Saturday, November 11, 2017

The Decline of the Protestant Work Ethic

The good old Protestant work ethic is dead in the water. Perhaps not entirely, but it is surely on life support. 

Witness the following from Cambridge University, one of the world’s greatest universities. A physical sciences professor Eugene Terentjev sent out the following email to Freshman students. He wanted them to know that if they wanted to succeed in physics, they would have to work very, very hard. And that they should cut out carousing. Life is not a party. Physicists do not learn physics by partying. 

You might have considered this advice to be well-meant. You might have thought that today's college students should be advised to drink less and to study more. You would have been wrong. 

Immediately, those who pretend to be selling mental health were out in force attacking the professor… for promoting mental illness. Happily, Terentjev’s college has refused to condemn him.

The story appears in The New York Post (via Maggie’s Farm). The text appears on a site called Varsity. Here are some excerpts:

Terentjev writes: “There are things that need to be said, and these first few weeks of your Cambridge experience are quite critical in the way your path forms.”

And also:

It says: “Please be careful how you handle yourselves here in these early weeks: remember that you are NOT at any other uni, where students do drink a lot and do have what they regard as a “good time” – and you are NOT on a course, as some Cambridge courses sadly are, where such a behaviour pattern in possible or acceptable.”

“Physical Sciences is a VERY hard subject, which will require ALL of your attention and your FULL brain capacity (and for a large fraction of you, even that will not be quite enough). You can ONLY do well (i.e. achieve your potential, which rightly or wrongly several people here assumed you have) I you are completely focused, and learn to enjoy the course. People who just TAKE the course, but enjoy their social life, can easily survive in many subjects -- but not in this one.”

If you read this carefully, the good professor was advising against drunkenness. Is this really such a bad idea? Is it really a bad idea to promote excellence?

Some people thought so. By their lights, if you do not take your medicine—the alcoholic variety—you are likely to become mentally ill. Note well: working too hard will make you mentally ill. It's an astonishing message:

Student-run mental health campaigning group Student Minds Cambridge were quick to condemn the email, posting on their Facebook page: “We want to stress that this is not an appropriate or acceptable message to spread to students.”

“No matter how much work you have, no matter your current levels of attainment, there is nothing more important than your mental health”

They added: “We are very concerned that this could be extremely damaging to the mental well-being of the students in concern, and potentially others as well. This could enforce feelings "imposter syndrome" commonly experienced by Cambridge students. It is important to remember that there are many reasons different people get different grades, and it does not mean that they do not deserve their place here.”

One notes the bow toward diversity. True enough, some people do better and some do worse at physics. Does this have anything to do with affirmative action programs? Apparently, you ought not to think so, lest it harm your mental health. Does it have anything to do with whether or not you spend too much of your time at university partying? Apparently not, because people who party have achieved work/life balance. In that case it does not matter whether they succeed or fail. They may become second-rate. They may even become third-rate. At least they will be mentally healthy… according to the standards set by this group. Do you smell a faint odor of decadence emanating from the therapy culture?

Apparently, the latest dogma in the therapy culture is work/life balance. It’s supporters insist that the professor is telling students never to socialize. In fact, he was advising them not to go our carousing, drinking with their buddies. As it happens, drinking too much is a problem in American universities too.

Anyway, the proponents of work/life balance have their say:

CUSU Welfare and Rights Officer, Micha Frazer-Carroll, also took to social media to condemn the email, saying: “There are pertinent remarks to be made regarding student wellbeing in Cambridge. To offer support regarding drinking culture in Cambridge could have been a positive thing - words of wisdom on work/life balance, or getting enough rest among social commitments might be another. But the email sent last week took neither opportunity - it only looked to criticise the very premise of having a social life, or any sort of life, outside of study.

“CUSU Welfare and Rights supports students in prioritising their own wellbeing - and not simply because it 'enables you to work better', but wellbeing for wellbeing's sake.”

Much is expected of college students these days. They are competing against their peers in foreign countries, like Asia. Apparently, the Asian students do not have work/life balance. And this means that they are outcompeting their Western counterparts in math and science. Surely, this is true among high school students. As for American millennials, they perform worse than just about everyone. When you make college into a therapeutic experience, students end up learning nothing. They suffer from intractable depression when they discover that their high self-esteem does not translate into excellence.

Yet another British academic has rushed out to defend student partying:

Anthony Seldon, vice-chancellor of Buckingham University, said the professor’s message scaremongers the students rather than helping them to learn to live a balanced lifestyle. “Frightening impressionable undergraduates into believing that work alone is all-important is irresponsible, unkind and wrong-headed,” he told the newspaper.

The university’s student union welfare officer, Micha Frazer-Carroll, also criticized the content of the email, claiming it criticized “the very premise of having a social life, or any sort of life, outside of study.”

“The university believes that all first-year students in all disciplines, having undergone the thorough admissions process that Cambridge requires, have the capacity to succeed academically,” a spokesperson for the University told the Times.

Work/life balance guarantees mediocrity. Apparently, some people think that it’s good enough.

[Addendum: As though it was sent by the gods, the follow study from the University of Texas at Galveston confirms the good professor's point: drinking too much alcohol causes damages brain cells. Link here.]


Sam L. said...

Work/life balance... Seems students will maybe accept 5, maybe up to 10% work.

Jack Fisher said...

Why is this a "protestant" work ethic? Is this more rah rah protestants! yay protestants! whooooooo! go Fighting Amish go!

Jack Fisher said...

