The Dan Savage Interview Problem

Dan Savage’s Playboy interview is interesting for many reasons (among them: Playboy still exists?) and he gets many things right in it and the interview is worth reading. Nonetheless he gets one important thing mostly wrong:

Sex negativity is imposed on us by religion, parents and a culture that can’t deal with sex. [. . .] Judaism, Christianity, Islam and almost every other faith have constantly tried to insert themselves between your genitals and your salvation, because then they can regulate and control you. Then you need them to intercede with God, so they target your junk and stigmatize your sexual desire. If you have somebody by the balls or the ovaries, you’ve got them.

Let me channel Jonathan Haidt and The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. Haidt writes that “Groups create supernatural beings not to explain the universe but to order their societies.” Religions serve or served a lot of purposes, and as Savage and Haidt both note regulation was one of them, and sexual regulation exists, as far as I know, in all cultures that have produced writing.

Regulation and control aren’t just about control for their own sake; they’re about solving coordination problems that allow people to act within a system with some expectation of how others will act. Religious regulations weren’t just about stigmatizing desire: they were about trying to create functional societies that minimize jealousy, wasteful resource fights, and so on, while maximizing the chance that the society’s members actually survive and reproduce. Religions act as operating systems for societies (which is a metaphor I’ve stolen from Neal Stephenson). The surviving religions have literally been battled-tested.

Stigmatizing sexual desire happens because desire can be overwhelming and destructive. That was particularly true in an age before birth control, antibiotics, and the many other lovely technologies we take for granted. Even then, a lot of desire found a way towards expression.

It is true that a lot of modern religious figures don’t understand that good guides to life in the year 1000 may not be particularly relevant in post-industrial societies, or that technology may be rapidly reconfiguring what rules make sense and what rules don’t. Robin Hanson has argued in a variety of places (like here and here) that pre-modern foraging societies and farming societies had very different sets of values based on their respective needs. Each group tends to think that its morality is eternal and unchanging, but its morality, rules, and codes may actually arise in response to the conditions of the society. Hanson thinks we may be moving back towards “forager” norms, since we’re now much wealthier and much more able to collectively bear the costs of, say, single motherhood, members of society that don’t produce more than they consume, and so on.

The major Western religions (Christianity and Islam in particular, and Judaism to a large extent) arose or developed in farming societies, and their times have marked them. That sort of idea didn’t of course make it into the religion—one way to enforce religious thinking is to argue that the thinking is eternal and unchanging—and it couldn’t: the Industrial Revolution was impossible to predict before it happened. Values battles of the last 50 (and really more like 100 – 150) years have occurred because social changes lags and sometimes impedes technological change.

We may also see religious systems persist today because followers of religious systems may simply leave many more descendants, who in turn follow the religion, and than those who don’t. I don’t have a citation for this off the top of my head, but it’s fairly well known in social science that religious people have more children, and start having children at younger ages, than secular people. Children tend to act like their parents to a greater extent than is commonly realized.

Given those facts, we may see religions persist because they still enable people to create more people faster than those who don’t participate in such a system. Europe may be a societal-wide example of this phenomenon: it’s probably the least-religious place on earth, and yet the continent is facing serious demographic challenges because of the age distribution of its population and the fact that native-born Europeans are not having enough children. As always there are many other factors at play and I don’t want to isolate religious belief as the sole factor, but there is likely more than correlation going on too.

Note that I’m trying to be relatively value-neutral and descriptive in this post. The amount of value-neutral commentary on these issues is in my view much too low, which may be why we see a lot of ignorance and shouting in public spaces, while people otherwise quietly go about their lives.

I’ll also note that as a religiously indifferent person myself, I find it odd to write this quasi defense of religion. Nonetheless Savage is looking at a small piece of a larger whole and mistakenly thinking that the piece is the whole.

Here is Tyler Cowen on related matters. Here is my earlier post on religion in secular life. The extent to which religious behavior is driven by feeling is underrated. Sex and religion are also fields that some people choose to make their defining characteristic. The religious tendency in this  direction is well-known, but as Katherine Frank writes in Plays Well in Groups: “This is at some level a hobby, sex for fun. As with any hobby, you will make friends, acquaintances and even enemies as you partake. Sex is easy—insert tab A into slot B—but friendship takes time to development” (64). “Hobbies” generally don’t define people, yet how many of the religiously inclined would describe religion as a hobby? Is friendship a hobby?

Sharp Objects — Gillian Flynn

The first time through Sharp Objects I though it totally absurd, since the characters in it behave like fantastical morons perpetually rolling on ecstasy or akin to faeries from Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. The plausibility of the plot is so low that I almost gave up, exasperated.

But I kept reading the first time and was curious enough to reread the second time and realize that Sharp Objects is not about a realistic story of realistic detection; instead, it’s a mythic-Freudian* work about the anxiety that comes from two related phenomena: transitions to adulthood and the muddying of lines between the generations. Camille, the protagonist, is supposed to be an adult (she’s a reporter for paper, she covers murders, she pays the rent) but around her mother she acts like a child and around her 13-year-old sister she acts like a peer.

Sharp_ObjectsOnce this alternate reading became clear, Sharp Objects became pleasant. It’s not supposed to be realistic (or, if it is, it fails so badly at its purpose that it might as well be read my way). It’s a fairy tale with a bit of media critique thrown in, and it says that girls and women have the dark urges that are often absent from fiction and from the news. Camille needs to reconcile her family relationships and her family’s history in order to understand the murders she’s investigating. Conventional reportorial skills and abilities are of little use; at best one might say she employs some aspects of New or Gonzo Journalism, since she does in fact drop ecstasy at one point.

In the novel Camille is dispatched by her editor to her home town to investigate a murder that becomes a series of murders of girls. The novel signals its intentions early. Camille is describing the home town she came from, and she ends the first chapter with this:

When I was still in grammar school, maybe twelve, I wandered into a neighbor boy’s hunting shed, a wood-planked shack where animals were stripped and split. Ribbons of moist, pink flesh dangled from strings, waiting to be dried for jerky. The dirt floor was rusted with blood. The walls were covered with photographs of naked women. Some of the girls were spreading themselves wide, others were being held down and penetrated. One woman was tied up, her eyes glazed, her breasts stretched and veined like grapes, as a man took her from behind. I could smell them all in the thick, gory air.

At home that night, I slipped a finger under my panties and masturbated for the first time, panting and sick.

The blurred mental lines between sexuality, animals, reproduction, and early age remain a theme that runs through the novel.

Attention is also a scarce resource in the novel: Camille constantly seeks it from her mother, even at the risk of being dangerous, and also seeks it from men (at least at first). Her sister is repeating Camille’s experience. Parents are either absent (from page 21: “I wondered where their mother was”) or overwhelming. Family sexuality recurs; here is one early example, from Camille’s narration:

The Victorians, especially southern Victorians, needed a lot of room to stray away from each other, to duck tuberculosis and flu, to avoid rapacious lust, to wall themselves away from sticky emotions. Extra space is always good.

“Stray” is an exact quote. And if extra space is always good, why then does Camille go to her mother’s house? She returns to a point of danger in search of information, like Little Red Riding Hood entering the Wolf’s house. The novel itself keeps pointing to Fairy Tales. Amma, Camille’s sister, says:

now we’re reunited. You’re like poor Cinderella, and I’m the evil stepsister. Half sister.

