Thursday, 8 October 2009

Book reviews

Have managed to get through a few books this week. One was rather a disappointment. It's by Jane Bussman, called 'The Worst Date Ever: War Crimes, Hollywood Hearthrobs and Other Abominations". It's a true life story about how the author, a celebrity journalist, developed a crush on a UN negotiator whose picture she saw in a magazine and somehow ended up in northern Uganda reporting on the conflict there in a bid to date him. It's meant to be a comedy - the author has also written for South Park, Brass Eye and The Fast Show - but I thought the humour was crass, relentless and, well, not funny. The bits that made it worth perservering with though are the bits set in northern Uganda, meeting with child soldiers and army generals. Not sure her analysis of the conflict and the aid effort (she grows to despise what she dubs 'the Useful People') would stand up to scrutiny, but it's an interesting insight.

Have also just finished 'Outliers: The Story of Success' which I thought at first was one of those annoying '7 secrets of the successful whatever' books, but was actually quite thought-provoking. It's divided into two sections, Opportunity and Legacy. Opportunity looks at how being born in the right place at the right time in the right circumstances can make the difference between success and relative failure - e.g. looking at how Bill Gates and Steve Jobs managed to hit the computing wave just as it gathered momentum. Legacy looks at how cultural factors play a role - e.g. why men from the southern states of the USA are more likely than their northern countrymen to 'lose it' when they're insulted (because they come from a 'culture of honour') - and 'the ethnic theory of plane crashes', which is all about cultural willingness to challenge authority or to speak without ambiguity and Hofstede's Dimensions. If you enjoyed Freakonomics, you'd probably like this.

To me it was particularly interesting to look at the factors that influence educational success, and the differing outcomes for children, all of stunningly high IQ, from different family backgrounds. Children who grew up in an atmosphere of 'concerned cultivation' (i.e. where their talents were identified earlier, and measures taken to encourage those talents to flourish) did much better than those who were raised in an atmosphere of 'natural growth' (i.e. where the kids were pretty much left to get on with it). And what determines whether a child is raised in the first or second environment? Class, of course.


cowbutt said...

I don't think I agree with your final sentence; isn't it rather patronising to say "Oh, you're working class, you're not going to encourage your kids to value education" whilst being neglectful by saying to middle class parents "Oh, you'll know how to bring your kids up to value education, so you don't need any help from us"?

Even if it were true, simply throwing money at a group of people won't change their class values. And I've encountered working class people who would dismiss that also as middle class patronisation and an attempt to 'destroy working class culture' or similar (I'd strongly disagree - one can stay true to one's roots whilst still getting a good education and securing a good and honourable living - but then I'm a politically irrelevant condescending middle class liberal, apparently).

Kerry said...

I agree it's a generalisation but perhaps my post didn't make clear that's the conclusion of the author, not me, based on research. It wasn't so much about differences in valuing education as about what parents saw their roles as - i.e. parenting, or parenting AND educating - hence things like extracurricular piano lessons, tuition, trips to museums, etc, from middle class parents compared to basically letting kids be kids and play from the more working class families. The author wasn't actually being judgmental about it, but just pointing out that if you're looking at success in the career progression/ material attainment sense of the word, rather than the happy, fully- rounded human being sense, the middle class kids win out because of their backgrounds.

cowbutt said...

I'm sure some of my upper-middle class peers from uni had piano lessons and tutors, but that was never on the agenda when I was growing up in my lower-middle class family. I will confess to my fair share of trips to the Science Museum, Industrial Museum, Fleet Air Arm and computer fairs, though. Plenty of playing in the street when I was younger, and plenty of slaving over the dining room table on homework most weekends from seven or eight or so, too, mind. :-)

More important than all those, however, was being taught to read by my mum before I started school (in spite of the school's admonitions for her not to - a practice continued today, I gather). I firmly believe that the sooner a child is able to read, the quicker they're able to learn whatever interests them. And I don't think it even requires much in the way of money or state intervention to facilitate (assuming basic literacy in the parents, anyway). The varying speeds would make classroom management a bit trickier for the teachers and/or schools, I suppose, but they just need to deal with it.

dreamingspire said...

The big discussion this last week on The Bristol Blogger has been about the problem of south Bristol, whether adding new roads will trigger improvement there or not. As usual it is clear that the City Council is at best scrabbling to catch up (although I must say that the contributions from the current administration have been very good). The discussion is really about those children who are "left to get on with it", and the suspicion that new roads across south Bristol are to help the businesses make profit out of land, not about helping the community. A good public transport system helps some people get from dormitory areas to work, and a rapid intro of 100Mbit broadband helps others work from home or small local offices. For the first, kick Cllr Ap Rees up the backside and get the ITA moving.