Dubious Lessons of a Well-Intended Education: On Fakework

Let’s be honest: education teaches us some truly dubious life lessons.

A friend of mine recently took a class in which the sole assignment for the whole semester was a single 6,000 word research paper on a topic of one’s choice. Despite giving her professor assurances to the contrary, she began the assignment the night before it was due. She wrote the entire paper in one sitting, editing as she went, and submitted without proofreading.

She said she deserved a bad grade, and would’ve accepted one with resolve. She’d been unengaged by the class and was planning to declare it as a pass/fail. And yet—when she received the graded paper back a few weeks later, it had received an A, and her professor was effusive in his praise. He wrote to her in an email something along the lines of: this is one of the best undergraduate papers I’ve ever read, and I can tell how much effort you’ve put into this. Keep up the hard work, and may your successes continue.

The lesson my friend learned was one of smart work, as opposed to hard work. Pretend to work hard, put in the minimal amount of effort necessary, confuse with big words, elegant sentences and a complex thesis, and the rewards will follow. Success depends as much on impression as on reality—the impression of hard work, the impression of intelligence.

The kind of ‘smart work’ I’m talking about is more than the “hack” mentality put forward by blogs like Lifehacker, and more than the productivity mantra of Silicon Valley. Where those look to help reduce the time it takes to carry out a given task (and that is, after all, the idea of technological progress), the smart work taught by our schools and universities changes what it means to complete a task. A task is complete so long as it gives the impression of it, no matter the thought, detail, care, conscience or morality behind it. Perhaps a better term is fakework.

“Yes, and?”, some will ask. “The activity is still complete. What’s it to others how it was completed? And besides, they’ll never know.”

Modern culture itself seems built on a similar kind of impressionism. It is probably a result of modern advertising, the ever-increasing fight by companies for our attention, the ever-decreasing time we feel we have. Politics is now the competition of the sound-bite. Advertising gives the impression of life transformation through the purchase of a product, when of course the underlying product can never live up to the impression that was sold.

We are taught the lesson in our schools and universities, because everyone—teachers and professors included—are subject to the same laws of impressionism. Teachers have similar constraints on their time as students, if not more, and it seems the trick, for many (though by no means all!), is to give the impression of having thoughtfully read and graded a paper without having truly done so. Because both students and teachers engage with it, it becomes one of the unspoken myths of one’s education. So long as you give the impression of hard work—and don’t call others out on theirs—all will be fine.

We take the lesson with us to the workplace, and it moves us onwards, forwards, upwards.

The problem is, we come to believe it. Fakework becomes not just an unspoken reality of our education systems, but a rule of modern life. If we could once switch fakework on and off depending on the activity, soon we forget it underlies our actions. And for some things in life, hard work is the only solution. It’s those times when the mere impression of it counts for absolutely nothing.

Like when your doctor tells you you’re at risk of a heart attack, and that you urgently need to get fit to improve your heart.

Like when you’re about to become a mother or a father and have just a few months to learn everything you need to know to keep your child safe and healthy and to give them the right start in life.

Like when you’re laid off at 55 and decide to write the novel you always wanted to write.

Like when your father has a stroke and you’re his sole care giver.

In these situations, and so many more where the only one watching is our own conscience and the only people affected are the ones we care most about, hard work is all there is.

Education is so all-encompassing, all-consuming, that we fail to see how the lessons we learn, no matter how broken were the incentives through which we learn them, are lessons we take with us through life. Our views, habits and approaches to life are formed when we aren’t watching; they’re formed when we’re looking the other way, trying to get an assignment done the night before it’s due. I suppose one should try always to keep a watchful eye turned in this direction, and to see every assignment and task as an opportunity to practice the habits and approaches we’ll need when life most tests us. We don’t want to be left floundering, wondering why fakework isn’t working exactly when we need it most.

Transforming the Gold of Our Lives into the Base Lead of Commerce

Recently I’ve quoted perhaps too often Annie Dillard’s slap-in-the-face line, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives”. It’s a slap in the face because of its simplicity and because of its great importance. And the “of course” tucked so effortlessly in the middle because, OF COURSE it’s true, though we forget it every day.

But I’ve wondered too about the choice of the verb “spend”. It’s not something I noticed on first reading, and yet after having discovered Mark Slouka’s line about any “loathsome platitude” that compares time to money—“the very alchemy by which the very gold of our lives is transformed into the base lead of commerce”—I can’t un-see it. (Mark Slouka, of course, also tucks his line inside brackets half-way through a separate paragraph, as if it were too obvious to mention).

What does it mean to “spend our days”, and to “spend our lives?” It’s as if we have a savings account, and the trick to life is to not deplete the account too quickly. The commerce metaphor conjures subconscious ideas of frugality and the time value of money; save today, for every dollar saved today will be a dollar and a bit the next. Be smart with your account, because you’ll need to support yourself for years to come.

