What Do We Owe the World?

This is the first of a couple of posts on ethical thinking.

Not a generalist…

I just finished another manuscript on Boxing Day. That now makes ten novels and a collection of short stories in the past seven years, all of them stuck in inventory. I’ve decided to not feel bad about the pace that I write, or the character of what I write about. Joyce Carol Oates is good for a couple of thousand publishable words a day, so I’m a slacker by comparison.

The last couple of my books have drawn extensively on one of the foremost reasons I’ve never wanted to have kids—a sense of the infinity of life’s possibilities and the deeply finite boundaries of an individual life. More specifically, would I urge my child to be a deeply focused obsessive, and so have the joys of remarkable craft and excellence? Or would I urge my child to be a broadly read, broadly experienced generalist, covered with Velcro and so able to adhere productively to every circumstance? That seems, at least from the outside, to be one of the core ethical dilemmas of parenthood, a specific and unresolvable choice that underlies almost every other.

Because of this question, both of these recent books have had a strong interest in what school does, and how it interacts with this core question. K-12 education has a strong bias in favor of the generalist, shoving every kid at uniform pace down the full array of tick-marked courses. Schooling seems, both from my own experience and from my research in the schools I’ve studied, to be fundamentally aimed at compliance, at leveling, at ensuring that everyone moves on the same track at the same speed. It’s like running a railroad—issues of individual curiosity and excellence just don’t have a lot of traction. We spend a ton of money helping some cars get up to speed, but the faster cars are just as disruptive, just as in need of velocity management to keep the whole enterprise together.

Here’s a quiz. Name something that these people have in common: Roger Federer, Pete Sampras, Rafael Nadal, Serena Williams. I’m sure you have an answer, but I have a different one…

Let’s add a few more names: Simone Biles, Shaun White, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Wayne Gretzky, Martina Navratilova, Danica Patrick, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

One more batch of names: Beyoncé. Hilary Swank. Leonardo DiCaprio. Emma Stone. Bruno Mars. Jennifer Lawrence.

All of them decided, when they were really young, that they were going to dedicate themselves fully to their talent, and they chose that training over college. They started to work on their craft when they were little kids, and were already astounding by the time they were teenagers. They weren’t compliant. They had a separate set of tracks, supported by a separate set of adults around them who celebrated monomania.

And I don’t mean to suggest that this is the right answer. For every Simone Biles, there are hundreds of injured and discarded little girls who never made that peak. For every Emma Stone or Kobe Bryant, there are thousands of stage moms and basketball dads who shoved their kids down tracks that didn’t fit, the children merely sticks with which parents could reach for their own dreams. Tiger Woods was playing golf with his dad at age 2, was probably already the best golfer in the world at 16, but it hasn’t ensured him an entirely happy life. Maybe the safe middle is a better choice than the distinct focus, alight to every possibility rather than perpetually narrowing to the one that draws us back. None of us will ever know, because time only runs one direction, but we’ll always wonder.