How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough

My first contact with the work of Paul Tough was in this This American Life episode, in which he reported on the awe-inspiring work of Geoffrey Canada and the Harlem Children’s Zone. Tough’s book on the same subject, Whatever It Takes, was published, praised, and widely discussed in 2008. In How Children Succeed, from 2012, Tough looks at the same concerns of the US and its dire need for education reform, but with a nationwide lens.

As the subtitle hints, in this book Tough is concerned with bringing to education the cluster of soft skills, character traits, and virtues that have been emphasized by the positive psychology movement (and which have spun off several bestsellers from 1991’s Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman to 2016’s Grit: Passion, Perseverance, and the Science of Success by Angela Duckworth). Tough argues–with plenty of test scores, statistics, and moving anecdotes to prove it–that character strengths and weaknesses have much more to do with student success and lifelong achievement than do IQ tests.

I love much of the foundation of the positive psychology movement, so named because of its desire to study and encourage mental wellness after more than a century of psychology’s (neurotic?) focus on mental illness. If that interests you, and especially if you are also fascinated by DISC, StrengthFinders, Myers-Briggs, et al, you should spend some time taking a few of these free tests connected to ongoing research at the University of Pennsylvania.

How Children Succeed is well-written and well-argued, for the most part. It’s inspiring to hear stories of children who seemingly should fail on paper, but who have taken flight in their educational and then professional and personal lives. It’s encouraging to learn about educators, thinkers, schools, and movements who are willing to reinvent themselves when initial hypotheses and reform attempts fail. I’m especially interested because it at least intends to create research-based interventions.

Where How Children Succeed falls short is its lack of intellectual modesty. Rather than adding the insights of positive psychology to other quality streams of thought in education reform, Tough presents “the hidden power of character” as a cure-all: IQ is out, and grit is in. And grit will fix all our problems, not only in schools but in adult happiness and life satisfaction.

Because Tough is so enthralled with the work of positive psychology researchers, he doesn’t seem to notice that he is replacing one overly simplistic answer to a complex problem with another overly simplistic answer. There is a star-struck quality to the arguments, and because of this partial blindness, there is little deep grappling in this book with the power of class, race, geography, or historical intertia. There is next-to-nothing in this book about teacher recruitment and retention (and instead an appalling number of references to the merits of Teach for America). And while it seems that this book would be incredibly timely in a year when everyone on social media seemed to have an opinion on education policy during Betsy DeVos’ confirmation hearings, it just isn’t. It makes literally zero public policy arguments with the power to serve more than a tiny percentage of the US’ public school student population. (In its defense, the narrow focus of the book could serve as a useful partial foundation for public policy proposals.)

For all that critique, it’s not a bad book. It just needs to be one ingredient in a gumbo, not the single-ingredient meal it sets out to be. I’d recommend it without hesitation to educators, because educators have the context of wider reading, training, and experience in education policy, theory, and practice. I have no doubt that the best educators and best teacher training programs are already using many of these insights. But for readers like me, people who simply want to be informed about important trends in education and public policy, it has serious flaws. Read it if you read a lot of education books or if you’re already interested in positive psychology and you want to think through further practical applications. Just don’t read it expecting it to be the one education book to finally tell you “How Children Succeed.”

Advertisements

The Sign and the Sacrifice: The Meaning of the Cross and Resurrection by Rowan Williams

Rowan Williams numbers not only among the most influential theologians in the world, but among the top living minds, period. His career is both impressive and praiseworthy—dedication over the course of his career to both local church ministry and the Christian academy, faithful leadership at the top of the Anglican Communion through its recent global rupture, and no hesitation to use his weight as a public theologian and political figure in the UK and beyond.

Williams also keeps writing lovely little books for the church, like The Sign and the Sacrifice: The Meaning of the Cross and the Resurrection.

Rowan Williams Sign and the Sacrifice

This book is divided neatly in two. Part 1: The Meaning of the Cross is subdivided into “The sign,” “The sacrifice,” and “The victory.” Part 2: The Meaning of the Resurrection is split into “Christ’s resurrection—then” and “Christ resurrection—now.” Along the way Williams presents, analyzes, and invites us to contemplate just as wide of a swath through Christian history, theology, and practice as the book’s subtitle and organization suggest. Deep dives into Scripture and theology accompany references to literature as well as—in what turns out to be most distinctive in this book—the hymnody and prayers of the church.

The annoyance I have with this book is that points of theological argument and conversations in Biblical criticism are frustratingly lacking in footnotes. The bigger qualm I have is that in the second part of the book, I want Williams to unequivocally state, “I believe in the resurrection of the body,” and he never does. There are certainly statements that can be read that way, particularly a conversation on how Jewish conceptions of resurrection at the time of Jesus could not imagine a resurrection apart from this earth. In Part 2 as a whole, however, I find Williams to be equivocating on what the nature of Jesus’ resurrection is, and thus the nature of what our resurrection will be, although he certainly believes that God raised Jesus from the dead, and that it was the defining act of the new creation.