A few pages later, Camille speaks with a boy who says that he saw a “woman” take the second girl, who turns up murdered. She thinks this of him:

What did James Capisi see? The boy left me uneasy. I didn’t think he was lying. But children digest terror differently. The boy saw a horror, and that horror became the wicked witch of fairy tales, the cruel snow queen.

No one believes that the killer is a woman because women don’t behave that way. But wicked and evil women are pronounced in fairy tales.

This details occurs in Camille’s mother’s house:

Walking past Amma’s room, I saw her sitting very properly on the edge of a rocking chair, reading a book called Greek Goddesses. Since I’d been here, she’d played at being Joan of Arc and Bluebeard’s wife and Princess Diana—all martyrs, I realized. She’d find even unhealthier role models among the goddesses. I left her to it.

There are more. These are enough.

Seemingly no one grows up in Sharp Objects. Nearly every woman in Wind Gap still gossips like she’s in high school. Growing up is hard and harder for some of us than others. Perhaps we never fully leave childhood behind. Camille can’t. Her sister Amma is in some ways eager to leave childhood (she behaves like a pro when it comes to the inciting the desires of men) but in other ways wants its protections. In our culture, she can legally at least get both,** and she behaves in both ways. At one moment Amma is behaving like an infant:

Amma lolled sleepy as a newborn in her blanket, smacking her lips occasionally. It was the first time I’d seen my mother since our trip to Woodberry. I hovered in front of her, but she wouldn’t take her eyes off Amma.

In others she doesn’t, as when she says that after her mother takes care of her, “I like to have sex.” Then:

She flipped up her skirt from behind, flashed me a hot pink thong.
“I don’t think you should let boys do things to you, Amma. Because that’s what it is. It’s not reciprocal at your age.”

Camille’s counsel is distinctly odd, coming from someone who did similar things at similar ages and, it would appear, for similar reasons. But she doesn’t at this moment have the power to break the familial cycle, with its hints and implications of incest. That waits until later.

Camille’s decision to enter this cauldron of weirdness reinforces the idea that Sharp Objects is more about family patterns and dynamics than detection. In one of the flimsier rationales in the book, Camille stays with her mother, her stepfather, and her adolescent sister, ostensibly for the sake of saving the paper money, but this decision is insane given her relationship to the family. That she continues to stay as events become more and more macabre and surreal are equally insane and implausible. Camille should leave, and that’s obvious to any sane reader and should be obvious to her. That she stays anyway indicates that the story has motives different than the ones I initially assumed.


* Freud has a much stronger mythic element to his work than is commonly supposed—and so I’m justified in using myth and Freud in this way. Much of his work is unfalsifiable, giving what is nominally a scientific body of work a distinctly literary quality, and the supposed universality of many of his concepts (the death drive, the Oedipus complex, etc.) are not supportable.

* Let me reproduce the footnote at the link:

As Judith Levine notes in Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex: “One striking pair of contradictory trends: as we raise the age of consent for sex, we lower the age at which a wrongdoing child may be tried and sentenced as an adult criminal. Both, needless to say, are ‘in the best interests’ of the child and society.” And, as Laurie Schaffner points out in a separate essay collection, “[…] in certain jurisdictions, young people may not purchase alcohol until their twenty-first birthday, or may be vulnerable plaintiffs in a statutory rape case at 17 years of age, yet may be sentenced to death for crimes committed at age 15 [….]”

Laws [. . .] reflect race and gender norms: white girls are the primary target of age-of-consent laws, while African American youth are the target of laws around crime and delinquency. The contradictory trends are readily explained by something rather unpleasant in society.

I didn’t elaborate on what the “unpleasant” thing may be and won’t here, either, but you’re welcome to take a shoot at your best interpretation in the comments.

Essays: The modern genre, and why writing for the web counts

In writing about Paul Graham’s “The Age of the Essay,” I forgot to mention this:

Up till a few years ago, writing essays was the ultimate insider’s game. Domain experts were allowed to publish essays about their field, but the pool allowed to write on general topics was about eight people who went to the right parties in New York. Now the reconquista has overrun this territory, and, not surprisingly, found it sparsely cultivated. There are so many essays yet unwritten. They tend to be the naughtier ones; the insiders have pretty much exhausted the motherhood and apple pie topics.

This leads to my final suggestion: a technique for determining when you’re on the right track. You’re on the right track when people complain that you’re unqualified, or that you’ve done something inappropriate. If people are complaining, that means you’re doing something rather than sitting around, which is the first step. And if they’re driven to such empty forms of complaint, that means you’ve probably done something good.

This is part of the reason I write a fair amount about sex, sexual politics, sexuality in writing, and so forth: they’re not as deeply mined as other topics, and they’re also changing rapidly in strange, unpredictable ways vaguely reminiscent of cellular automata or Go. A lot of people do complain about writing on those subjects because they’re subjects about which people often have a) very strongly held belief that b) are not based on or supported by evidence. So a lot of people will complain that “you’ve done something inappropriate” when you write about them; that was certainly part of the response I got to Status and sex: On women in bands never getting laid and Norah Vincent’s Self-Made Man and Sexting and society: How do writers respond? Lots of people have written about sex in fiction, the most obvious being The Joy of Writing Sex, but even that one has a bogus-seeming chapter on HIV. Not too many have written about it like I have (so far as I know).

Plus, almost no one in writing programs or English classes—where I spend a lot of my time—tells you to pay attention to contemporary sexual politics or how things have changed and are changing—which leaves a lot of space for re-conquistadors. Instead, they want to tell you that you can see parallels between Jane Austen’s world and ours. Which is true, but not very helpful to, say, fiction writers: if your characters have the same relationship to marriage and sex that Austen’s did, you’re probably not writing compelling fiction. You’re writing to standards that have already changed so much that people reading your work will feel like they’ve entered a time warp. Hell, as I read Updike’s work from 1959 – 2008, I can’t help but notice that he seems like he’s writing about a world that, although it’s closer to me than Jane Austen’s, is still pretty far from the one I grew up with and live in now. He has lots of naughty parts, but also lots of people very concerned with each others’ religions. They also tend to live in suburbs, which was once a big deal but which I now find pretty boring, on average; I tend to write about characters who want to or are escaping from the suburbs. Updike is a high-status writer, but I can’t help but thinking a lot of his writing does feel like he’s playing an insider’s game.

In reading The Research Bust, Mark Bauerlein implicitly points out the consequences of what happens when “the reconquista has overrun” the major position of people in “New York” or academia. It used to be you had to be an academic or journalist to write anything that might be read by more than a handful of people. Now that almost anyone can for virtually no marginal cost, the academics especially are trapped in a world of diminishing returns: people can read things other than their articles, and academic journals appear to have responded by narrowing their focus even further. Bauerlein says that “after four decades of mountainous publication, literary studies has reached a saturation point.” Literary studies of canonical writers may have “reached a saturation point,” but I see little evidence that people no longer want to read anything; one could argue that, with the advent of the web, many people are reading more than ever. The logical response to that circumstance is to do what Graham advocates: look for something new to write about. A fair number of academics have said or implied that I’m wasting my time writing this blog, since that time could be spent on academic articles. This sounds very close to “inappropriate” to me. Which might mean that I’m on Graham’s right track: by producing work outside the scholarly hothouse, and by not believing in its importance, I’m infinitesimally lowering its value. And that’s a pretty scary thing, if your whole life is based around the model of letting others validate your work. But I’d rather spend time in the “sparsely cultivated” territory of of the web than fight for a spot of dubious value off it.

