Olympics: The Spirit of Competition

Oddly enough, after two weeks the 2012 Summer Olympics are not getting stale at our house.  There seems to be a never-ending series of Olympic Moments that stalls the reality train for yet another event that somehow turns into a television afternoon.  And these aren’t just those Chariots of Fire flashes of exalted victory and weeping defeat that the media loves so much.  They’re revelations of what young people are capable of.  What constitutes dedication and excellence?  What brings these human qualities together in the same place at the same time and drives athletic performance forward?  It’s easy to dismiss the Olympics as the gargantuan circus it has become — and I’ve done it a number of times — but that’s just the glitzy bag they’re dressed in.  There’s more to them than that.

The Olympic mottoCitius, Altius, Fortius” (Faster, Higher, Stronger) is actually a secret code that unlocks a hidden room in our human DNA — a tidy little place where the competitive genes are stored.  Yes, that’s right: as much as contemporary North Americans wish to deny it, we are genetically programmed to be competitive.

Human beings are social animals, not unlike a troop of chimpanzees or a herd of elephants.  We travel in packs and, therefore, have a burning need to know just exactly where we fit into the hierarchy of the group.  It’s Mother Nature’s way of making certain our species survives, by insuring that the strongest genes get passed along.  Once we establish that primeval, it’s not such a big step to London 2012.  Those young people running, jumping and lifting are doing what comes naturally.  Crudely put, they are just answering a call of nature.

Here in the 21st century, there is a strange idea that we should limit a child’s exposure to competition as if it were radon (Remember that stuff?)  In fact, the “everybody gets a rainbow” philosophy has pretty much taken over in North America.  This is just bad.  It’s like punishing owls for sleeping all day.  Take a look at any schoolyard.  Those little kids figure out who the Alpha dog is pretty quickly — even though they’ve been told repeatedly they’re not supposed to do that.  They know who runs the fastest, who has the coolest backpack or who knows all the words to “Call Me Maybe.”  They don’t have to keep score.  It all comes perfectly naturally to them.  This is because, from the day we’re born until the gophers start delivering our mail, we are constantly going head to head with something.  If you don’t believe me, ask any parent about the incredible duel they had with their two-year-old.  That kid is measuring his abilities, honing his skills, detecting and tailoring his talent — so he can deal with an unforgiving world someday.  In essence, he’s competing with the world that mom and dad have created to keep him safe!  They don’t call it “The Terrible Twos” for nothing.

Instead of trying to sacrifice 5,000 generations of the human condition on the altar of some Flavour-Of-The-Week self-esteem Dr. Phil nonsense, we should be encouraging competition.  Striving for excellence is not wrong, even if you get left behind.  The Olympics clearly shows that.  Forget about the glare of the klieg lights and the stabbing “how do you feel?” microphones, and take a look at that poor bugger who’s bringing up the rear.  They never stop.  They finish — even when they know they haven’t got a hope of ever touching an Olympic medal.  And when it’s all over and they go home, they aren’t “devastated” human beings, questioning their self-worth.  They’re standing tall, three axe handles across the shoulders, proud of their accomplishment because they hung in there with the best.  Not only that, but they’ll probably start training all over again, just for another chance to try.

The Olympics might be a five ring circus.  So be it.  However, we need to bring some of that spirit of healthy competition home to our children — because, these days, when every kid gets a gold medal, everybody (including the kids) knows damn well it doesn’t mean anything.

In Praise of Higher Education

A couple of weeks ago, I got into a hopeless discussion (argument, for the uninitiated) with some young people (under 30) about education.  I haven’t taken a beating like that since Betty Jones (not her real name) and her 2nd grade boyfriend decided my lunch was more interesting than hers.  The problem was, in both cases, no amount of reason was going to be sufficient to change anybody’s mind.  Unreasonable people, with big boyfriends, have a way of winning discussions.  In the early part of the evening, I relied on Aristotlesque logic.  I laid out concise theses, which I supported with facts and observations, which in turn, naturally led to the only possible conclusion: mine.  Q.E.D!  Their response was “Crap!” (or a somewhat stronger version of said same.)  I spent the rest of the night — and at least two more bottles of wine — fighting for my verbal life against wave after wave of anecdotal evidence, non sequitur reminiscences, rhetorical questions and profanity.  The kids were clearly angry about the fuzzy end of the lollipop they had received at the hands of liberal education, but they couldn’t articulate it.  Therefore, even though I knew they were intelligent young people, they looked just about as dumb as they assured me they weren’t.

