Saturday, September 26, 2009

Post No. 136: We Try Harder

© 2009, the Institute for Applied Common Sense

In what areas is the United States still No. 1? Was it ever? Or was this exalted status something we told ourselves to boost our sense of pride and accomplishment?

In a previous post about the mark made by political thought giant Irving Kristol, columnist David Brooks wrote something which struck us:

“He [Kristol] was unabashedly neoconservative. But he also stood apart, and directed his skeptical gaze even on his own positions, and even on the things to which he was most loyal… ‘There are no benefits without costs in human affairs,’ he once wrote. And so there is no idea so true and no movement so pure that it doesn’t require scrutiny. There was no position in this fallen world without flaws.”

A question might be raised as to whether it would be a good thing for us, as a Nation, to acknowledge that others have surpassed us in certain areas, or are nipping at our heels. There’s lots of rhetoric these days about our “great nation” and how this is the most powerful nation in the history of humankind.

But resting on one’s laurels has its problems, as does continuing to do things the same way, simply because they worked in the past, or through rigid adherence to a particular philosophy.

The Father of one of our friends claims that golfer Tiger Woods can cruise now in his career, “since he has already made his money.” But whether it is Tiger Woods, or legendary basketball star Larry Bird, the existence of talent without continuing effort, and a desire to excel, yields few championship trophies.

In order for the Road Runner to have existed all of these years, he had to outrun Wile E. Coyote everyday, and come up with new ways to “out-coyote” him.

His survival is dependent upon his speed and agility.

Yesterday, the 2009 National Book Festival, founded by former First Lady Laura Bush in 2001, commenced in Washington, D.C. That such a festival was only started recently might come as a surprise to many, but may reflect something about us.

Many of us consider a good education and the ability to read as givens. Yet, the percentage of functionally illiterate citizens in America would probably shock most.

At least those of us who can read.

A friend of ours spent some time teaching courses at a community college. He often tells the story of a student who, while taking a math test, summoned him. He told her that he could not assist her.

She noted that the issue was not a math issue, but a word issue. When he looked at the problem, she pointed to the word “suspension,” and said she did not know its meaning. Without knowing its meaning, it was impossible for her to perform the calculation necessary.

In response to this revelation, our friend decided that even in his math classes, his students would learn 10 new words each day. After announcing his new policy to his night class and the reasons for the change, a student approached him after class, and said that he was one of the people about whom the instructor had spoken.

When our friend inquired as to what the student meant, the student related an amazing story. He said that although he was not very proud of it, he got kicked out of high school one month before graduation, and did not learn to read prior to that time.

Imagine an educational system where a student can be promoted for 12 years, and still not manage to read. And consider the fact that no one single factor, teacher, school, or system can be singled out for this travesty.

One of our other friends has been in collegiate and professional athletics for years. He has always contended that he’d rather have a bunch of C grade players who hustled and gave their best, than a team of A grade players who didn’t.

After listening to the introductory speakers during the opening ceremonies for National Book Festival, it occurred to us that we have a long way to go in getting the most out of our human resources, and that acknowledging that many of our current systems are perhaps not the best in the world, might be a good starting point.

For some reason, this line of thinking made us re-visit one of the longest running marketing slogans around, that for Avis Rent a Car, the number two agency behind number one Hertz. “We try harder.”

We did not know who started this campaign, but we had a suspicion, and looked it up. And yes, it turned out to be another Bill Bernbach masterpiece.

Its beauty is in its simplicity.

It’s neither un-American, nor un-patriotic to question our standing in the world, and investigate whether what we’ve been doing is really in the long-term, national, collective interest.

Societal responsibility is not dramatically different from personal responsibility. A nation can’t complain about its standing in the world, if it hasn’t done all that it can do to excel, and use its human resources to the fullest extent possible. That includes equipping all of its citizens with competitive tools, and ensuring that they are ready for the fight.

And that’s just plain Common Sense.


  1. Would it be best if we tried to concentrate on teaching kids to read, to write, and to do basic math and not so much on building their self esteem, their sense of fairness, and saving the planet? After all, how can you do the latter three without the former three?

  2. Douglas: Actually, in our view, you can teach them all 6 simultaneously. We doubt that the last 3 are being taught to the exclusion of the first 3.

    Virtually everything good in life stems from good, decent JOBS or work. Here’s a thumbnail of what it takes, in our view, for a society to be prosperous:

    1) An inventive / innovative class; people have to want to invent things and processes;

    2) Cross-culturalization, where multiple inventors get together and compare their inventions, and newer \ better inventions are created;

    3) Seaports or trade route intersections;

    4) Business flowing from invention / innovation;

    5) Jobs flowing from business;

    6) A good life flowing from more people having jobs; and

    7) Education encouraging the repeat of the process

    Either society sets this in motion, governs the process, and maintains it, or it does not. If you leave it to chance, you might be on top for a while but you can’t be on top indefinitely. But that is a cost of freedom, when you do not direct people what to do with their lives.

    Our suspicion is that China will be the next, dominant, world power because they tell more people what to do, and they are more controlling. More free? Of course not. But more planning, organization, consistency, and coordination takes place under their model. We use the herding cats model, and there are costs and benefits associated with it.

  3. Hello Inspector Clouseau,
    First of all thanx to comment on my article "Global Economic Meltdown and China'The Stellar'" and i appreciate the points given by you for future growth of a country and its society.
    Here,at this post i like the flow of views which are expressed by you.These are reminding me the statement given by Mr.President OBAMA few months ago, regarding to the US youngster's interest in education "Study hard!don't play Video games,Indians are coming"

  4. Vib Hav S: Thanks much for checking us out. Stop by often. We learn something new everyday from our readers.

  5. I was taught that a solid building has a strong foundation. And that it must be built from the ground up, not from the top floor down, or all floors simultaneously. I could be wrong, I am not an engineer. In order to think independently, you must have some foundation in logic or your thoughts will be scattered and incoherent. So, you are taught, first and foremost, the fundamentals. This would be the foundation. You can then build on the foundation. We learn and expand on that learning.

    I could be wrong, I spent most of my school years bored out of my mind.

    Dictating what and who will learn it didn't work out all that well for the Soviet Union. I suspect it will not work out long term for the Chinese.

  6. In an earlier follow-up comment, we stressed the importance of a nation having an inventive / innovative class in order to have continuing prosperity. We believe that the United States has fallen behind dramatically in terms of generating scientists and engineers who are essential to our continuing prosperity. We further believe that inventions and innovative processes have to be in the pipeline in order for us to remain competitive.

    Later this morning, at 9:00 am EDST on C-Span2 Book TV, the author of "Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future" will discuss his thoughts. For further information, click here.

  7. CSpan2 Book TV will air the program mentioned above,, "Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future," again today, Sunday, at 10:00 pm EDST. Click on the link above for further information.

  8. CSpan2 Book TV will air the program mentioned above,, "Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future," again today, Sunday, at 10:00 pm EDST. Click on the link above for further information.


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