The River of Knowledge


My three children—Clate, Kellin and Bryce—in the 80s

As a species, we’ve been about parenting for a long, long time. For all the effort we have put in to rearing and raising our young, we still don’t agree on how best to do that job. But then again, there is little agreement on how to pick a partner (and who should do it), how to choose where to live, what to do for a job and how to optimize our health. Let’s face it: There’s a lot of basic stuff we don’t understand.

Trends in parenting are particularly fascinating because more than the other great unanswered questions, these tend to change with every generation. And it is so bloody loaded. How you raise your children speaks to the moral and lifestyle issues that everyone in every generation has to navigate for themselves. Anyone who grew up during the Mad Men era of the 60s remembers the easy disregard that children garnered, so boomers tried to raise their children with lots of self esteem and personal expression (while searching for that for themselves at the same time—with predictably mixed results). “Baby on Board” Gen-Xers, referred to by some as the “mommy war soldiers” go postal with each other over formula and diapers. For many of the young mothers coming up behind them there is a return to older values. These younger women, many of them part of the Mommy blogger subcluture, value the “New Domesticity”, crafting Martha Stewart perfect worlds for themselves and their children with fierce drive and determination. And then there are the books that become lightning rods for a particular parenting point of view such as Poser: My Life in Twenty-three Yoga Poses by Claire Dederer; Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua; The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun by Gretchen Rubin; and Home Game: An Accidental Guide to Fatherhood by Michael Lewis.

At the same time these parenting issues are being vociferously discussed,* other books question the core values of our culture in general. Just a few recent titles addressing these larger issues include You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto by Jaron Lanier; Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other by Sherry Turkle; and The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr.

So David Brooks’ is right in line with the trend with his soon to be released book, The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement. In his recent piece in the New Yorker, Brooks questions the qualities that we value most in our culture by profiling those individuals who did it all right, “by the book,” and are now considered successful members of the “Composure Class.” Brooks isn’t so sure, nor am I, that these values produce the types of individuals our world desperately needs now. A sampling from that article:

The young achievers are tutored in every soccer technique and calculus problem, but when it comes to their most important decisions—whom to marry and whom to befriend, what to love and what to despise—they are on their own. Nor, for all their striving, do they understand the qualities that lead to the highest achievement. Intelligence, academic performance, and prestigious schools don’t correlate well with fulfillment, or even with outstanding accomplishment. The traits that do make a difference are poorly understood, and can’t be taught in a classroom, no matter what the tuition: the ability to understand and inspire people; to read situations and discern the underlying patterns; to build trusting relationships; to recognize and correct one’s shortcomings; to imagine alternate futures. In short, these achievers have a sense that they are shallower than they need to be…

Harold was gripped by the thought that, during his lifetime, the competition to succeed—to get into the right schools and land the right jobs—had grown stiffer. Society had responded by becoming more and more focussed. Yet somehow the things that didn’t lead to happiness and flourishing had been emphasized at the expense of the things that did. The gifts he was most grateful for had been passed along to him by teachers and parents inadvertently, whereas his official education was mostly forgotten or useless.

Moreover, Harold had the sense that he had been trained to react in all sorts of stupid ways. He had been trained, as a guy, to be self-contained and smart and rational, and to avoid sentimentality. Yet maybe sentiments were at the core of everything. He’d been taught to think vertically, moving ever upward, whereas maybe the most productive connections were horizontal, with peers. He’d been taught that intelligence was the most important trait. There weren’t even words for the traits that matter most—having a sense of the contours of reality, being aware of how things flow, having the ability to read situations the way a master seaman reads the rhythm of the ocean. Harold concluded that it might be time for a revolution in his own consciousness—time to take the proto-conversations that had been shoved to the periphery of life and put them back in the center. Maybe it was time to use this science to cultivate an entirely different viewpoint.

And this memorable passage:

During the question-and-answer period, though, a woman asked the neuroscientist how his studies had changed the way he lived… “I guess I used to think of myself as a lone agent, who made certain choices and established certain alliances with colleagues and friends,” he said. “Now, though, I see things differently. I believe we inherit a great river of knowledge, a flow of patterns coming from many sources. The information that comes from deep in the evolutionary past we call genetics. The information passed along from hundreds of years ago we call culture. The information passed along from decades ago we call family, and the information offered months ago we call education. But it is all information that flows through us. The brain is adapted to the river of knowledge and exists only as a creature in that river. Our thoughts are profoundly molded by this long historic flow, and none of us exists, self-made, in isolation from it.

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* For a glimpse into the level of passion with which these issues are being discussed, you might want to read Why I can’t stop reading Mormon housewife blogs by Emily Matchar (on Slate) and then scroll through the comments (over 300 as of this posting). Whoa. Hit a nerve or what?

8 Comment

  1. Maureen says:

    I just gave Turkle’s new book to Jim for his birthday.

    I’m behind in my New Yorker reading; your quotes remind me to get back to it.

    I’m always curious about this need to find the “one right way” to anything. I’m participating in discussions at the new blog A Year With Rilke. Talk about a “river of knowledge”!

  2. Maureen, I noticed that on your blog. I’ll take a closer look. Love the concept, A Year With Rilke. Thanks, and let me know what you and/or Jim think of Turkle’s book.

  3. Deborah,
    Thank you so much for your column. I think it is possible to get through our New England winters with your valued insights. I appreciate the reference to David Brooks’ new book. I miss seeing/hearing him on Bill Moyer’s – THE JOURNAL (PBS).
    On another point on your blog today, it’s interesting to witness our new Speaker of the House, John Boehner’s, emotional sensitivity. I have to admit, I only know a little about him, (60 minutes interview). It takes a lot of courage to be in the public eye with his emotions overflowing at times. For that alone, I
    admire him.

  4. As a regular reader and lurker of your blog for some time now, I appreciate your space here, your artistic depth, literary eye, and finger on the pulse of what’s happening, specifically the link at the end of this post to the Mormon blog article.

    As a person who finds herself in circles with many Mormons (and being one myself), I found it a fascinating read, and while I’m not a lifestyle blogger like the women mentioned (I blog on writing/literature), I enjoyed the article, not to mention a riotous read through the comments.

    Thank you for every post, I appreciate them all.

  5. Terresa, I’m a fan of your blog and your poetic sensibilities. Thank you for your kind compliments.

    FYI, my niece is one of the bloggers mentioned in the article–Liz Stanley–so I watched the slew of comments with some interest. I was a little disturbed by the level of vitriol however. These are clearly very loaded issues.

  6. The “Say Yes to Hoboken” blogger is your niece?? What an intricate web exists in the world, I should not be surprised. (I love her blog, I lurk there often.)

    Yes, there exists vitriol in the comments of that article, unfortunate, as I am fond of telling people, Mormons are like those of any other large, sprawling religion, we are many, we are zany, we are complicated. Try to define us, tell us we are one thing, we defy tidy descriptions. Our complexities, our breadth, our depth (or sometimes lack thereof :)), our beliefs, us as a people, are hard to define, nearly contradictory at times, but most of us have one thing in common: faith.

  7. […] several new book titles that address various aspects of these concerns in my earlier post, The River of Knowledge, as well as a few inspired by Sarah Bakewell’s very successful book on Montaigne, How to Live […]

  8. […] July 11 & 18, 2011. (I am particularly fond of Lanier and have written about him previously, here, here and […]

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