I’m not going to rework the discussion here.  That wouldn’t be fair.  But my position was “Stay in school you’re going to need it” and theirs was, the oft repeated, “Crap!” (or a somewhat stronger version of said same.)  This really surprised me, because my generation and every generation before mine has worshipped education.  Ever since Gideon outwitted the Midianites, it’s been seen as, not only the magic carpet of social mobility but the keys to the bank vault.  Even in the darkest of the Dark Ages, education was the one thing that gave ordinary peasants a leg up in society.  A millennium later, our contemporary world is so compartmentalized that, without a specialized education, you are almost certainly relegated to tier-two employment – Starbucks, et al.  Either that or you could luck-out and land a union-protected public service job (but you might want to buy lottery tickets on that one just to be on the safe side.)  Of course, there is intrinsic value in learning for its own sake.  Nobody denies that, but practically speaking (which is all I was doing the other night) it’s all about where the money is.

My young friends beg to differ, however.  They see education as a great wormhole that eats time, energy and student loans, then shoots them out the other end, no wiser, several years older and deeper in debt.  While admitting that post-secondary education is indeed a necessity, they also see it, for the most part, as a waste.  Their argument is, why should they spend four years and forty thousand dollars for information they already know or can find on the Internet?  To them, a liberal education is merely a thinly disguised tactic to keep them out of the job market for as long as possible, and a single university or college degree is a ticket to poverty.  The “piece of paper” as they call it, with disdain, is not essential preparation for future employment but an artificial barrier to their own advancement.   With it, the only guarantee is student debt.  There are not that many high-priced jobs going begging these days, and experienced expertise trumps recent graduation, every time.  Remember, these kids are making cappuccinos with a lot of underemployed PhDs.  However, without a diploma (of some sort) there is a serious top end to whatever employment they find.  Whether they’ve landed their perfect career/job or they’re just getting a pay check, without accreditation, they’re going to stay where they are for an awfully long time.  It’s a no-win/no-win situation, and they know it.

To be fair, the kids have a point.  However, they’re missing some essential ingredients.  First of all, the big bad world out there has never heard of them.  Education is the hello handshake that separates them from the herd.  To be brutally honest, to employers, a degree is just shorthand for “at least the guy hung in there for four years.”  Secondly, education, off its own bat, is useless.  It needs thought and practical application.  Getting a degree in Earth Science, Medieval Dance or the infamous Art History is indeed a ticket to poverty.  Our society is awash in people who found that out – the hard way.  The trick is fitting education to employment, even if it isn’t a perfect match.  Sometimes, the difference between doing what you like and making change at Chevron is flexibility and imagination.  Finally, and most importantly, only about half of post secondary education occurs in the classroom.  At this level, gathering information is nothing serious.  The kids are right; it’s all on the Internet.  The important stuff is learning the complex skills of analysis, organization, communication and time management, to name but a few.  The smartest person in the world is just a German Shepherd with a thumb if he can’t find his notes, doesn’t have the discipline for deadlines or can’t express his ideas effectively.  Anybody can Google “the capital of Poland,” but it’s post-secondary education that teaches us how to use that information.

It might have been the wine, but I wasn’t this articulate the other night.  Maybe it’s time for Round Two.  After all, I met Betty Jones years later, and we came to an understanding over a couple of churros and a bottle of Kahlua.

History: Don’t be Afraid!

More than a few years ago, my niece asked me why we study history.  Actually, what she did was look up, in frustration, from a thick textbook that was mostly pictures and said, “Why do we have to learn about all these old _______s?  She used an expletive, inappropriate for a 15-year-old — even now.  I almost had a heart attack.  Not because of the expletive — I’d heard the word before – and used it a time or two.  No, I was astounded that there was someone on earth who wasn’t fascinated by old stories; especially when that somebody shared huge chunks of my DNA.  Up until that moment, I had thought everybody loved history.  I’ve since learned that large segments of our society are afraid of it.  My niece, by the way, has long since seen the error of her ways — or so she told me after several harangues on the subject.

