despite some current events; the postponement of full-blown famines.

You may have winced when I wrote above that “this may still be the best time ever to be alive.” That’s deeply contrary to the public gloom. But would we prefer to live at some other time when children were more likely to die?

And he concludes,

Max Roser of the indispensable website Our World in Data puts the situation exactly right: “The world is awful. The world is much better. The world can be much better. All three statements are true at the same time.”

So all the bad news is real, and I cover it the other 364 days of the year. But it’s also important to acknowledge the gains that our brains (and we journalists) are often oblivious to — if only to remind ourselves that progress is possible when we put our shoulder to it. Onward!


NY Times, guest essay by Jonathan Malesic, 3 Jan 2023: The Key to Success in College Is So Simple, It’s Almost Never Mentioned

The article begins anecdotally.

For Emily Zurek Small, college did what it’s supposed to do. Growing up in a small town in northeastern Pennsylvania, she had career and intellectual ambitions for which college is the clearest pathway. “I just kind of always wanted to learn,” she told me recently. “I wanted to be able to have intelligent conversations with people and know about the world.”

She enrolled at a small nearby Catholic college, majored in neuroscience and in 2016 became the first person in her family to earn a bachelor’s degree — and later, a master’s. She now works as a school psychologist in Virginia.

(Of course my response to this is, if you want to expand your horizons, the last thing you should do is attend a religious college. [I have a niece who attended Bryan College, named after William Jennings Bryan of Scopes Trial fame, a college that filters everything through a “Biblical perspective.”])

The writer does identify the factor that’s too obvious to mention.

One of the most important factors in Ms. Zurek Small’s success seems almost too obvious to mention but, in fact, deserves far more attention and discussion: a simple willingness to learn.

Is this obvious? No. [[ My comment: conservatives, especially religious ones, already know their truth, and so deflect opportunities to learn anything about the world that challenges their doctrines, via home schooling, banning books, and so on. ]]

The article discusses two obstacles to the idea of learning for its own sake. Careerism: that the idea of college is to prepare for a career. As if college is job training.

The human mind, though, is capable of much more than a job will demand of it. Those “useless” classes like philosophy, literature, astronomy and music have much to teach.

I haven’t had to solve a calculus problem in 25 years. But learning to do so expanded my brain in ways that can’t simply be reduced to a checklist of job skills. Living in the world in this expanded way is a permanent gift.

The second obstacle to learning is “the urge to present yourself as always already informed.”

Knowingness is everywhere in our culture. From a former president claiming “everybody knows” some conspiracist nonsense to podcasters smugly debunking cultural myths to your feeling you have to have read, heard and streamed everything, the posture of already knowing supersedes the need to approach new situations with curiosity.

This aligns with the notion, as I’ve mentioned here more than once, that if you a wise you don’t need to have an opinion about everything.

Universities are factories of human knowledge. They’re also monuments to individual ignorance. We know an incredible amount, but I know only a tiny bit. College puts students in classrooms with researchers who are acutely aware of all they don’t know. Professors have a reputation for arrogance, but a humble awareness of the limits of knowledge is their first step toward discovering a little more.

To overcome careerism and knowingness and instill in students a desire to learn, schools and parents need to convince students (and perhaps themselves) that college has more to offer than job training. You’re a worker for only part of your life; you’re a human being, a creature with a powerful brain, throughout it.

This entry was posted in Culture, Education. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.