cc licensed ( BY SA ) flickr photo shared by Tom Woodward

I wrote this in response to Gardner’s post here and in particular this quote from Thomas Merton that Gardner referenced.

“[A publisher asked me to write something on ‘The Secret of Success,’ and I refused.] If I had a message to my contemporaries, I said, it was surely this: Be anything you like, be madmen, drunks, and bastards of every shape and form, but at all costs avoid one thing: success. … If you have learned only how to be a success, your life has probably been wasted. If a university concentrates on producing successful people, it is lamentably failing in its obligation to society and to the students themselves.”

On reflection, this is a bit much for a comment (so now it’s a post) and probably somewhat hyperbolic but maybe it’ll spur some
interesting conversation. My response certainly sounds like a keynote (not enough gray).1

I read it more as an indictment of the definition of “success” in a corrupt/broken system as a kind of failure rather than advocating allowing for failure as a way of progression (not that I disagree with that path).

I paralleled it to winning the Redneck Games2 or being a very powerful congressman.3 I wouldn’t want to be a member of that club and would utterly despair at being the head honcho/VP for sales/president/commander in chief.

I’d look to universities to help students question the very definition of success in our society (academic success included) and pushing students to define and redefine their own ideas for success. I don’t think that’s what’s happening now in many places (maybe Hampshire College?). If anything I think almost all formal education reinforces versions of the meritocracy philosophy that drives a lot of the rationalization that allows our culture (Silicon Valley and otherwise) to churn on.

It’s not all like that certainly but huge chunks of the machine that is higher ed are dedicated (vocally and in public and in writing and on video) to creating better candidates to compete against other candidates from other nations to make the very same rich people lots of money while chewing up whatever gets in the way of that profit (people, animals, the environment, other rich people). I’d love to see a university question the very idea that what they do has anything to do with making someone a better “worker” when they finish. I’d go to a university that stated that they were against creating cogs in wheels or wheels driven by cogs (for most leaders seem to be slaves to the machines of their success- who can argue against the machine that made them queen?). I’d like to go someplace that hopes to make me less likely to become a cog or a wheel. I’d like to focus on reconsidering what success might mean to me rather than taking grades or publishing or whatever as a new metric to temporarily take the place of money.

Major Aside

I need to write a WordPress plugin that allows me to do this instead of footnotes. I’m quite obsessed with it as a writing methodology.


1 I’m happy to take your money for saying ridiculous things. I can also claim I give homework so you’re kids will be like the responsible farm children of yore. Just send the checks.

2 There’s at least an element of humor/fun here.

3 No fun here and while maybe not corrupt individuals according to Lessig, certainly a corrupt system.

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