The American Scholar Magazine: Go Buy It
The Scholar has some of the best pieces written in today’s America. The book review section is excellent, the kind that puts one in a buying mood at amazon.com. On the negative side, some of the articles are written by academics who don’t get out nearly as much as they should. I don’t like articles that would get rave reviews at all known Faculty Clubs. I like writing that peeks into the abyss and tells us what the writer saw – and what he or she has learned.
For example, in the Summer, 2006 issue, Jay Tolson (a U.S. News senior writer and expert on novelist Walker Percy) reviews a life-of-the-mind book (An Argument for Mind) written by super-psychologist Jerome Kagan. Prof. Kagan is one of the 20-or-so most important academic thinkers of the past century.
In the late 1950s, Kagan became involved in a famous study of “typical American children” (mostly white, mostly middle-class, as befitted the 50s). The study explored key assumptions that psychologists and baby-rearing experts believed in then – and that many still affirm.
Kagan describes four assumptions: “The first swore allegiance to the significance of experience, especially maternal love and effective socialization of good character. The second held that habits, values, and emotions established early would be preserved indefinitely. The third alleged that psychological growth was gradual, and the last declared that ‘freedom from coercion’ [apparently coercion on or by the child] was the ideal state every child should attain.”
Admittedly, most studies seem somehow to confirm their organizers’ beliefs. In this case, Kagan’s study called all four assumptions into question. In fact, some of them turned out to be dead wrong, including one that’s a core of progressive thinking about child development.
As reviewer Tolson says, “The idea that the earliest years of infancy were the most determinative, for example, took a strong hit. Finding that behavioral differences in the infants first three years had little bearing on their psychological differences as adults [!!!!!!], Kagan discovered that behavior exhibited in the years between six and 10, after a child entered school, was a fairly good predictor of adult behavior.”
Obviously, Kagan’s book is a must-read. Tolson’s review shows his own value as a great generalist, who seeks to understand – and then explain in clear terms – some very complex thoughts. Reading Tolson on Kagan turned out to be one of those illuminating experiences that occur too rarely in life.
There’s another superb piece in the Summer 2006 edition. It’s “Feckless and Reckless,” by novelist and journalist Alan Peter Ryan. Once a New Yorker, he’s lived in Rio de Janeiro for about five years.
It’s impossible to do justice to the quality of this brief (2000 words?) article. It’s a tidy monument to good writing.
Consider one paragraph devoted to explaining why Rio-ites (Cariocas) are scary, if skilled, drivers. “Brazilians, so soon after the crushing military dictatorship, haven’t gotten over the habits of silence and caution. A restaurant in my neighborhood . . . provides a card you can fill out to rate the quality of food and service. The choices are: Excellent, Good, and Reasonable. Reasonable?”
Ryan continues: “The things other people would rate somewhere between unacceptable and criminally culpable – from food to dishonest government to incompetent repairmen to unreliable telephone or electric service to the terrifying crime rate – the Brazilian would, with a shrug, call ‘reasonable.’ But I doubt that anyone has ever checked that word on the card – or even filled out the card at all. Brazilians don’t like to behind evidence that might come back to haunt them. They prefer anonymity.”
In terms of essayistic prose, that’s about as good as it gets. In one extended paragraph, it gives great insight into the psyches and the hearts of Brazilians. It’s a shorthand version of what it would take months (years?) to learn about the people of Rio.
I hope everyone who reads this column follows my lead in getting a subscription to The American Scholar. Ignore the occasional pieces that show academics posturing and preening for one another; read the good stuff, which is available in abundance.
To subscribe, call 1-800-821-4567. Costs for individual subscriptions are: $25 for one year, $48 for two years, and $69 for three years. Y’all call – today!