From the Department of "No Shit:" technology and computers are not silver bullets for education

File this New York Times article under “no shit:”

But to many education experts, something is not adding up — here and across the country. In a nutshell: schools are spending billions on technology, even as they cut budgets and lay off teachers, with little proof that this approach is improving basic learning.

This conundrum calls into question one of the most significant contemporary educational movements.

There is no silver bullet and no New Jesus for education. There never will be, but the search goes on, because it’s easier to search for the magic methodology that will solve seemingly intractable problems than it is to admit the thing Google, Facebook, and Microsoft have realized about software engineers: talent, motivation, and tenacity vary greatly among individuals and that you can’t merely take someone who lacks all three, put them through some kind of system or give them some kind of tool, and expect everyone to be equally good on the other side. That kind of thing works passable well if you’re building widgets on an assembly line, but it works terribly for any kind of creative or intellectual work.

Nonetheless, it’s much easier to search for that magic methodology to improve very old skills that are surprisingly resistant to methodology: reading, writing, and math. None of those fundamental skills has changed much in the last century. Yet we keep searching for that formula that doesn’t exist, because teaching and learning are inherently hard, like software engineering, math, writing, and any number of other complex but vital skills. Technologies—now we have special blackboards! They blink! They light up! They’re new!—might mask the essential difficulty of task, but they can’t remove it, much as some programming IDEs try to hide some of the essential difficulty of coding. But fields that are essential difficult can’t be mastered by sleight-of-hand or new whizzy gadgets.

They can only be mastered by people who are dedicated to the craft and to continuous self-improvement. The people who, because they believe they can, can. The ones whose tenacity is boundless and who aren’t willing to blame external circumstances.

You need a weird set of skills to teach effectively: you need to empathize with your students—to be able to see from their point of view—without becoming mired in their point of view. You need to master your field, but not in such a way that you lose the beginner’s mindset required to master the field in the first place. You need the stoic’s attitude of realizing you can’t control everything while still having the achiever’s mindset that you must strive to do the best you can, no matter what. You need to be willing to try new things and ideas while not leaving behind the old ones that work. You need to remember not everyone is interested in the things you’re interested in, and you need to do whatever it takes to make subjects more interesting than they would be otherwise. You need to find that profitable zone of challenge for most students—something hard enough to make them struggle but not so hard that it’s impossible to accomplish—it’s reasonable to expect college freshmen to be able to read a story or article on their own, but it’s not reasonable to expect them to pick up and digest every nuance on their own. Some will. Most won’t. You need to be enthusiastic, because enthusiasm is as contagious as boredom, but your job isn’t to be a cheerleader and enthusiasm can’t substitute for knowledge. You need, in other words, a bunch of paradoxical traits that balance each other.

You also need to realize that students need things broken down in steps, and need to learn by example and through discussion. Last week I taught Neal Stephenson’s 2005 New York Times opinion piece, “Turn On, Tune In, Veg Out.” Whenever I do, I let the class talk for a while at the beginning; when discussion dies, I ask students to do a simple activity: write the essay’s main point in a sentence or two. Then I come around and look at the sentences.

It should be simple, right? Read the piece, find the main point. But it’s not simple. It’s actually quite hard, and most people are bad readers (myself included). When I go around and look at sentences, lots of students get caught up on the distinction between geeking and vegging out. Others think the piece is primarily about Star Wars. Only a few—usually around five of fifty—get the essential elements of the main point.

Stephenson basically says, twice, that he’s using Star Wars as a metaphor: once in the third paragraph: “Twenty-eight years later, the vast corpus of “Star Wars” movies, novels, games and merchandise still has much to say about geeks – and also about a society that loves them, hates them and depends upon them” and once more in the last paragraph: “If the “Star Wars” movies are remembered a century from now, it’ll be because they are such exact parables for this state of affairs” (emphasis added). But most students haven’t learned how to think metaphorically, as writers do. Metaphor is one of those essential ways of thinking that people need to be effective writers. In On Writing Stephen King says:

The use of simile and other figurative language is one of the chief delights of fiction—reading it and writing it, as well. When it’s on target, a simile delights us in much the same way meeting an old friend in a crowd of strangers does. By comparing two seemingly unrelated objects—a restaurant bar and a cave, a mirror and a mirage—we are sometimes able to see an old thing in a new and vivid way. Even if the result is mere clarity instead of beauty, I think writer and reader are participating together in a kind of miracle. Maybe that’s drawing it a little strong, but yeah—it’s what I believe.

In How Fiction Works, James Wood says:

“Metaphor is analogous to fiction, because it floats a rival reality. It is the entire imaginative process in one move. If I compare the slates on a roof to an armadillo’s back, or – as I did earlier – the bald patch on the top of my head to a crop circle (or on very bad days, to the kind of flattened ring of grass that a helicopter’s blades make when it lands in a field), I am asking you to do what Conrad said fiction should make you do – see. I am asking you to imagine another dimension, to picture likeness. Every metaphor or simile is a little explosion of fiction within the lager fiction of the novel or story.

Again: that’s hard. And technology isn’t going to make it any easier to start thinking about metaphors, which is probably a precursor to writing in a way that uses metaphor deftly. Before you can do that, you’re probably going to need to recognize when other writers are doing it, and yet, while Stephenson says that he is twice, most students don’t pick up on it. This isn’t to blame them, by the way—a lot of my graduate seminars are still about what the writer actually says. Some of you are probably getting caught up on this discussion of metaphor and think that I’m really writing about how it’s important for students to learn, when this is only a subsidiary point supporting my main point about the place of technology in classrooms. Here’s Wood again on the subject of learning to read:

You only have to teach literature to realise that most young readers are poor noticiers. I know from my own old books, wantonly annotated twenty years ago when I was a student, that I routinely underlined for approval details and images and metaphors that strike me now as commonplace, while serenely missing things which now seem wonderful. We grow, as readers, and twenty-year-olds are relative virgins.

If he wasn’t a good noticer at 20, what hope is there for the rest of us? And how is having a laptop going to help someone become a better noticer? Consider too one other thing to notice: in “Turn On, Tune In, Veg Out,” Stephenson isn’t using any complex or convoluted vocabulary. His sentence structure isn’t very complex; there aren’t lots of nasty nested clauses you have to mentally sort out to figure out what’s being talked about, as there are often are in abstruse literary theory and philosophy. His piece isn’t hard to read. But it’s still evidently hard for many freshmen to understand. So I spend a lot of time working towards understanding, towards reading for detail, towards asking, “Where do you see that?” Technology isn’t going to help that process very much. It may even hurt it by offering a proliferating number of distractions: if you interrupt your reading of “Turn On, Tune In, Veg Out” four times for text messages and once for an e-mail, are you going to remember how Stephenson said “Twenty-eight years later, the vast corpus of “Star Wars” movies, novels, games and merchandise still has much to say about geeks – and also about a society that loves them, hates them and depends upon them” by the end?

