Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The Shortage of Good People That is Afflicting Various Professions

I don't listen to National Public Radio very much. In the state where I live, the programming on the NPR station, besides the standard shows which everyone gets, is 100% politics, usually of an excruciatingly boring and technical nature. (People in this state, it must be acknowledged, take their civic duties seriously. Something like one out of every 200 adult residents has held some kind of political office at one time or another. The state legislature has 285 seats and is frequently claimed to be the fourth largest legislative body in the world.) This is mixed in with heavy doses of contentious and snotty libertarian-tinged conservatism. Harangues about the necessity of public garbage collection or whether non self-reliant people who require to be rescued by a helicopter at taxpayer expense while hiking in the mountains ought to be billed for the services can carry on for weeks. I actually find it invigorating when I visit my relatives in Philadelphia and see the mayor announce on TV that taxes are being raised and services cut immediately because the city can't pay its bills, and no one seems to be terribly upset about it. Though I live in a small state, I happen to be right in the center of it, so that when I am around home my car radio does not quite pick up the much better public broadcasting that is available in the surrounding states. If I drive a half-hour to the east I can get Maine PR, which has some enjoyable music and documentary programs of the "here are the top 20 songs from August 1937" variety; the same distance to the south I get the Boston station, which has all the objections about them one might expect (i.e. pretentiousness and smugness) but I like their classical music selections, which are perfectly pitched at an audience of Europhiles who don't know really anything about music but like to fantasize that they do (and the ads for the gourmet wine shops almost make the station worth listening to just by themselves); likewise a short drive west and I can pick up the Vermont station, which besides doing a lot of low production cost local and forgotten music shows as well, has programs like the International Workers News Report that are much more enlivening listening than the blow by blow accounts of town hall school budget debates which we get in my state. If I have to listen to someone boiling over with political rage, give me an indignant 25 year old woman railing against the global sex trade and corporate skullduggery than an obnoxious 43 year old white guy who thinks the mininum wage is too high any day. (I confess that unshaven, frequently braless, socialist Vermont girls are like catnip to me). If I drive an hour north I can even pick up some French stations from Quebec, which is also better than listening to libertarians even if I can't really make what they're angry about, and the music selection is different too. And their women... But this is turning into a whole other article. Let it suffice to say that I don't listen to NPR very much.

However, it happened last week that I came upon an interview on one of the national NPR shows that caught my attention for a few minutes. A journalist was talking about the program of fortress-style embassy construction that the United States government has undertaken all over the world, especially the one going up in Baghdad, which is the most notorious and symbolic of these new embassies for myriad reasons that are not difficult to discern. The topic led to a discussion of whether the old 19th and 20th century Game of Nations style diplomacy represented by the maintenance of embassies and their staffs was outdated in the age of the internet, cell phones, hotlines to Indian call centers, cheap international flights, mass immigration, long term employment in distant countries, and so on, especially if the diplomats who are supposed to be our voice in as well as main source of reliable information about these foreign countries have to spend all their time confined in the embassy-fortress. This interesting question was unfortunately not resolved, though the journalist did make the observation that "the foreign service is just not attracting the same high quality of people as it did in the past." As someone who probably could not get a sniff of being ever hired by the foreign service myself, my first instinct of course is to ponder what quality of person that must make me, if the people who are getting hired are not even considered to be as good as we would desire them to be. My second is to note that a decline in the quality of people--by which it is implied that intelligence is the attribute that is in short supply, rather than character or educational credentials, if not actual education--going into a profession has been remarked upon in other areas as well. Teachers and government workers in general are often said to be not of the caliber they once were either (to say nothing of writers). The usual reason given is that smart people have so many lucrative opportunities in the private sector now that no one of any ability can be expected to work for such pathetic salaries as the state offers (though the same salaries are considered exorbitant when the positions fall to mediocrities because there were no worthy people willing to take them). This always sets me to wondering, "Who was, and who is now, this race of high-quality people that the private sector so covets, and the state flails about so wretchedly without the services of? What are their secrets? What is it that they understand that the rest of us do not? Why now, for the first time in recorded history, are there no brilliant people unseduced by the crooning call of money? Were three thousand years of philosophy and religious teaching just lies that we only have managed to kill for good since 1989?"