These days, history is subject non grata in the halls of learning.  It’s kinda like farting.  Everybody is aware it exists, but it’s not acceptable in polite conversation.  People, in general, don’t talk about it and the ones who do aren’t really worth talking to.  It … makes people uncomfortable.  When the subject does come up, they tend to laugh nervously or give it the indignant scowl.  This is entirely understandable, by the way; most contemporaries don’t know enough about history to fill a mouse’s ear.  It hasn’t been taken seriously in Canadian schools for over a generation.  You see history is dangerous.  Not all those stupid dates and battles and crap – that’s just memory.  It’s the actual history itself – the wherefores and the whys – that’s what scares some people.  They’re frightened by the stuff that’s etched in stone – sometimes literally.

People who hate history do so for no other reason than that it exists.  It is the accumulation of our shared human experience.  It is a permanent collection of our ideas and ideals.  It not only tells us where we came from; it tells us how we got here.  It’s like having a bunch of really, really smart grandmas who know how to make cookies.  We don’t have to reinvent the chocolate chip wheel every time we want a snack ‘cause Grandma left us the recipe.  Pretty simple, actually, but it’s the way the entire world works.  For example, you might be reading this on your Smartphone because Grandpa Graham Bell wanted to talk to deaf people.  Or you’re commuting to work because great-grandpa Watt was fascinated by his mother’s tea kettle.  Or you see an emergency and call 911 because great-great grandpa Hammurabi figured out that the rule of law is better than every man for himself.  It’s all the same, and it goes on and on.  Every single one of our innovations and institutions is built on these little itty-bitty layers of knowledge, put together by our ancestors.  It’s a permanent record of what we are and we can’t change it.  That’s why a lot of people fear history so much.  It knows where the bodies are buried and it has all the evidence.

It’s very difficult to lie to people when they have all the evidence.  That’s why dictators take after history with such a vengeance.  They really don’t want people looking too closely at ideas that disagree with them.  Just look at Grandfather Hitler: he wanted to remake society into his vision of a fascist paradise.  So, one of the first things he did was gather up all the books that said anything different and burn them, in places like Heidelberg University.  He thought that if he destroyed the inconvenient parts of history (the ones that showed he was clearly a madman) he could rewrite the rest to justify his insanity.  He almost made it, too, but he was denied his demented social order because ordinary people all over the world knew better.

My point, of course, is if you want your vision of society to be the model for the future, it’s best to get rid of the past.  After all, the historical record of Hitler we’ve just seen shows us it’s impossible to convince people you hold the exclusive rights to utopian ideology when history says you’re a fraud.

These days, however, when you want to destroy the past, you don’t have to go all Fahrenheit 451 on it.  All you have to do is discredit it.  In my country, for the last couple of generations, history has gone from a serious study of events and ideas to a series of J’Accuse kangaroo court cases.  Historical people and events have been tried in absentia by a judge and jury of our temporary contemporary values and found guilty.  History is now considered to be nothing more than a set of misguided nefarious plots, perpetrated on the world by dead European men.  The quaint idea that our 2011 values are the be-all/end-all has closed the door on any serious discussion of history.  The irony is that every generation thinks history ends with them.

Obviously, history will continue, but with an entire generation historically illiterate, it’s difficult to realistically discuss either the present or the future.  We cannot talk about social, political or economic change when the only knowledge most people have is anecdotal living memory.  More importantly, without any background, many people cannot hope to understand our society’s serious problems.  It’s no wonder they seek wisp in the willows solutions or follow the simple demagoguery of sound bytes: their only point of reference is the here and now.

I’m certain that eventually, the pendulum of history will swing, but as our problems multiply exponentially by dint of overwhelming ignorance, it can’t come fast enough for me.  Fidel Castro once said, “History will absolve me.”  I’m not sure that’s going to work for us.