I’m teaching honors students, which is easier than teaching standard classes, which is in turn easier than teaching in tough inner-city schools. So I don’t face the same challenges as some of the teachers mentioned in the NYT article. But sometimes I think about Daniel Singal’s Atlantic article, “The Other Crisis in American Education: A college professor looks at the forgotten victims of our mediocre educational system–the potentially high achievers whose SAT scores have fallen, and who read less, understand less of what they read, and know less than the top students of a generation ago.” As the subtitle implies, he argues that the best students aren’t as challenged as they once were. I can’t tell if he’s right or if he’s hearkening back to a mythical golden age, but I do think about his work sometimes when I see what’s going on around me: other grad students and professors want to watch movies in class, or they aren’t even focused on imparting and enhancing basic reading and writing skills—the same ones pretty much everyone needs. Are the strongest students really getting something out of their classes? Is the technology really helping? If not, could it be part of what’s actually causing “our mediocre educational system?” I’m not saying it does, but I am saying it’s worth pondering.

Still, I think the strongest thinkers and learners—the ones who are now running Google and Facebook, the ones who are now partners in law firms and building their own businesses—are doing fine. Better than ever, maybe. Generation X was supposed to be the slacker generation, but its members built large blocks of the Internet—the same set of technologies you’re almost certainly using to read this. But I wonder if there’s not a growing bifurcation between the people who are doing really well and the ones who aren’t. In income terms, that’s certainly true, but I wonder if it’s happening in intellectual terms too. Stephenson thinks so: “Nothing is more seductive than to think that we, like the Jedi, could be masters of the most advanced technologies while living simple lives: to have a geek standard of living and spend our copious leisure time vegging out.” But the people who spend all that time vegging out aren’t going to create whatever the next iPod and Facebook will be. And they won’t reap those rewards, either. They’re the ones who might be “learning less,” as Singal has it. The people who make the next iPod and Facebook will be the one who are focused on “geeking out” regarding important topics. The ones who will, I hope, have teachers—whether in honors or not—who are focused on the essential questions that imparting knowledge involves.

By the way, I’m not trying to beat up college freshmen—if I were, I wouldn’t have the empathy necessary to be good. A lot of college seniors are little better than my freshmen, which I found out by working for Steven Klein at the Steven Klein LSAT Company. The LSAT is mostly a test of reading. If you can read effectively, you’ll do pretty well. But a lot of 22 – 24-year-old college graduates had a lot of trouble on reading comprehension because they couldn’t or hadn’t been trained to look at every word, evaluate it in relation to other words and in relation to the context of the passage, and understand what it means. I think back to those experiences when I read books like Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses or articles like the one about cool whizzy tech stuff in classrooms. The whizzy tech stuff isn’t going to help readers when they’re facing the LSAT.

A second “by the way” is in order: I’m neither trying to denigrate technology nor be a luddite—I say so as the guy typing on a fancy keyboard, ergonomic chair, and 27″ iMac, with a bunch of Textmate windows open. Computers make the mechanical process of writing easier, so that the hard stuff—the stuff that goes on in the mind—can dominate. Technology is great—in its place. The University of Arizona has computers and projectors and other neat stuff in many classrooms, and if that neat stuff is available, I use it.

But technology complements other skills; it doesn’t substitute for them. You can only use computers effectively to the extent you can read, write, and do simple math effectively—try programming without algebra. Or try to extract information from man pages without strong reading comprehension skills; hell, I like to imagine myself as being at least moderately literate, and I find some of them tough. So this is not one of those tedious essays in which Old Man Withers shakes his cane and complains about the kids with those damn beeping gizmos and sending those darned pictures of each others’ privates around and get off my damn lawn. Plus, I’m too young to shake my cane; I ran a modest but real number of miles yesterday. Even when I do have a cane someday, I hope that it 1) has a hidden sword, because that kind of thing is cool and 2) that I haven’t ossified to the point where I’m not willing to learn new things.

But this is an essay that points out how basic skills and the means of imparting those basic skills haven’t changed so much, as Amanda Ripley’s Atlantic article, “What Makes a Great Teacher?” makes clear in its discussion of what great teachers do:

First, great teachers tended to set big goals for their students. They were also perpetually looking for ways to improve their effectiveness. [. . .] Superstar teachers had four other tendencies in common: they avidly recruited students and their families into the process; they maintained focus, ensuring that everything they did contributed to student learning; they planned exhaustively and purposefully—for the next day or the year ahead—by working backward from the desired outcome; and they worked relentlessly, refusing to surrender to the combined menaces of poverty, bureaucracy, and budgetary shortfalls.

Notice the thing absent from this list: use computers, iPads, and so forth. Sure, those great teachers could use technology, but they don’t need to. And the technology is not going to automatically make an indifferent teacher set big goals or recruit families or maintain focus or plan. Used poorly, it’s just going to provide some flash and pizazz and some distractions. Check out this Marginal Revolution discussion of a study looking at how introducing computers in poor households actually decreased student grades because students spent more time playing games on them than doing homework:

Not surprisingly, with all that game playing going on, the authors find that the voucher program actually resulted in a decline in grades although there was also some evidence for an increase in computer proficiency and perhaps some improvement in a cognitive test.

See also “Computers at Home: Educational Hope vs. Teenage Reality:” “Students posted significantly lower math test scores after the first broadband service provider showed up in their neighborhood, and significantly lower reading scores as well when the number of broadband providers passed four.” These reports should give technology cheerleaders pause: you aren’t going to get better results simply by lashing a computer on a teacher’s back and telling him to use it.*

To be a good teacher, you still need that weird skill- and mindset mentioned above. If you don’t have it or aren’t willing to develop it, I doubt anything else imposed on an individual teacher from the outside, like mandates to use technology, are going to do much for that teacher or for his or her students. If you want to really improve teaching, you’ll need to take an approach similar to the one Facebook and Google take to hiring hackers, which means a relentless focus not on degrees that offer dubious value in predicting achievement but on finding the best people and making sure they stay. Finding the best teachers is different from finding programmers—you probably can’t tell who’s going to be a good teacher before they hit the classroom—but you can at least acknowledge that you’re not going to get people who are good merely by saying, “use iPads in the classroom.” Steve Jobs and Bill Gates didn’t have iPads in their classrooms growing up, and maybe that’s part of what made Jobs able to have the vision necessary to Turn On, Geek Out, and make the iPad.


* I had a computer in middle and early high school that I used to master Starcraft and various other computer games, until I somehow realized I was wasting my life and smashed my Starcraft disks in the driveway. I sometimes use this analogy when I explain the situation to friends: some people can handle snorting the occasional line of coke without getting addicted; it’s just a fun way of spending a Saturday night. Some people can handle computer games in the same way. I discovered, at the time, that I’m not one of them, and, worse, I’ll never get those three or so wasted years back. Now I tend to find video games boring on average and can’t play for longer than half an hour to an hour at a stretch, while I’ve trained myself up to being able to write effectively for three to six hours at a time. The first draft of this essay, for example, took me about two hours.

From the Department of “No Shit:” technology and computers are not silver bullets for education

File this New York Times article under “no shit:”

But to many education experts, something is not adding up — here and across the country. In a nutshell: schools are spending billions on technology, even as they cut budgets and lay off teachers, with little proof that this approach is improving basic learning.

