Friday, August 28, 2015

Chapter 10: The National Literary Contest for Young Adults, Circa 1978 - A Sort of Adolescent Horror Story

“The problem with most of us is that we would rather be ruined by praise than saved by criticism.”
Norman Vincent Peale.

"You are not what you write, but what you have read."
Jorge Luis Borges.

The Autobiography of Ben and Bob
Chapter 10: The National Literary Contest for Young Adults, Circa 1978 - A Sort of Adolescent Horror Story

Ever since I remember, I've been an introvert. A bookworm. Someone who enjoys spending time with books more than with people. Here's a photo of my office at home.

These are just the books that wouldn't fit in the bookcases on the other side of the room. Keep in mind: I throw away, give away, donate, sell, or otherwise discard roughly half of my books whenever we move. And we move often - every ten years or so on average. I'm not trying to show off. Just stating a fact of life. I read a lot. My daughter has inherited this gene and is even more of a bookworm than I am. And it’s a blessing. There is nothing in the world better than snuggling up with a great book.

With reading, of course, comes writing. Writing always came naturally to me as a child. I'll tell you a story about writing that I've never told anyone. This is supposed to be an autobiography after all.

One day, when I was about thirteen years old, I heard on the radio that they were running a national essay contest for “young” people - fifteen to twenty one year olds. Send us your best stories and essays. We’ll announce the winners in a while and publish a book with the winning entries. Suddenly, I decided for some obscure reason that I needed to enter this contest so I picked a couple of pieces of homework I’d written the previous year at school for my Persian Literature class - ones that I was proud of - and sent them to the address they specified. I’d like to claim that I mailed the letters and forgot all about it, but that wouldn’t be true. I constantly watched out for an announcement on the radio.

A few weeks later, while munching on cereal before school one morning, I heard my name announced on the radio. My ears instantly pricked up. Somehow, I'd managed to win first place among all the entries from across the country. Now this is not the U.S. and it's not English we are talking about, mind you. But, still. It was a country with a population of thirty or forty million. I don't know how many "young people" applied but I assume it must have been at least in the thousands. Maybe it was just a Middle Eastern 1970’s version of a scam to get you to buy your own printed story. I wouldn't know. At the time, at age thirteen, it felt like I'd won the Pulitzer. 

I should have been elated but instead I was mortified. I wasn't even legally qualified to enter the contest due to age restrictions. Let's face it. I hadn't thought this one through. In hindsight, I’m not sure why – but I instantly decided that I had to hide this information at all costs. I hadn’t asked my parents for permission in the first place and didn’t want to deal with their wrath. It never occurred to me that they might be proud of my achievement. It was too “embarrassing” to be singled out for this particular skill. It had nothing to do with “real” schooling – things like science and math. 

This being summertime, I didn’t have to worry about classmates too much. They may hear my name on the radio but probably wouldn’t bother following up with me until the fall. The family, however, was another matter. I had to act swiftly.

For the next few days, I walked around the house making sure that I was present whenever the TV or radio were on. I had to monitor the news, watch out for any indication that they might be talking about this contest. Not because I wanted to hear more details but because I wanted to make sure no one in the house would find out: creating diversions, “accidentally” pulling the plug out of the wall, standing in front of the television (this is before the age of remote control) and messing with the dial to change the channel. Whatever it took to distract them while the winners’ names were announced. The whole thing took less than a minute usually and was only mentioned on TV once but more often on radio. So just imagine me jumping up and down like a total nutcase for about a minute a couple of times a day for a week and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what I’m talking about.

I knew I couldn't keep up the ruse much longer. I jumped two feet every time the phone rang or the door bell sounded. A few days later, a wonderful thing happened. Well, wonderful for my particular purposes. The revolution was in full swing. The news was full of burning tires and the sound of gunfire, and no one remembered a thing about the silly contest. A few weeks more and I was on a plane out of the country. Phew.

Jump forward forty years and I find myself surrounded by books again. I can't think of a single night in my life that I haven't spent an hour or two reading at bedtime. I gave up on writing for many years but continue to read like my life depends on it. Over the years, I switched from reading fiction to exclusively reading non-fiction: science, history. psychology, sociology, genetics, philosophy. You name it. Whatever I can get my hands on. My tastes changed as I grew older and I naturally gravitated towards educational and scientific topics. One way or another, mostly by accident, I continued my personal education by reading for the past forty years. A little bit every night.

A few years ago, I watched this TED talk by Sir Ken Robinson. I ran into it again last night and it jogged my memory. It's the most widely viewed TED talk of all time, it's only twenty minutes long, and it's filled with humor and insight. I highly recommend watching it. You won't regret it.

There are two points that I'd like to make here. First, as Sir Ken says so eloquently, that our educational systems around the world are so outdated we should throw them all out the window and start over again. Second, that our education needs to continue until the day we die.

In a world where our scientific knowledge of the universe doubles every nine years and the average life expectancy continues to increase, it is insane to lock our kids into classrooms for twelve, sixteen, or twenty years and then tell them they are equipped to deal with the next sixty or seventy years of their lives – when we have no clue what that future will look like. What’s worse, the topics we teach them today will no longer be relevant in that future.

“Our education system is predicated on the idea of academic ability. And there's a reason. Around the world, there were no public systems of education, really, before the nineteenth century. They all came into being to meet the needs of industrialism… If you think of it, the whole system of public education around the world is a protracted process of university entrance. And the consequence is that many highly-talented, brilliant, creative people think they're not, because the thing they were good at school wasn't valued, or was actually stigmatized. And I think we can't afford to go on that way.”
       Sir Ken Robinson. Do Schools Kill Creativity?

Back then, at the start of the industrial revolution, there were few "professionals" or "engineers" or “specialists” around. This was a world in which those skills were highly valued and rewarded. So, of course, we came up with a system to make more of those types of people. 

We don't live in that world any more. We have exited the Industrial Age and are now at the early stages of the Internet age. The digital age. The Information Age. To continue with an education system designed for eighteenth century needs seems ludicrous. In this new world, we need to teach children to think independently – not formulaically. We need to teach them how to learn, show them why it’s fun to learn about the world, and then to unleash them on the world. We need them to understand how different disciplines interact to inform our knowledge of the world, not just memorize formulas so we can pass a test. Education cannot be packaged, standardized, sanitized, and delivered in a uniform manner to everyone. Just as importantly, it can’t be stopped so early in life.

“In the next thirty years, according to UNESCO, more people worldwide will be graduating through education than since the beginning of history.”
            Sir Ken Robinson. Do Schools Kill Creativity?

Wow. Think about that for a minute and think about how profound a change we could have on the future of humanity if we shift the way we think about education. And our approach must include ongoing adult education as well given the rapid rate of scientific progress. No, I don't mean continuing education classes at your neighborhood community college. I mean rethinking our approach to mass media - television, radio, cinema, the web - as a force for good, a platform for continuing education for all of us instead of the cesspools they have become.

I’ve given up hoping that people will start reading again. But I keep hoping that we can reform other forms of mass communication to be more educational. Until then, I’ll keep reading my books, thank you.