"Work/life balance guarantees mediocrity. Apparently, some people think that it’s good enough."

at a certain season in life, you'd better be ready, willing and able to work your ass off as A-1 Priority because sure as shi'ite, someone else will and you'll get buried or left behind or passed over. Afterwards, work and life better be balanced or you'll have an unhappy family. This is the Irish-Catholic-Navy-Lawyer Work Ethic.

Ares Olympus said...

Looks like good advice from the professor, especially for the students who need all the brain cells they have, and strange pampering by the student health group.

Stuart: Work/life balance guarantees mediocrity. Apparently, some people think that it’s good enough.

This seems like an unnecessary over generalization. I'd say keeping up on your sleep is also about "life balance", and probably will help your study more than alcohol will.

And the science of learning promotes quality over quantity, where taking breaks (even naps) will improve your ability to learn and retain new information. But if you're anxious and afraid of competition, you may end up stressing yourself unnecessarily and result in lower quality learning.
“We’ve shown for the first time that how the brain processes information during rest can improve future learning,” Preston said. “We think replaying memories during rest makes those earlier memories stronger, not just impacting the original content, but impacting the memories to come.”

Anonymous said...

I assume Dr. Scneiderman doesn’t believe in retirement. Not Protestant enough. Sleep is for pussies, even though all kinds of health indicators say otherwise. Selective reading from health litrachure and reeserch. One is to suppose sleep is for Cathlicks.

AesopFan said...

Coincidentally, I heard a report from a friend who attended a meeting this week head-lined by a former player for the Chicago Bears, who went on to achieve a successful career in business. The way the player told the story, when Mike Ditka was hired as head coach, the told the team, "I have some good news and some bad news. The good news is, we're going to the Super Bowl. The bad news, only half of you will be there." Sure enough, that's exactly what happened. Those players not willing to pay the price were cut from the team.

This is just one more in a long line of examples showing that "educators" today are interested in lots of things, but education is not among them.

There are lots of good Ditka quotes on the Webz, but I liked these.
"Losers quit when they're tired. Winners quit when they've won."
"Success is about taking advantage of opportunity."
"Motivation comes from within each individual. It's a personal thing. It's pride, guts, desire, whatever you want to call it; some people have it in their bellies, and some don't."
"Success is measured by your discipline and inner peace."

AesopFan said...

PS, a cartoon I think you might find amusing.

Jack Fisher said...

I've been impressed by the protestant work ethic in places like south central Los Angeles, where there are Baptist or Methodist churches on every other block.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

To AesopFan’s point, it would seem that today’s educators are telling young people they can have something for nothing. They can have all the joy and fulfillment in life by following their bliss.

That’s not work, nor is it contribution. That’s looking at work as some swell hobby. You don’t have to be good at a hobby to enjoy it, and it’s an individual pursuit, so no one’s going to hold you accountable.

You cannot have something for nothing. Gain without sacrifice is a willful suspension of disbelief, like government as Santa Claus. Comfort without sweat is sloth. It is a lie.

Cozy snowflake education today is selling this lie, because educators don’t want to hurt the children’s feelings. Parents don’t want their children’s feelings hurt. When I was growing up, there was a name for this: momma’s boy. Kiss-ups were called brown nosers. Whiners were called crybabies. Now we have zero tolerance policies to stop the assault of pejoratives, all in the name of our precious, sacred feelings.

Safe spaces protect our fragile youth so they can get a degree and pursue some grandiose hobby they claim is work, while living at home and delaying their future. Naturally, these man-boys are not attractive to their female peers. And so life is unfair, and it is all someone else’s fault, because that’s the way it’s been portrayed to them.

That’s what they’ve learned. This is what our education standards and system hath wrought.

I’ll not call it the “Protestant Work Ethic,” as that’s a now-ancient Max Weber term from a sectarian early-20th century Germany, before WWI. Today most of the young Germans are atheists... no Calvinist fire-and-brimstone there. And many Catholic schools still have high standards and rigor, while others have become feminized safe spaces. But post-WW2 Catholic education was a marvel, and assimilated Catholics into society as strong economic contributors. I suppose that’s not Weber-esque, but it happened. After all, Weber was dead by then.

All imagined “toxic masculinity” aside, it is human nature for well-adjusted, industrious adults to want to work with people who meet Ditka’s mold, rather than Justin Bieber’s. Weber’s anachronistic description needs a new name.

The great lie goes back to the Garden of Eden: that you can get something for nothing. Maybe we should realize that modern education’s “Serpent Work Ethic” is working out as well for our young people as it did for Adam and Eve. It is wise to understand why Adam and Eve were cast out of the Garden, an why the story is as relevant today as it ever was.

Where are the men in our society? I always love seeing the bumper sticker “Eve was framed.” Eve wasn’t framed, and the Fall was not all her fault. Adam didn’t fulfill his role, either. Most husbands/parents seem like the dumb Adam taking a bite out of Eve’s forbidden fruit offering, because it’s there, rather than asking the all-important question: “Eve, what on earth are you doing???” Today men cower at “The Look” Eve would’ve given. Yet that’s his job, and he didn’t do it. He’s equally to blame. And here we all are on the other side of Original Sin.

Our cerebral magnificence has its limits. School success is not necessarily well-correlated with economic success, save a few professions. Success comes down to creativity, discipline, persistence and hard work — in all areas of life. Our schools do not teach this much anymore. Instead, they reward the weak and conform to the lowest common denominator. To do anything else, the say, would be MEAN.