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Hard America, Soft America
Hard America, great America
By Bernard Chapin
For years I've been mulling over the phrase, "What doesn't kill us makes us stronger," and I have finally concluded that the statement is usually true apart from egregious counter-examples like the SS – where what did not kill them turned them into sadistic wraiths. In our society we generally acknowledge that the only way to gain strength and prestige is through working hard and enhancing one's innate abilities. Even though some may dispute this reality, the proof is in the peripherals as there is probably not a work place in the country lacking one of those mundane "Sharpen the Saw" posters.
That is why it was with considerable excitement that I opened Michael Barone's Hard America, Soft America: Competition Vs. Coddling and the Battle for the Nation's Future. The book was just over 160 pages long and proved nearly impossible to put down. In this extended essay, Barone pounces upon one of the most important questions of our day and his work overlaps public policy, politics, history, philosophy and education. In short, it is a text that just about everybody should be able to relate to if not appreciate.
The theme of Hard America, Soft America is that from the ages of 6 to 18 Americans grow up in a downy world that is largely devoid of competition and accountability, but from the ages of 18 to 30 the texture of their lives radically changes as it becomes rocky and subject to the laws of nature. One either produces or they are fired. It is this world, this cauldron of struggle, that forges the Americans who awe the world with a never-ending parade of inventions and discoveries.
Barone gives us a tour of our own history and concludes that much of our illustriousness was created by the rigid and unforgiving forces of Hard America. Men like John D. Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan may not have been able to release their inner child or give group hugs but they were able to employ thousands and provide the means for mass production that made us the victors of war and peace. Barone views their torch as being carried forward by men like Bill Gates, Jack Welch, Fred Smith, and Sam Walton. Barone makes use of cultural works to justify his thesis and includes films like "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit," novels like Sister Carrie and infamous dementations like Charles Reich's The Greening of America.
The author stresses that there are no firm boundaries between the hard and the soft. Schools may be bastions of softness but within them are islands of sinew. High school graduates immediately encounter Hard America when they enter the military or the private sector (perhaps earlier should they work at McDonalds or Wal-Mart before age 18).
There is a parasitical relationship between the solid and the downy aspects of our culture. It is only by the grace and skill of Hard America that Soft America can survive: "Soft America lives off the productivity, creativity, and competence of Hard America, and we have the luxury of keeping parts of our society Soft only if we keep enough of it hard." Without a robust military, there would be no way to preserve the freedom and laxity that is Soft America.
Barone dedicated this work to the memory of Senator Moynihan and it is almost a certainty that he would have been pleased by the following description of the effects of excessive softness upon black Americans:
"The Softening of criminal justice, welfare, racial quotas and preferences, and education- had the effect of confining most blacks to Soft America. They were left unprotected against crime, deterred from forming stable families, deincentivized the will to achieve. The advocates of Softening hated the idea of imposing middle-class mores on black Americans, but middle-class mores are necessary for achievement in Hard America, and underclass behavior makes such achievement impossible."
The field of public education is one in which Softness has triumphed and the author believes that this situation will not change until parents force the issue. For many professionals in our schools, the chaise lounge chairs of pulpous America massages them forever. Only external forces will coerce them into changing their ways or methodologies.
This reviewer has personally witnessed several attempts of individuals to "Speak Truth to Squishiness" by bringing rigor into their classrooms and then observed the predicable punishments that were meted out to them in response.
Shortly after I finished reading the text I told a teacher about it and she said, "Give me that book now! I need it." The basis for her interest may have stemmed from her name appearing on a school wide memo ranking our teachers based on who passed the most students. Her name was on the bottom. I recall her coming up to me in the hallway and wondering if I knew of a way she could have passed a student who missed 70 out of 92 days of instruction. I had no answer then and I have no answer now.
Another educator told me of an alternative school that got around the dilemma of what to do with students who do not meet even diluted academic requirements. They issue a no grades whatsoever policy that precludes all descriptors (including "Pass" or "Fail"). He is currently being considered for the Principalship of this institution and wanted to know what I thought about their anti-grading scheme. I told him it was insane. He agreed but noted that the salary was 70 grand a year. I advised that he not mention the policy at all during his interview and then quickly abandon it once his contract was signed. We will see whether or not he has the strength to do so.
Unfortunately, although it is not as clear cut as the two examples I cite, most children do grow up in Soft America. It is a land in which they are molly-coddled and excuses are made for their every need and whimper. Many adults are more concerned with injecting them with self-esteem rather than buoying them up with knowledge. Who would have ever thought that the word "facts" would have the negative connotations it has today in educational circles? Children are shielded from the Bizzaro world of Hard America until they graduate and then are thrown into the cauldron of competition.
I think Michael Barone has done America a great service by writing this book and I encourage everyone to read it. There's absolutely nothing wonkish about it. The issues are global and should appeal to most citizens – even if it makes the pens of a few bureaucrats run dry.
Bernard Chapin is a writer living in Chicago. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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