"Super People", and Celebration of Ignorance

Over the weekend, there was an interesting New York Times essay that discussed how there seems to be a new breed of hyper-impressive people. A sample:
A BROCHURE arrives in the mail announcing this year’s winners of a prestigious fellowship to study abroad. The recipients are allotted a full page each, with a photo and a thick paragraph chronicling their achievements. It’s a select group to begin with, but even so, there doesn’t seem to be anyone on this list who hasn’t mastered at least one musical instrument; helped build a school or hospital in some foreign land; excelled at a sport; attained fluency in two or more languages; had both a major and a minor, sometimes two, usually in unrelated fields (philosophy and molecular science, mathematics and medieval literature); and yet found time — how do they have any? — to enjoy such arduous hobbies as mountain biking and white-water kayaking.

Let’s call this species Super Person.
Super People [New York Times]

From there, the essay -- written by James Atlas, president of the publishing company Atlas & Co. -- progresses discursively. Atlas wonders if this is happening because of evolution and better availability of nutrition and other types of health-consciousness. He also wonders if "Super People" are a sign of growing income inequality in America such that the wealthy parents can invest in their children to an unprecedented degree. He further wonders if "Super People" phenomenon is to some degree an illusion, created by resume-padding instead of genuine commitment to achievements. But he finishes on a relatively positive note about "Super People".

The essay was an interesting read, but even more interesting read was the comments, which were overwhelmingly critical of the "Super People". Now, a whole bucket of salt is necessary when it comes to glean anything meaningful out of comments left on Internet message boards. The caveats should be familiar -- the samples are not representative, anonymous comments can be expressed more radically than the writer intended, and so on. But these concerns are partially mitigated by the fact that this is the crowd that reads the New York Times. They like reading news and commentary. They tend to be more educated and worldly. They tend to be in positions to shape opinions of those around them. And overwhelmingly, they disliked the idea of "Super People."

To be sure, many of the criticisms of "Super People" in the comments were very legitimate. It is perfectly legitimate to critique that trophy-collection does not necessarily contribute to building a sound character. (The Korean has consistently argued that education should be seen as a character building process, not a skill acquisition process.) It is completely fair to wonder if the "Super People's" achievements are an optical illusion, which did not leave much lasting impact on the person other than the line on her resume. And to the extent that those achievements are indeed genuine, it is deeply worrisome that America's income inequality deprives middle class and poor Americans from being able to invest in their children as much as wealthier Americans do.

But sort the hundreds of comments by "Readers' Recommendations," and a disturbing trend floats to the top: attacking the achievements themselves, and celebrating sloth and ignorance instead. Indeed, even the criticisms that appear facially legitimate have an undertone of contempt for more knowledge, more experience and more doing.

The prevalent image invoked by the phrase "celebrating ignorance" might be that of a rabid right-winger denying evolution or climate change. But this troubling trend of anti-intellectualism is an American trait that infects the entire American culture, including the presumably well-educated, left-leaning New York Times readers. Achievement-denial, in fact, has become the liberals' version of evolution-denial.

(More after the jump)

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There should really be no debate about the fact -- the truth -- that the achievements listed in Atlas's essay, if genuinely attained, would lead to making of a better person. Musical training leads to increased brain activity and improved memory. So does bilingualism, which in turn leads to improvements in multitasking -- not to mention the obvious benefits of accessing completely different modes of thought taken from a different culture. Excellence in sport teaches the value of toughness, grit and teamwork. Travelling to a foreign land broadens one's perspective, and even more so if one volunteered to help the needy while traveling. These benefits are so obvious that the Korean cannot even believe that he has to spell this out.

It is fair to wonder if anyone could truly achieve all of the above and more -- hence, the caveat that the achievements must be genuinely attained. Although true "Super People" certainly exist, some (and the Korean would say a decent proportion of) "Super People" are undoubtedly no more than poseurs. But regardless of that, what sense does it make to attack the achievements themselves? How can people seriously believe that mastering a second language, mastering a musical instrument, or volunteering in a foreign land makes a person worse? How can people seriously be proud of the fact that they did not do these things that would unquestionably make them better?