Metaphors are dangerous, especially those that enter into daily usage. Rarely do we reflect on how they might shape our thinking, the ways in which our minds come to take on the ideas embedded within them. And the greatest risk of all is that we do not ask whether the metaphor is apt; whether by analogising the most important thing we have—time—we are losing sight of what is really at stake.

We cannot “spend our days” in the way we spend money; we do not know how many days we have, our days are not comparable to one another in objective quantities, and we cannot save a day today and get a day and a bit tomorrow. Time and money stand opposed; to get one, we must deplete the other. And yet by saying that time is money, and that we spend our days, we forget that we are not merely trading apples for oranges; to think that way is to be stuck still in the realm of commerce, where decisions are merely orderings of preferences. Instead we come to think the only thing we really have, and the very thing we cannot count on, is merely a kind of purchasing power. Time is outside the realm of commerce entirely, for it cannot be purchased. It cannot factor into preference orderings like an iPhone can. It’s the most crucial thing that Michael Sandel forgot to include in his book What Money Can’t Buy.

Let us say instead, how we live our days is how we live our lives. Living is what takes up time. One lives life and spends money; one cannot live money, nor spend time, though for too long we’ve pretended we could.

Reflecting

A birthday is perhaps the most appropriate time to reflect on time passed. It invites thought about a year of one’s life in its entirety, and comparison of that year to others. It can allow a deeper understanding of how we’re spending the only thing we really have—time—and whether we’re spending it the way we want to be.

But to reflect on a year of life is no easy task, and it is made more difficult by the reality that more recent events take on larger significance in the mind’s eye. Those events that happened 364 days ago may well have been the more consequential, but those that happened yesterday bear greater significance in how we’re immediately living life today.

The challenge is to attempt, as best one can, to get rid of the importance adjustments our minds make, and assess the events of a year without the effects of presentism. The only way I know to do this is through keeping a diary every day of the year.

A diary removes the presentist bias by showing what we thought of things as they occurred, and how we judged their importance at the time. It treats every day as equal, but allowed us at the time to make judgements of importance. When reading back over a year on a certain day, like a birthday, one can then see events as they were and how they affected one at the time.

A birthday can become hard work. Looking back over 365 days takes time, and especially when it comes to the reality of your life, it takes energy. But it’s a necessary excuse to take that time, and to spend that energy, to look back on how we’re spending our days.

For if how we spend our days is how we live our lives, and we wish to reflect on how we’re living our lives, we better record how we spend our days, and at some point we better make some sense of all that time.

The irony is that the presentist bias may be precisely what gets in the way of keeping a diary, by telling us that today is just too busy, or too important, or something or other, and that’s why we can’t write about it. Reflection takes time, every single day.

Creative Blindness

The idea of creativity conjures notions of newness in visual arts, literature and music. Of course, creativity exists in all fields in different ways, but it exists in an idealised form in disciplines with fewer constraints.

Yet the perennial challenge in being creative, especially in artistic fields, is in trying to throw off subconscious notions of the way things have been done before. Visual culture influences what our minds view as possible and impossible. It took centuries before artists, first in France, realised that art was more than a competition to reproduce real life on a canvas; and it took perhaps a century more for others to realise that art might specifically seek to create what does not exist in reality. That necessity of breaking out of mental silos could be thought of as the artistic struggle.

Wassily Kandinsky’s essay On The Spiritual Art captures this idea perfectly: that the artist is the person who sees his or her role as being creative in order to break through the invisible barriers of right and wrong, correct and incorrect, instead looking inside themselves for guidance.

“The artist should be blind to “accepted” or “unacceptable” form, deaf to the precepts and demands of his [or her! — Kandinsky published this in 1911] time. His eyes should be always directed toward his own inner life, and his ears turned to the voice of internal necessity.”

Kandinsky continues, arguing that “internal necessity” of the artist arises from three separate desires or drives:

“1. Every artist, as creator, must express what is peculiar to himself.

2. Every artist, as child of his time, must express what is peculiar to his own time.

3. Every artist, as servant of art, must express what is peculiar to art in general.

Through following that internal necessity, and by being blind to what is accepted and unaccepted, an artist (or, anyone who sees creativity and innovation as necessary in their projects) can find what is larger, and can find what is universal.

That process drives progress, in the sense that progress represents a given culture’s new ways of doing and understanding universal and established tasks.

Introduction to Writing Fiction

They told me, when I was younger, that this is not how you write a paragraph.

A paragraph must be more than a sentence long, they said. Longer than two, too.

And when writing a paragraph, you must stick to the same idea throughout. When playing soccer you should stay in your position. And recently I learned that when working, you should keep to your assigned tasks, and that it doesn’t pay to go outside your job description.