This conundrum calls into question one of the most significant contemporary educational movements.

There is no silver bullet and no New Jesus for education. There never will be, but the search goes on, because it’s easier to search for the magic methodology that will solve seemingly intractable problems than it is to admit the thing Google, Facebook, and Microsoft have realized about software engineers: talent, motivation, and tenacity vary greatly among individuals and that you can’t merely take someone who lacks all three, put them through some kind of system or give them some kind of tool, and expect everyone to be equally good on the other side. That kind of thing works passable well if you’re building widgets on an assembly line, but it works terribly for any kind of creative or intellectual work.

Nonetheless, it’s much easier to search for that magic methodology to improve very old skills that are surprisingly resistant to methodology: reading, writing, and math. None of those fundamental skills has changed much in the last century. Yet we keep searching for that formula that doesn’t exist, because teaching and learning are inherently hard, like software engineering, math, writing, and any number of other complex but vital skills. Technologies—now we have special blackboards! They blink! They light up! They’re new!—might mask the essential difficulty of task, but they can’t remove it, much as some programming IDEs try to hide some of the essential difficulty of coding. But fields that are essential difficult can’t be mastered by sleight-of-hand or new whizzy gadgets.

They can only be mastered by people who are dedicated to the craft and to continuous self-improvement. The people who, because they believe they can, can. The ones whose tenacity is boundless and who aren’t willing to blame external circumstances.

You need a weird set of skills to teach effectively: you need to empathize with your students—to be able to see from their point of view—without becoming mired in their point of view. You need to master your field, but not in such a way that you lose the beginner’s mindset required to master the field in the first place. You need the stoic’s attitude of realizing you can’t control everything while still having the achiever’s mindset that you must strive to do the best you can, no matter what. You need to be willing to try new things and ideas while not leaving behind the old ones that work. You need to remember not everyone is interested in the things you’re interested in, and you need to do whatever it takes to make subjects more interesting than they would be otherwise. You need to find that profitable zone of challenge for most students—something hard enough to make them struggle but not so hard that it’s impossible to accomplish—it’s reasonable to expect college freshmen to be able to read a story or article on their own, but it’s not reasonable to expect them to pick up and digest every nuance on their own. Some will. Most won’t. You need to be enthusiastic, because enthusiasm is as contagious as boredom, but your job isn’t to be a cheerleader and enthusiasm can’t substitute for knowledge. You need, in other words, a bunch of paradoxical traits that balance each other.

You also need to realize that students need things broken down in steps, and need to learn by example and through discussion. Last week I taught Neal Stephenson’s 2005 New York Times opinion piece, “Turn On, Tune In, Veg Out.” Whenever I do, I let the class talk for a while at the beginning; when discussion dies, I ask students to do a simple activity: write the essay’s main point in a sentence or two. Then I come around and look at the sentences.

It should be simple, right? Read the piece, find the main point. But it’s not simple. It’s actually quite hard, and most people are bad readers (myself included). When I go around and look at sentences, lots of students get caught up on the distinction between geeking and vegging out. Others think the piece is primarily about Star Wars. Only a few—usually around five of fifty—get the essential elements of the main point.

Stephenson basically says, twice, that he’s using Star Wars as a metaphor: once in the third paragraph: “Twenty-eight years later, the vast corpus of “Star Wars” movies, novels, games and merchandise still has much to say about geeks – and also about a society that loves them, hates them and depends upon them” and once more in the last paragraph: “If the “Star Wars” movies are remembered a century from now, it’ll be because they are such exact parables for this state of affairs” (emphasis added). But most students haven’t learned how to think metaphorically, as writers do. Metaphor is one of those essential ways of thinking that people need to be effective writers. In On Writing Stephen King says:

The use of simile and other figurative language is one of the chief delights of fiction—reading it and writing it, as well. When it’s on target, a simile delights us in much the same way meeting an old friend in a crowd of strangers does. By comparing two seemingly unrelated objects—a restaurant bar and a cave, a mirror and a mirage—we are sometimes able to see an old thing in a new and vivid way. Even if the result is mere clarity instead of beauty, I think writer and reader are participating together in a kind of miracle. Maybe that’s drawing it a little strong, but yeah—it’s what I believe.

In How Fiction Works, James Wood says:

“Metaphor is analogous to fiction, because it floats a rival reality. It is the entire imaginative process in one move. If I compare the slates on a roof to an armadillo’s back, or – as I did earlier – the bald patch on the top of my head to a crop circle (or on very bad days, to the kind of flattened ring of grass that a helicopter’s blades make when it lands in a field), I am asking you to do what Conrad said fiction should make you do – see. I am asking you to imagine another dimension, to picture likeness. Every metaphor or simile is a little explosion of fiction within the lager fiction of the novel or story.

Again: that’s hard. And technology isn’t going to make it any easier to start thinking about metaphors, which is probably a precursor to writing in a way that uses metaphor deftly. Before you can do that, you’re probably going to need to recognize when other writers are doing it, and yet, while Stephenson says that he is twice, most students don’t pick up on it. This isn’t to blame them, by the way—a lot of my graduate seminars are still about what the writer actually says. Some of you are probably getting caught up on this discussion of metaphor and think that I’m really writing about how it’s important for students to learn, when this is only a subsidiary point supporting my main point about the place of technology in classrooms. Here’s Wood again on the subject of learning to read:

You only have to teach literature to realise that most young readers are poor noticiers. I know from my own old books, wantonly annotated twenty years ago when I was a student, that I routinely underlined for approval details and images and metaphors that strike me now as commonplace, while serenely missing things which now seem wonderful. We grow, as readers, and twenty-year-olds are relative virgins.

If he wasn’t a good noticer at 20, what hope is there for the rest of us? And how is having a laptop going to help someone become a better noticer? Consider too one other thing to notice: in “Turn On, Tune In, Veg Out,” Stephenson isn’t using any complex or convoluted vocabulary. His sentence structure isn’t very complex; there aren’t lots of nasty nested clauses you have to mentally sort out to figure out what’s being talked about, as there are often are in abstruse literary theory and philosophy. His piece isn’t hard to read. But it’s still evidently hard for many freshmen to understand. So I spend a lot of time working towards understanding, towards reading for detail, towards asking, “Where do you see that?” Technology isn’t going to help that process very much. It may even hurt it by offering a proliferating number of distractions: if you interrupt your reading of “Turn On, Tune In, Veg Out” four times for text messages and once for an e-mail, are you going to remember how Stephenson said “Twenty-eight years later, the vast corpus of “Star Wars” movies, novels, games and merchandise still has much to say about geeks – and also about a society that loves them, hates them and depends upon them” by the end?

I’m teaching honors students, which is easier than teaching standard classes, which is in turn easier than teaching in tough inner-city schools. So I don’t face the same challenges as some of the teachers mentioned in the NYT article. But sometimes I think about Daniel Singal’s Atlantic article, “The Other Crisis in American Education: A college professor looks at the forgotten victims of our mediocre educational system–the potentially high achievers whose SAT scores have fallen, and who read less, understand less of what they read, and know less than the top students of a generation ago.” As the subtitle implies, he argues that the best students aren’t as challenged as they once were. I can’t tell if he’s right or if he’s hearkening back to a mythical golden age, but I do think about his work sometimes when I see what’s going on around me: other grad students and professors want to watch movies in class, or they aren’t even focused on imparting and enhancing basic reading and writing skills—the same ones pretty much everyone needs. Are the strongest students really getting something out of their classes? Is the technology really helping? If not, could it be part of what’s actually causing “our mediocre educational system?” I’m not saying it does, but I am saying it’s worth pondering.