Here is the most recommended comment, written by none other than New York Times reporter Jane Gross:
When do these Super People have time to ruminate, to day-dream, to eschew GPS systems in their cars because it's interesting to get lost once in a while? When do they have time to be kind? To be a good friend? To go the woods with their dog? To dead head their gardens, mindlessly, for an entire afternoon? To sleep for 11 hours and let their bodies and mind do whatever bodies and minds do when they're sleeping? I couldn't do a square root in high school and still can't, unsure then and now what a square root even is is and why I need to know it. I remember nothing of my SAT scores except that they were very high, without benefit of tutors. I wasn't an extra-curricular activities kind of girl. My bandwidth was narrow then and far narrower now, at 64. But I held my own for 29 years at the New York Times. I wrote a book that a serious publisher paid good money for. Starting out in the world today, I'd be a loser. Why am I not properly ashamed of that?
Here is a stunning celebration of ignorance. Gross is parading the fact that she does not know what she should have learned in high school. (And it really should be middle school.) She is proud of the narrowness of her vision. Why? How is it a badge of honor that she knows less?

Another line of criticism is that "Super People" are inevitably unhappy, uncreative, uncaring, or deficient in some way, as Gross implies in the earlier part of her comment. For example, "Don Seekins" from Hawaii said:
There was a time, not so long ago, when people actually read books and went places to learn something, experience something - not put it on their resume. Super people are empty people.
Similarly, "Dan" from New York said:
What do an alarming number of super people do when they finish at Harvard? They become I-bankers. They cash out. I realize this is a gross generalization and that there are, indeed, real life super people. It does seem, however, that the list of extracurriculars and good deeds is formed with one goal in mind - gaining admission to an elite school and making a lot of money once you're finished. Is this bad? Given the sorry state of our country, I would say yes. All these super people haven't made the US a better place. There's a big difference between knowledge and wisdom.
"aj" from New York said:
Amost [sic] nothing kills creativity like competition and well-roundedness. A lot of these people will wind up as wealthy doctors, bond salesmen, Wall Street lawyers, and government bureaucrats. None will design the next IPad, 787, femtosecond laser, fiberoptic communication system, cancer drug, or program Facebook, or Solidworks. That is the real sadness of this business.
There are so many wrongheaded ideas here that it becomes tiresome to address them. What makes "Don Seekins" think that "Super People" don't actually read books and go places to learn and experience something? (How does it make sense that a travel can only be made worthwhile if it is not listed on the resume?) On what basis does "Dan" think all the young "Super People" are only interested in making money? (For one counterexample, elite institutions like Cornell, Georgetown, Yale and UC Berkeley -- which presumably attracts the young "Super People" -- consistently lead the number of Peace Corps produced.) And where in the hell does "aj" get the idea that diligence kills creativity? (The recent rise of competition in classical music produced technical virtuosos who are more creative than ever.)

More fundamentally, where does all this bile come from? Why do they feel the need to denigrate "Super People" and cut them down? Why can't they simply admire "Super People" for what they are? Is it so hard to admit that they -- I -- might know less and have experienced less such that I should be impressed by "Super People"? Is it so hard to admit that "Super People" are better than I? I can, for example, easily admit that I am not even half of a legal mind of, say, Justice John Roberts or Judge Richard Posner. They are my judicial heroes and, unquestionably, "Super People." (One of my law school professors, who was a classmate of Judge Posner at Harvard Law School, said Judge Posner self-taught Greek on a whim that he would prefer to read the Greek philosophers in their original language. How many people can do that?) Justice Roberts and Judge Posner are better than I am. For me to state otherwise would be insane. Similarly, if I ever met a trilingual -- something that I could not become, and not for the lack of trying -- I would be really impressed. If I ever met a trilingual who is a top-notch intellectual as well as a pro-level athlete, I would be even more impressed. Never for a second would I wonder if the person is an unfeeling, materialistic monster who is dead inside. Nor would I ever attempt to make the ignorant argument that I am somehow better than the athletic, intellectual trilingual because I know less and can do less than she does and can do.

Fortunately, it is not all bad news in the NYT comment section. Although the Korean had to rummage far into the "Most Recommended" pages, he was able to find a positive comment to close. "Steven J." from New Haven, CT wrote:
Let's celebrate this new breed of Renaissance person. They are well-rounded, brimming with energy, and I bet many of them will go on to do good things with their lives. And please don't confuse the 'true' Super Person with the rank careerists, scrabbling for points on their resumes. Nor should we blithely assume the 1% who are most effervescently intelligent and creative are identical with the 1% who amass the most wealth. What we want, as a society, is to educate these golden youth to want to create and serve and protect the rest of us.
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