Four sentences per paragraph might be okay. But if it’s a four-sentence paragraph, you must keep to the same idea throughout it, and you should be very careful — very very careful; extremely careful, if I was to emphasise the point — of how you link different paragraphs together, to ensure that your sentences don’t run too long, and to make sure that a single paragraph is not dominated unnecessarily by extraneous and overly verbose vocabulary. Make sure your paragraph doesn’t do that.

When your paragraph is of a suitable length, there are other things to watch out for. For instance, don’t repeat the same word like “vocabulary” over and over again, because that makes the vocabulary overly repetitive, and repetitive vocabulary makes for a repetitive story, and no one wants to read a repetitive story.

And a good paragraph will start with a thesis sentence stating what the paragraph is about. “It will then include a quotation”, my teachers told me, “to provide evidence for what you are saying, since you are not yourself an authority on the topic you are writing about.” The rest of the paragraph is where you can offer your analysis of a quotation. It is true that I am not an authority figure on structuring a good paragraph, but the question I wish to raise here is whether my teachers were, either. After all, how do they define “good” in a good paragraph?

Show, don’t tell. My thesis in this piece of fiction (make sure you don’t state your thesis either at the end of a paragraph or in the middle of your essay, they also told me; and remember that fiction needs not state a “point”) is that eminent writers have always in their prime broken the established norms of writing. If they did not break the norms of established writing, then they did nothing new, nothing worth remembering. But the paradox of eminence is that to break established rules is to immediately open yourself to criticism, to be rejected by those who are already eminent.

I want to learn to write good fiction. And what they told me was, whatever you do, make sure your story has a beginning, a middle and an end; that it has a theme and a setting, a protagonist and an antagonist, and, most importantly, a turning point. If it does not have those elements, then it is not a story. It would merely be a personal essay, and a bad one at that, with bad paragraphs, and it would be boring to read.

They told me, basically, not to write a story like this. And most importantly, don’t write a story like this that ends in a paragraph only one sentence long.

That wouldn’t make a good story, and that wouldn’t make a good paragraph.

What Is Our Time Here For? Redux

Note: This article was originally published in The Octant, the Yale-NUS College student newspaper.

As part of the Yale-NUS inaugural classes’ orientation week in June 2013 we sat through a lecture by Professor of Humanities (Literature in English) Rajeev Patke titled “The Liberal Arts: Making the Most of Your Yale-NUS College Education.” I don’t remember much from the lecture in what was a week far-too-filled with them. But what strikes me now, at the beginning of my final year at college, is how there was probably no more a prescient lecture that could have been delivered to an incoming class of students. Education isn’t something that merely happens to us; we must reach out and grab it. Guidance on how to do so is what I for one most needed at the start of my time here.

At that point I felt I had a good grasp on what the liberal arts were. They were one half of my decision to come to Yale-NUS, the other being its location in Singapore. My desire to study the liberal arts had arisen from feeling restricted when I looked at university study in New Zealand or elsewhere in Asia—I didn’t want to specialize yet. I didn’t want to spend my four years studying solely law or International Relations, and coming out with very little idea of anything besides. I still wanted to take more literature classes, some history, philosophy and economics, and, who knows, maybe even some cosmology.

What I also knew was that companies want graduates who have studied the liberal arts. The admissions office here at Yale-NUS, and every other small liberal arts college I looked at, stressed that the liberal arts would give me skills and knowledge that were in short supply. Liberal arts graduates were perfectly suited to be leaders, because they would have—and these are Yale-NUS’s words—“the appreciation and understanding of breadth and complexity of issues, capacity for critical thinking and problem solving, and effective communication and leadership skills.” Yale-NUS called those three components the “critical outcomes of a traditional liberal arts education.” Surprise! They are precisely the three things we’re told companies today need in their leaders. All this gave me a strong (if vague) sense that as a liberal arts graduate I’d leap ahead of all those who had done specialist degrees.

Yale-NUS made an effort to describe the other ways that a liberal arts education would benefit us, capturing this idea in the phrase “Four years to transform your life”. But after my first week at the College, I quickly began to forget about this amidst classes, extracurriculars, and the pressure from CIPE to start planning out my next summer. I wanted my life transformed, but it became difficult to transform anything apart from my next essay as life became a string of deadlines and events.

What also began to happen was that the pinnacle of each academic year became a prestigious internship or an exciting international “opportunity”. Dining hall conversation began to turn to this topic from the end of first semester, and reached fever-pitch a few weeks into second semester. CIPE’s events talked about the importance of internships in setting us up for careers. Thanks to the subtle pressures within each semester at Yale-NUS, I started to think that the purpose of my education was to fast-track my career. I began to confuse “transforming my life” with getting a prestigious job. The lines began to blur, and I found myself taking classes I didn’t particularly care for but which would look good on my resume; I found myself choosing a major based on what was most relevant to the job I expected to get after graduating.