Still, I think the strongest thinkers and learners—the ones who are now running Google and Facebook, the ones who are now partners in law firms and building their own businesses—are doing fine. Better than ever, maybe. Generation X was supposed to be the slacker generation, but its members built large blocks of the Internet—the same set of technologies you’re almost certainly using to read this. But I wonder if there’s not a growing bifurcation between the people who are doing really well and the ones who aren’t. In income terms, that’s certainly true, but I wonder if it’s happening in intellectual terms too. Stephenson thinks so: “Nothing is more seductive than to think that we, like the Jedi, could be masters of the most advanced technologies while living simple lives: to have a geek standard of living and spend our copious leisure time vegging out.” But the people who spend all that time vegging out aren’t going to create whatever the next iPod and Facebook will be. And they won’t reap those rewards, either. They’re the ones who might be “learning less,” as Singal has it. The people who make the next iPod and Facebook will be the one who are focused on “geeking out” regarding important topics. The ones who will, I hope, have teachers—whether in honors or not—who are focused on the essential questions that imparting knowledge involves.

By the way, I’m not trying to beat up college freshmen—if I were, I wouldn’t have the empathy necessary to be good. A lot of college seniors are little better than my freshmen, which I found out by working for Steven Klein at the Steven Klein LSAT Company. The LSAT is mostly a test of reading. If you can read effectively, you’ll do pretty well. But a lot of 22 – 24-year-old college graduates had a lot of trouble on reading comprehension because they couldn’t or hadn’t been trained to look at every word, evaluate it in relation to other words and in relation to the context of the passage, and understand what it means. I think back to those experiences when I read books like Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses or articles like the one about cool whizzy tech stuff in classrooms. The whizzy tech stuff isn’t going to help readers when they’re facing the LSAT.

A second “by the way” is in order: I’m neither trying to denigrate technology nor be a luddite—I say so as the guy typing on a fancy keyboard, ergonomic chair, and 27″ iMac, with a bunch of Textmate windows open. Computers make the mechanical process of writing easier, so that the hard stuff—the stuff that goes on in the mind—can dominate. Technology is great—in its place. The University of Arizona has computers and projectors and other neat stuff in many classrooms, and if that neat stuff is available, I use it.

But technology complements other skills; it doesn’t substitute for them. You can only use computers effectively to the extent you can read, write, and do simple math effectively—try programming without algebra. Or try to extract information from man pages without strong reading comprehension skills; hell, I like to imagine myself as being at least moderately literate, and I find some of them tough. So this is not one of those tedious essays in which Old Man Withers shakes his cane and complains about the kids with those damn beeping gizmos and sending those darned pictures of each others’ privates around and get off my damn lawn. Plus, I’m too young to shake my cane; I ran a modest but real number of miles yesterday. Even when I do have a cane someday, I hope that it 1) has a hidden sword, because that kind of thing is cool and 2) that I haven’t ossified to the point where I’m not willing to learn new things.

But this is an essay that points out how basic skills and the means of imparting those basic skills haven’t changed so much, as Amanda Ripley’s Atlantic article, “What Makes a Great Teacher?” makes clear in its discussion of what great teachers do:

First, great teachers tended to set big goals for their students. They were also perpetually looking for ways to improve their effectiveness. [. . .] Superstar teachers had four other tendencies in common: they avidly recruited students and their families into the process; they maintained focus, ensuring that everything they did contributed to student learning; they planned exhaustively and purposefully—for the next day or the year ahead—by working backward from the desired outcome; and they worked relentlessly, refusing to surrender to the combined menaces of poverty, bureaucracy, and budgetary shortfalls.

Notice the thing absent from this list: use computers, iPads, and so forth. Sure, those great teachers could use technology, but they don’t need to. And the technology is not going to automatically make an indifferent teacher set big goals or recruit families or maintain focus or plan. Used poorly, it’s just going to provide some flash and pizazz and some distractions. Check out this Marginal Revolution discussion of a study looking at how introducing computers in poor households actually decreased student grades because students spent more time playing games on them than doing homework:

Not surprisingly, with all that game playing going on, the authors find that the voucher program actually resulted in a decline in grades although there was also some evidence for an increase in computer proficiency and perhaps some improvement in a cognitive test.

See also “Computers at Home: Educational Hope vs. Teenage Reality:” “Students posted significantly lower math test scores after the first broadband service provider showed up in their neighborhood, and significantly lower reading scores as well when the number of broadband providers passed four.” These reports should give technology cheerleaders pause: you aren’t going to get better results simply by lashing a computer on a teacher’s back and telling him to use it.*

To be a good teacher, you still need that weird skill- and mindset mentioned above. If you don’t have it or aren’t willing to develop it, I doubt anything else imposed on an individual teacher from the outside, like mandates to use technology, are going to do much for that teacher or for his or her students. If you want to really improve teaching, you’ll need to take an approach similar to the one Facebook and Google take to hiring hackers, which means a relentless focus not on degrees that offer dubious value in predicting achievement but on finding the best people and making sure they stay. Finding the best teachers is different from finding programmers—you probably can’t tell who’s going to be a good teacher before they hit the classroom—but you can at least acknowledge that you’re not going to get people who are good merely by saying, “use iPads in the classroom.” Steve Jobs and Bill Gates didn’t have iPads in their classrooms growing up, and maybe that’s part of what made Jobs able to have the vision necessary to Turn On, Geek Out, and make the iPad.


* I had a computer in middle and early high school that I used to master Starcraft and various other computer games, until I somehow realized I was wasting my life and smashed my Starcraft disks in the driveway. I sometimes use this analogy when I explain the situation to friends: some people can handle snorting the occasional line of coke without getting addicted; it’s just a fun way of spending a Saturday night. Some people can handle computer games in the same way. I discovered, at the time, that I’m not one of them, and, worse, I’ll never get those three or so wasted years back. Now I tend to find video games boring on average and can’t play for longer than half an hour to an hour at a stretch, while I’ve trained myself up to being able to write effectively for three to six hours at a time. The first draft of this essay, for example, took me about two hours.

Sexting and society: How do writers respond?

In a post on the relative quality of fiction and nonfiction, I mentioned that fiction should be affected by how society and social life changes. That doesn’t mean writers should read the news de jour and immediately copy plot points, but it does mean paying attention to what’s different in contemporary attitudes and expression. I got to thinking about “sexting,” an unfortunate but useful portmanteau, because it’s an example of a widespread, relatively fast cultural change enabled by technology. (Over a somewhat longer term, “From shame to game in one hundred years: An economic model of the rise in premarital sex and its de-stigmatisation” describes “a revolution in sexual behaviour,” which may explain why a lot of contemporary students find a lot of nineteenth century literature dealing with sexual mores to be tedious.)

