Fat Books & Thin Women

#Longreads: Christopher Beha’s “Leveling the Field”

Check back every on occasional Wednesdays for a link to a new longread. Your thoughts on this week’s read, and suggestions for future articles and essays, are always welcome!

After two and a half years in the Balkans I sometimes catch myself comparing the American and Albanian/Macedonian education systems. There’s no point in me getting into the problems with the education systems here – you can read about teaching in a Macedonian school at my other blog – but I wanted to mention that experience to explain my skewed perspective on the American education system. Comparing my experiences at elementary school, high school, and university, with those of my students and friends, it became easy for me to think of the American system as a great success.

As much as we may want to think of American education – American universities in particular – as being a sort of great leveler, though, there are huge inequities in the system. In his piece on Phoenix University, “Leveling the Field”, Christoper R. Beha considers some of these inequalities and basic problems with our current focus on college education for everyone. Beha goes “undercover” as a student at Phoenix, a for-profit university with outposts scattered around the States. Phoenix, like other for-profit universities, benefits from government subsidies (Beha writes that Phoenix receives 88% of its revenue from the federal government) and from Obama’s recent push for increased college education. Though enrollment at for-profit universities has skyrocketed in recent years, this isn’t a good deal, either for the students or for the government.

All this government funding is notable because enrolling at for-profit colleges turns out to be a terrible deal for most students. Almost three fifths drop out without a degree within a year, and virtually all take on debt to help pay for their education. They default on their loans at about twice the rate of students at public colleges and universities and three times the rate of students at private ones. Those who graduate often wind up in low-paying jobs, doing tasks with minimal connection to their degrees.

Beha takes us on a painful trip through the freshman year intro courses at Phoenix (which, as he writes, can’t even qualify as “remedial” classes). There’s something horrifying about Beha’s discussions with classmates, and the degree to which schools like Phoenix are taking advantage of people seeking to better themselves in some way, offering them useless and dull classes and degrees that are nearly worthless. This is an image of education gone horribly wrong, and of a for-profit university system that preys on people who often can’t afford the loss of wasted tuition.

Beha offers a few examples of other countries that are, maybe, doing it better, in part through a determination that a college degree is not “necessary.” There’s Germany, which early on sets its students on tracks either to university or trade schools, and other countries that offer students some more choice in the matter. What’s key, though, is the sense that obtaining a college degree is not the only way to live a fulfilled life or to contribute to society.

On a different end of the spectrum, the New York Times has recently been running some good pieces on internships. Another look at the ways in which our current system of education and of “job training” punishes anyone without the advantages necessary to attend a public or private university, or to work forty hours a week without a salary.

Read Christopher Beha’s “Leveling the Field”


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#Longreads : “What if the Secret to Success is Failure?”
September 21, 2011, 4:29 pm
Filed under: Favorite Longreads | Tags: , , , , , ,

Check back every Wednesday for a link to a new longread. Your thoughts on this week’s read, and suggestions for future articles and essays, are always welcome!

“What if the Secret to Success is Failure?” makes an interesting follow-up to last week’s article, “The End of Men”; both deal, in their own ways, with the question of character and what makes a successful man (or, in this case, student/person). Paul Tough (great name for someone writing an article about grit) considers, broadly, the idea of educating for character rather than for academic grades and test scores, and more closely what Dominic Randolph, headmaster of Riverdale Country School (a prestigious private school in New York) and David Levin, co-founder of the KIPP charter schools, are doing to work character development into their schools’ curriculums.

What Tough addresses, what Randolph and Levin questioned as they began seeking a way to teach their students character, is how and why so many students succeed academically in high school, but are unable to succeed in college or on the job market. The very idea of an American character, of character traits that bring success and of trying to “train” for those traits, hearkens back to some American ideal of the pioneer, as Randolph acknowledges:

“Whether it’s the pioneer in the Conestoga wagon or someone coming here in the 1920s from southern Italy, there was this idea in America that if you worked hard and you showed real grit, that you could be successful,” he said. “Strangely, we’ve now forgotten that. People who have an easy time of things, who get 800s on their SAT’s, I worry that those people get feedback that everything they’re doing is great. And I think as a result, we are actually setting them up for long-term failure. When that person suddenly has to face up to a difficult moment, then I think they’re screwed, to be honest. I don’t think they’ve grown the capacities to be able to handle that.”

What, then, is awarding trophies not just to winning teams or awards to the best students, but giving accolades to all students and athletes – great, mediocre, and poor – doing to students as they prepare to enter the Real World? Is it possible to test for or train for true grit (with a nod to Charles Portis), or does attempting to search for and teach certain character traits among students essentially change the value of those traits? Is intelligence the most valuable trait in a student or person looking for work, or is it some less measurable quality, like how long a person will work at a task that seems at times impossible?

After you read Tough’s article be sure to take the “Grit Scale” test developed by Angela Duckworth (the test Tough discusses at length in his article) to determine your level of grittiness from 1 to 5.* And what do you think is more important to success (let’s say, success in one’s chosen career): raw intelligence, which often seems to be what our schools and society push for, or character traits such as grittiness, trustworthiness and curiosity?

* I score a 4.3, which maybe we could label “pretty definitely gritty,” but since I’m currently “earning” $200 a month and was dumb enough to seek a way to spend a third year in the Balkans, it seems too early to say whether my character (which we could describe as more “too dumb to know when to quit” than “smart”) will help me become a big success.

Read Paul Tough’s “What if the Secret to Success is Failure?”