This set me in mind of another incident, not exactly related, but in the same vein. Recently at the organization where I am an employee, a major figure, director of a department, retired. I inquired of someone upon this event, in my innocent 1950s mode, whether X who had been a prominent underling in the department for a long time was being considered for promotion to the director's job. The person I asked this question of looked at me like I was insane. "Oh, no," he said. "They're flying in people from all over the country to interview for this position." I know I am way behind the times, and that this is a common practice, but something about this struck me as rather excessive. This organization is a small to midsized regional hospital in a thinly populated area. Being an administrator at such a place is not a job a monkey could do, I am sure, but at the same time, it is a job that tens of thousands of people, most of whom are not geniuses or otherwise notably gifted, have and perform capably in this country every day (This position requires no specific medical training as far as I know). I mean ultimately, how hard can it possibly be? How much unique training can it possibly require? I admit I have never really gotten the whole thing about building resumes and advancing careers and promoting oneself and all of that--just based on my experience playing sports I know that people can make themselves look like much more serious athletes than their results would indicate they actually are by getting up at 5 am to train, having private coaches, going to camps, etc--but I can't believe this particular position is so uniquely difficult that one has to go to Oregon and Kansas to find people capable of doing it. I think it is bad for the psyche of a community (as, on a larger scale, it is bad for the psyche of the entire nation) when the message is continually sent that no one on hand in a place is smart/good enough to do work that someone ought reasonably to be able to do. Not one of the administrators in this organization, which is the largest employer in town besides the government, has any connection even to the state dating before they were well into adulthood (well, one guy did go to Dartmouth for college). Yet the minute they arrive they are regarded leaders in the community to a certain extent. The same goes for the editor and most of the writers on the local paper, the radio talk show hosts, and the city council (the last guy on it who grew up in town die last year). I am not from here myself, but I don't like the idea that none of the people who are running things has any idea what the town was like in 1980, let alone 1950; that they didn't go to the local school or church or hang out at the malt shop back when it was open; that they don't have any deep personal connection with anybody or any institution in town that dates back to their formative years. When one arrives in a place for the first time as a fully-formed adult, he can never have the same sense of its character or personality and is forever comparing it, usually inaccurately and unfavorably, with what he does know. People used, I think, to have a better understanding of this, and have some humility when settling in a strange city largely occupied by people who had been there, and whose families had been there, for a long time. But perhaps they didn't.

But to get back to the idea that today's teachers or foreign service workers aren't on the same level of quality as those in the past, as I know I am often guilty of similar insinuations myself. As one gets older, and the imposing authority figures of one's youth, in certain non-scienctific/ technical occupations, with their educations, manners, experiences, etc, peculiar to their own time, fall away and are replaced with one's own contemporaries, or even younger people, it is difficult to imagine that anything has been gained to replace what has been lost, since one feels there is little the contemporary can know that he does know, which was not the relationship he had with the older authorities. It is remarkable how many prominent people, many of them of obvious intelligence (Gore Vidal and Camille Paglia are two examples who come to mind, though many other people--Harold and Allan Bloom, Philip Roth, etc, have similar symptoms) have a blind spot in this area. They write and talk as if they sincerely and unironically believe that the last great flowering of culture, art, intellect, etc, remarkably, was in the very place they happened to be when they were 18-25 years old, and that nothing--nothing--of lasting significance has happened since. With the dreadful baby boomer generation rapidly approaching their dotage, I only expect this kind of attitude to become more prevalent rather than less.

I got to post this and move on to something else. This is not a PhD dissertation.

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