Laws that cover sexting haven’t really caught up with what’s happening on the ground. Penelope Trunk wrote a an article called The Joys of Adult Sexting, in which she does it and thinks:

And what will his friends think of me? Probably nothing. Because they have women sending nude photos of themselves. It’s not that big a deal. You know how I know? Because the state of Vermont, (and other states as well) is trying to pass a law that decriminalizes sending nude photos of oneself if you are underage. That’s right: For years, even though kids were sending nude photos of themselves to someone they wanted to show it to, the act was illegal—an act of trafficking in child pornography.

But sending nude photos is so common today that lawmakers are forced to treat it as a mainstream courting ritual and legalize it for all ages.

Sending a naked photo of yourself is an emotionally intimate act because of the implied trust you have in the recipient. When you act in a trusting way—like trusting the recipient of the photo to handle it with care and respect—you benefit because being a generally trusting person is an emotionally sound thing to do; people who are trusting are better judges of character.

Trunk’s last paragraph explains why, despite all the PSAs and education and whatever in the world, people are going to keep doing it: because it shows trust, and we want significant others to prove their trust and we want to show significant others we trust them. You can already imagine the dialogue in a novel: “Why won’t you send me one? Don’t you trust me?” If the answer is yes, send them; if the answer is no, then why bother continuing to date? The test isn’t fair, of course, but since when are any tests in love and lust fair?

Over time, as enough kids of legislators and so forth get caught up in sexting scandals and as people who’ve lived with cell phone cameras grow up, I think we’ll see larger change. For now, the gap between laws / customs and reality make a fruitful space for novels, even those that don’t exploit present circumstances well, like Helen Shulman’s This Beautiful Life. Incorporating these kinds of social changes in literature is a challenge and will probably remain so; as I said above, that doesn’t mean novelists should automatically say, “Ah ha! Here’s today’s headlines; I’m going to write a novel based on the latest sex scandal/shark attack/celebrity bullshit,” but novelists need to be aware of what’s going on. I wrote a novel called Asking Alice that got lots of bites from agents but no representation, and the query letter started like this:

Maybe marriage would be like a tumor: something that grows on you with time. At least that’s what Steven Deutsch thinks as he fingers the ring in his pocket, trying to decide whether he should ask Alice Sherman to marry him. Steven is almost thirty, going on twenty, and the future still feels like something that happens to other people. Still, he knows Alice won’t simply agree to be his long-term girlfriend forever.

When Steven flies to Seattle for what should be a routine medical follow up, he brings Alice and hits on a plan: he’ll introduce her to his friends from home and poll them about whether, based on their immediate judgment, he should ask Alice. But the plan goes awry when old lovers resurface, along with the cancer Steven thought he’d beaten, and the simple scheme he hoped would solve his problem does everything but.

Asking Alice is asking questions about changes in dating and marriage; if you write a novel today about the agonies of deciding who to marry with the metaphysical angst such a choice engendered in the nineteenth century, most people would find that absurd and untrue: if you get married to a Casaubon, you divorce him and end up in about the same circumstance as you were six months before you started. But a lot of people still get married or want to get married, and the question is still important even if it can’t drive the plot of a novel very well. It can, however, provide a lot of humor, and that’s what Asking Alice does.

A lot of literature, like a lot of laws, is also based on the premise that women don’t like sex as much as men, don’t or won’t seek it out, and are automatically harmed by it or wanting it. This is a much more tenuous assertion than it used to be, especially as women write directly about sex. A novel liked Anita Shreve’s Testimony, discussed extensively by Caitlin Flanagan here and by me here, engages that idea and finds it somewhat wanting. So does the work of Belle de Jour (now revealed as Dr. Brooke Magnanti), who basically says, “I worked as a hooker for a long time, didn’t mind it, and made a shit ton of money because I made a rational economic decision.” A lot of academic fiction premised on professors having sex with students examines the idea that female students can want/use sex just as much as men; this is how Francine Prose’s Blue Angel works, and Prose is a canny observer of what’s going on and how it connects to the past.

Note that women wrote all these examples, which I don’t think is an accident, since they’re probably less likely to put other women on pedestals than men are. I’ve been reading a lot of sex memoirs / novels written by women (Never the Face; Nine and a Half Weeks; two of Mary Karr’s memoirs, which are good but overrated; Abby Lee (British sex blogger); Elisabeth Eaves’ Bare) in part because I want to write better female characters. After reading a lot of this stuff, I’m even less convinced than I was that there are stereotypically “male” or “female” ways of thinking or writing about the world, but knowledge itself never hurts and I don’t regret the time spent. On a similar note, Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance is totally fascinating, even when Radway tries to explain away retrograde features of romances or how women are often attracted to high-powered, high-status men.

She write in a time before sexting, but I wonder if she’s thought about doing a Young Adult version using similar methodology today. For writers and others, sexting shows that teenagers can make their own decisions as people too, even if those are arguably bad decisions. To me, this is another generational gap issue, and one that will probably close naturally over time. One older agent said on the phone that maybe I needed a younger agent, because her assistant loved Asking Alice but she didn’t want to rep it.

Damn.

I’m old enough to have lived through a couple medium-scale social changes: when I was in high school, people still mostly talked to each other on the phone. In college, people called using cell phones and often communicated via IM. After college, I kept using phones primarily for voice, especially to arrange drinks / quasi-dates, until I realized that most girls have no ability to talk on the phone anymore (as also described Philip Zimbardo and the ever-changing dynamics of sexual politics). As I result, I’d now use text messages if I were arranging drinks and so forth. Around the time I was 23, I realized that even if I did call, women would text back. That doesn’t mean one should race out and change every phone conversation in a novel that features a contemporary 19-year-old to a text conversation (which would be tedious in and of itself; in fiction I write, I tend not to quote texts very often), but it’s the kind of change that I register. Things changed between the time I was 16 and 23.

I’m in the McLuhan, “the medium changes what can be said,” which means that the text is probably changing things in ways not immediately obvious or evident. Sexting is one such way; it lowers the cost of transmission of nude pictures to the extent that you can now do so almost instantly. Laws are predicated on the idea that balding, cigar-chomping, lecherous 40-year-old men will try and coerce 16-year-old girls outside cheer practice, not ubiquitous cell phone cameras. Most parents will instinctively hate the cigar-chomping 40-year-old. They will not hate their own 14-year-old. So you get for all sorts of amusement where laws, putative morals, conventional wisdom, technology, and desire meet. Still, when pragmatics meet parents, expect parental anger / protectiveness to win for the moment but not for all time. Nineteenth and twentieth century American culture is not the only kind out there. As Melvin Konner wrote in The Evolution of Childhood:

Contrary to some claims of cultural historians, anthropologists find that liberal premarital sex mores are not new for a large proportion of the cultures of the ethnological record and that liberal sexual mores and even active sexual lives among adolescents do not necessarily produce pregnancies. In fact, a great many cultures permit or at least tolerate sex play in childhood (Frayser 1994). Children in these cultures do not play ‘doctor’ to satisfy their anatomical curiosity—they play ‘sex.’ They do play ‘house’ as Western children do, but the game often includes pretend-sex, including simulated intercourse. Most children in non-industrial cultures have opportunities to see and hear adult sex, and they mimic and often mock it.