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The Need for Strong Female Characters in YA Lit (2/3)

Growing up, my family was supportive of all (or most) of my dreams. I wanted to be an author? Great, as long as I was writing! I wanted to be a shark scientist? Well…as long as I kept watching Shark Week and doing my science homework, it was possible. A grizzly bear scientist? A little specific, maybe, but…

That I had every opportunity, and that the girls I work and live with don’t, has influenced the way I think of young adult literature and what sorts of female characters we should be offering up for public consumption. Although I grew up reading books without giving any thought to the gender of characters or to the possibility that what I was reading influenced, in any real way, the direction of my life or the sense I had of my own possibility, I know find it almost impossible to think of young adult literature in these terms.

Books can tell us things about ourselves, especially when we’re young; and when I think of the things I want my students learning, it’s not that it’s okay to abandon all your dreams in order enter into an unhealthily dependent relationship with a vampire (or a not-vampire), or concern yourself solely with gossip and boys and clothes. I’m not sure whether my feelings on this, that the world might be slightly better if it weren’t filled with Gossip Girl and Twilight [1] are pandering to teen girls or are just the natural result of getting older and gazing back with horror on some of the ways I could have gone wrong,[2] but it’s where I’ve landed.

Mayowa over at Pens with Cojones questioned recently whether there’s value in a certain amount of censorship when it comes to literature. In order to guide the reading of our younger siblings or students or teens in general, is it okay to guide them away from books that we (old and wise as we are) think they’d be better off not reading? Mayowa took this question in a different direction than I’m going to, but it’s one that can help to guide us through this larger question, of whether we should be making a conscious effort to seek out books featuring strong female characters like Ginny Weasley or Anne of Green Gables or Keladry from Protector of the Small.

There are, of course, other questions I could face as well – because not every book with a strong female character is a good book, and not every strong female character is well-written; and if a book doesn’t have these things, it doesn’t matter if the main girl character is out kicking ass and taking names. No one is going to believe in it. So inevitably, this post is only in part about the need for girls to find strong role models in the books they read; it’s also about the quality of those books. There’s no shortage of young adult books with female leads, so the question isn’t whether there should be more of them, but whether we should be making a more conscious effort to find those books that are portraying “real” girls rather than characters that remain flat on the page.

Twilight is the inevitable target of a lot of my criticism because, believe it or not, girls here love it. They watch the movies, they read the translated books, they talk about it constantly. And this makes me worry, because these books show a world in which it is okay, in which it is right to subordinate yourself completely to the desires of someone else. In the second book, which is where I’m at, Bella heads straight to Jacob after Edward leaves her; she's incapable of facing the world on her own, and whether she's going to involve herself in a second romantic relationship or simply an intense friendship, the fact is that she's unable to deal with her problems alone or in a responsible manner. But more than that, the book is so terribly written, and Bella is such a blank, that no one can take from this book any sense that women are something more than the canvases men can fashion into the futures they desire. In an article at Livescience on the impact books like Twilight have on teen minds (seriously), Clara Moskowitz quotes Maria Nikolajeva, a literature professor at Cambridge: “If you look very, very clearly at what kind of values the ‘Twilight’ books propagate, these are very conservative values that do not in any way endorse independent thinking or personal development or a woman’s position as an independent creature. […] That’s quite depressing.”

Nikolajeva is later quoted as saying that there’s a need for more positive messages in young adult literature; that, in fact, it’s a moral imperative of sorts for YA authors to include such messages. This thought makes me shudder, but I also have to pause because…well, isn’t that what I want for my students here? For them to be reading novels that show that more is possible for them, that if they work hard in school and do some things that are probably disagreeable to some people in their families, their lives can be more than living in this small town drinking coffee and taking care of their children?

And do I want the same things for middle-class American readers?

The line I’m drawing is so shaky because there’s a fundamental difference in the degree of “need” for these books, between the well-to-do and the girls who don’t have female role models who have been to college or hold jobs outside the home. It bothers me that girls in America are growing up on Twilight, but not as much as it bothers me when girls here talk about it. Here, the portrayal of Bella in Twilight isn’t shocking for its lack of development or independence; it’s simply affirming what the girls already know about the ways women are treated in this culture.

One my favorite parts of Tamora Pierce’s blog, especially because it fits in so well with where I am going here, is when she discusses the types of books she had access to when she was growing up. “When I encountered fantasy, I had the same problem: virtually no girl heroes. The ones I found, adult women all, settled down, hated other women, or died. I didn’t understand why there were no girls (or those that existed were severely compromised) in the adventure books, so I began to write what I wanted to read.” Teenagers here don’t have the same level of access to books that most teens in America do, not by a long shot; so my problem is when the books they are accessing, when the books that are selling millions of copies not just in America but all over the world, are the very ones that are showing either no female leads or weak ones.

What are some of your favorite books that have strong female leads? Do you think that there’s still a need for these types of characters, even with the (arguable) glut of female driven young adult books in the States? Do you think that there are differing levels of “need” for strong female leads – that we should be pushing books with strong characters at girls who traditionally don’t have many opportunities? Did this rambling post make any sense?


  1. Wednesday – YA Lit: What it is, and What it “Should” Be (1/3)


  1. Friday – Male Characters in YA Lit; Or, Boys & Reading (3/3)

[1] And I say this as someone who has watched, if not read, plenty of Gossip Girl, and who is working her way through the second book in the Twilight series right now, so please don’t take this whole thing as a sort of “I’m too good for this dreck” brand of snobbery. Back to text

[2] What if I had never gotten over my love of the Backstreet Boys? What if I hadn’t abandoned fashion magazines in disgust and picked up a copy of Bitch instead? What if, what if, what if. Back to text