I now find myself with one year left to “transform my life”. In my junior year I realized that it is for a very good reason that the liberal arts and residential colleges go together. A college is a microcosm of life, where you are exposed to people and to life, where everything and everyone is closer. The beauty of a liberal arts college is that you are given an environment in which to make sense of all those conversations, emotions, and relationships, where books shed light on your life in dining halls, suites, and behind closed doors.  At what other point in our lives will we have the space, the time and resources to figure out what we like and dislike, what we want and do not want?

As I wrote in an article last semester, “The liberal arts and sciences are not a unique selling point for a resume, or a euphemism for an elite college. They are about having freedom—four years of freedom—to learn about ourselves and our own minds so that we can approach everything else we do in life with solid foundations.” And the thing I’d repeat to myself, if I was to do-over my first two years at Yale-NUS, is that nothing is more important than building those foundations. A career can rest on them, but the foundations of who you are as a person cannot rest on a career.

The essays and assignments, events and pressures won’t disappear during these four years. But what can change is our understanding of what all this time is for, and how we choose to respond to unavoidable pressures. That is something we all can grasp, and is the starting point for taking control of the books we read, the conversations we have, the time we spend, and, most importantly, the ways we learn to live our lives.

Letting It Go

After my first season racing in the bitter cold of a New England winter for the Yale Cycling team, it was almost surreal to race yesterday for Yale-NUS in the stifling mugginess of mid-afternoon in Singapore. Singapore’s size and year-round good weather mean if you want to race, you have really no excuse not to; you can ride directly to the course, and if it rains it will be dry and sunny again in a couple of hours. With a fast-growing cycling scene, a few passionate individuals, and a well-run cycling events company in Cycosports, racing here is on the rise.

Cycosports Seletar Aerospace Park CriteriumI competed alongside three others from Yale-NUS in the Cat C criterium, which ran seven laps of a 3.1km course in just under 35 minutes. The course was untraditional in that each lap had five corners; two sweeping turns that could be pedalled through, and then three roundabouts, which required heavier braking and even harder accelerations than a usual four-corner crit. The straights were longer than in other criteriums I’ve raced, making the efforts more varied.

The Oldham Breakfast Cycling Club, a club formed by Anglo-Chinese School alumni, had the numbers with maybe 8 guys in the race. On the first lap they sent someone up the road and almost immediately put four on the front to slow the peloton. Most of the bunch was nervous about putting in too much too early, and were happy to sit up, but I was concerned the gap could grow more quickly than anyone expected with one team dominating. I put in an early effort to chase the lone break, half wondering if the Oldham guys would keep blocking on the bunch and let the two of us work together to form a gap. But after half a lap working with this guy, that wasn’t to be, with Oldham pulling their own guy and me back, clearly intent on setting themselves up for multiple podium placings. Things were tame from then on until the last few laps, with nothing happening but a few half-hearted attacks on the straights which were easily pulled back.

I attacked out of one of the sweeping corners to test what the reaction would be, with three guys from the Roadbrothers team chasing me down straight away. I sat up around five wheels back to recover for the rest of the lap, only to watch as, with just over two laps remaining, one of the guys from Roadbrothers shot off the front at exactly the corner I’d previously tried to attack out of. It was an impressive effort, and I didn’t have it in me to follow; neither did anyone else, and within half a lap he had at least fifteen seconds on everyone.

The final lap was classic crit racing when a bunch realises they left it too late to bring someone back. As the bunch crossed the line with the one-lap-to-go bell ringing, I sprinted off the front to chase, figuring I’d be fresher than the guy out the front and could bring him back. It just wasn’t to be. His lead was too big, and as I got perhaps half-way between him and the bunch I realised my mistake. There was no way I had it in me to go all the way, and my effort was going to cost me in what was now inevitably going to be a bunch sprint for second and third.

Racing highlights parts of our own natures that in everyday life remain hidden; it requires us to confront our limits and the extent of our ambition. What do you decide when you are on your limit? What do you decide when you aren’t able to think clearly, when all strategy has been thrown out, and you are left with a single second with which to decide? Racing lets you see yourself more clearly than in everyday life because it strips away the mirrors and walls we usually hide behind, and puts your subconscious on a pedestal for you to observe and analyse.

I should’ve known when to let it go; to realise that gold was simply off the table, but that it was still within my abilities to set myself up for a shot at the other podium placings. By focussing solely on first place I didn’t see the obvious, and I then passed up the opportunity for what was next-best. We are taught to “never give up”; but there is a point beyond which continuing to pursue something unattainable is simply rash.

The bunch absorbed me and I hung on somewhere in the middle to cross the line. An impressive race by Roadbrothers, and some nice attempts by Oldham. Thanks to my teammates Aaron, Danny and Zheng Jie who all showed impressive grit, and to everyone else from Yale-NUS who came to support.