Perhaps our modern aversion to sex among adolescents is in part because of the likelihood of pregnancy, economic factors, and others. Given the slow but real outcry from places like the Economist and elsewhere, this might eventually change. That’s pretty optimistic, however. A lot of social and legal structures merely work “good enough,” and the justice system is certainly one of those: we’ve all heard by now about cases where DNA evidence resulted in exoneration of people accused of murder or rape. So maybe we’re now heading towards a world in which laws about sexting are unfair, especially given current practice, but the laws remain anyway because the law doesn’t have to be optimal: it has to be good enough, and most people over 18 probably don’t care much about it unless it happens to be their son or daughter who gets enmeshed in a legal nightmare for behavior that doesn’t result in tangible harm.

Something like a quarter to a third of American adults have smoked pot, but we still have anti-pot laws. America can easily afford moral hypocrisy, at least for now, and maybe sexting will be something like weed: widely indulged in, a rite of passage, and something not likely to result in arrest unless you happen to be unlucky or in the wrong situation at the wrong time. The force generation the prohibition—that is, parents engaging in daughter-guarding—might be much stronger than the force of individual rights, utilitarianism, or pragmatic observations about the enforcement of laws against victimless crimes that do not result in physical harm.

There’s more of the legal challenges around this in Ars Technica’s article “14-year old child pornographers? Sexting lawsuits get serious,” which should replace “serious” with “ridiculous.” In the case, a 14-year-old girl sent a 14-year-old boy a video of herself masturbating, and then her family sued his. But how does a 14-year-old be guilty of the sexual exploitation of children,” as is claimed by the girl’s family—if a 14 year old can’t consent to consent to this kind of activity, then a 14-year old also can’t have the state of mind necessary to exploit another one. Paradoxes pile up, of the sort described in Regulating Sex: The Politics of Intimacy and Identity, where the writers show how the age of consent has been rising as the age of being tried as an adult has been falling. Somewhere inside that fact, or pair of facts, there’s a novel waiting to be written.

Questions like “What happens when people do things sexually that they’re not supposed to? How does the community respond? How do they respond?” are the stuff novelists feed on. They motivate innumerable plots, ranging from the beginnings of the English novel at Pamela and Clarissa all the way to the present. When Rose and Pinkie are first talking to each other in Brighton Rock, Rose lies about her age: ” ‘I’m seventeen,’ she said defiantly; there was a law which said a man couldn’t go with you before you were seventeen.” Brighton Rock was published in 1938. People have probably been evading age-of-consent laws for as long as there have been such laws, and they will probably continue to do so—whether those laws affect sex or depictions of the body.

Adults have probably been reinforcing prohibitions for as long as they’ve existed. Consider this quote, from the Caitlin Flanagan article about Testimony linked above:

Written by a bona fide grown-up (the author turned 63 last fall), Testimony gives us not just the lurid description of what a teen sex party looks like, but also an exploration of the ways that extremely casual sex can shape and even define an adolescent’s emotional life. One-night stands may be perfectly enjoyable exercises for two consenting adults, but teenagers aren’t adults; in many respects, they are closer to their childhoods than to the adult lives they will eventually lead. Their understanding of affection and friendship, and most of all their innocent belief, so carefully nurtured by parents and teachers, that the world rewards kindness and fairness, that there is always someone in authority to appeal to if you are being treated cruelly or not included in something—all of these forces are very much at play in their minds as they begin their sexual lives.

In Testimony, the sex party occurs at the fictional Avery Academy; Shreve imagines Siena, the girl at the center of the event, as a grifter, eager to exploit her new status as victim so that she can write a killer college essay about it, or perhaps even appear on Oprah. For the most part, the boys are callous and self-serving.

Flanagan has no evidence whatsoever that “teenagers aren’t adults” other than bald assertion. That “they are closer to their childhoods than to the adult lives they will eventually lead” has more to do with culture than with biology, as Robert Epstein argues in The Case Against Adolescence: Rediscovering the Adult in Every Teen and Alice Schlegel and Herbert Barry argue in Adolescence: An Anthropological Inquiry, and even then, it depends on when a particular person hits puberty, how they react, and how old they are; nineteen-year olds are probably closer to their adults selves than thirteen-year olds. Saying that teenagers believe, according to an ethos created by teachers, that “the world rewards kindness and fairness,” indicates that Flanagan must have had a very different school experience than I did or a lot of other people did (for more, see “Why Nerds are Unpopular.”) As I recall, school was capricious, arbitrary, and often stupid; the real world rewards fulfilling the desires of others, whether artistically, financially, sexually, or otherwise, while the school world rewards jumping through hopes and mindless conformity. If I don’t like the college I go to, I can transfer; if I don’t like my job, I can quit; if I don’t like some other milieu, I leave it. In contrast, school clumps everyone together based on an accident of geography.

In Testimony, Shreve misses or chooses not to emphasize that Sienna enjoys the attention, and she’s not actually got much beyond that. She says that “I”m going to start a new life. I can be, like, Sienna. I can whoever I want” {Shreve “Testimony”@27}. In Rob’s voice, Sienna is described this way:

I remember that Sienna started moving to the beat, a beer in her hand, as if she were in a world of her own, just slowly turning this way and that, and moving her hips to the music, and little by little the raucous laughter started to die down, and we were all just watching her. She was the music, she was the beat. Her whole little body had become this pure animal thing. She might have been dancing alone in her room. She didn’t look at any of us, even as she seemed to be looking at all of us. There was no smile on her face. If it was a performance, it was an incredible one. I don’t think anyone in the room had ever seen anything like it. She was in this light-blue halter top with these tight jeans. The heels and her little jacket were gone already. You just knew. Looking at her, you just knew.

She took off her own clothes, and “We watched as she untied her halter top at the neck. The blue cloth fell to reveal her breasts. They were beautiful and firm and rounded like her face. You knew at that moment you were in for good [. . .]” Later, he says “It was group seduction of the most powerful kind.” Given how Mike, the headmaster, describes the video in the first section, it’s hard to see Sienna as lacking agency, or someone who’s coerced into her actions. That, in the end, is what I think makes the Caitlin Flanagans of the world so unhappy: if the Siennas will perform their dances and give it up freely and happily, does that mean other girls will have to chase the market leader? Will they have to acknowledge that a reasonably large minority of girls like the action, like the hooking up, like the exploring? If so, a lot of Western narratives about femininity go away, if they haven’t already. If you’re a novelist, you have to look at the diversity of people out there and the diversity of their desires. Shreve does this quite well. So does Francine Prose in Blue Angel. If you’re writing essays / polemics, though, you can questionable claim that teenagers are closer to their childhood selves all you want.

I like Flanagan’s writing because she’s good at interrogating what’s going on out there, but I’m not the first to notice her problems with politics; William Deresiewicz is more concise than I am when he writes Two Girls, True and False, but the point is similar. Flanagan wants to imply that all people, or all girls, are the same. They aren’t. The ones unhappy with the hookup culture are certainly out there, and they might be the majority. But the Siennas are too. To deny them agency because they’re 14 is foolish. Matthew, J. Dot’s father, says that “The irony was that if a few kids had done something similar at the college, they’d be calling it an art film.” He’s right. Things don’t magically change at 18. Our culture and legal system are designed around the fiction that everything changes at 18, when it actually does much earlier. The gap between puberty and 18, however, is a fertile ground for novelists looking for cultural contradictions.

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