In terms of best audience and application, the book is successfully aimed at normal church folks. It is intellectually serious, but it isn’t unapproachable, and it even has helpful conversation questions at the end of each chapter. For me personally, I can think of several people to recommend it to, especially fellow pastors. It would be a tremendous book to plan a sermon series around, especially during Lent.

I’ll end with a longer quote to draw you in to take a chance on this excellent book:

Jesus’ death is not a ritual sacrifice. It doesn’t happen in a temple, it happens on a bleak hilltop on an execution ground. Jesus’ sacrifice is the sacrifice of obedience. At every moment of his life he has given his heart to God in such a way that God is able to work through him with no interruption, with no diversion. At every moment Jesus has fulfilled the law; not by ticking off at the end of every day a series of acts performed; not by obeying God like a reluctant corporal with a sergeant major ordering him around; but at every moment Jesus has done what God wants. So even before his crucifixion we could say in Jewish terms that he was offering a sacrifice, giving his heart to God in such a way that God is pleased with his gift.

But as with those martyrs in the period between the Testaments, it was an obedience that led to death. Jesus’ single-minded gift of his heart to the Father leads him to the shedding of his blood, because obedience to God in this world of sin, oppression and violence puts you lethally at risk. This is a world in which if you try to give your heart to God you may find your blood shed.

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and a Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance

HIllbilly Elegy covef

Hillbilly Elegy is J.D. Vance’s first book, but it is not his first publication. He has had articles in National Review going back at least to 2013, and he was an editor at The Yale Law Journal (a publication run by Yale Law students) while a Yale Law student.

Vance’s personal story would be important to a book review even if this book were not a memoir. A child one generation out of Appalachian Kentucky, with family ties to the Hatfields (of the Hatfield-McCoy blood feud), Vance was raised in an environment of poverty, substance abuse, and family dysfunction. With the help of his “Mamaw” (his maternal grandmother) in particular, he was able to find a measure of stability in his life, enter the Marines out of high school, then go on to blaze through a degree at Ohio State University and excel at Yale Law School.

This is not only a brilliant and accomplished man, but he tells a good story. On the first page of chapter one, Vance describes Jackson, Kentucky, where his family roots remain even though he grew up 200 miles away in Middletown, Ohio:

Jacksonians say hello to everyone, willingly skip their favorite pastimes to dig a stranger’s car out of the snow, and—without exception—stop their cars, get out, and stand at attention every time a funeral motorcade drives by. It was that latter practice that made me aware of something special about Jackson and its people. Why, I’d ask my grandma—whom we all called Mamaw—did everyone stop for the passing hearse? “Because, honey, we’re hill people. And we respect our dead.”

For my own part, I was interested in how similar his experience might be to my own. Not only do I have plenty of Scotch-Irish roots, but I’ve never been very insulated from white working class poverty, family dysfunction, mental illness, and substance abuse. Vance may write that only in Appalachia do children have grandparents named “Mamaw” and “Papaw,” but I grew up with Mamaw, Papaw, Mamaw Mac (short for Maxedon, my great-grandmother), and Papaw Mac in central Illinois. My mom is “Mamaw” to my two sons and all my siblings’ children. Like Vance, multi-generational family networks of support—and like him, especially female family members–alongside formal education have made a tremendous difference in family outcomes.

On top of this, I am a United Methodist pastor who tomorrow could be reappointed to any of 800+ United Methodist Churches in the southern 3/4 of Illinois. Most of those areas are rural, and plenty are decades into the same loss of factories and community institutions that both Rust Belt Ohio and Appalachian Kentucky have experienced. In fact, both communities in which I currently serve exist because of coal mining, with all of their mines long dormant, and all their local properties requiring mine subsidence insurance for what may or may not be beneath them. (This reason enough for me to recommend it universally to pastors.)

Vance could not have picked a better time for his book to be published. When Hillbilly Elegy was released in June 2016, Donald Trump was headed for a victory at the July Republican National Convention. His strategy of massive rallies was well established, and he was clearly aiming at white voters who had felt economically and politically disenfranchised for decades.

Writing this review two days after President Trump’s inauguration, I think most of the analysis for how and why Trump was elected is premature. For instance, early claims that it was poor Americans voting for him simply turned out not to match the data. And this particular book, probably the most-mentioned this year for explaining that phenomenon, has been overhyped in that early, easy analysis as well.

For its own part, Hillbilly Elegy does not hesitate to refer widely to economists, sociologists, psychologists, and political scientists. Vance’s engagement is not only with popular regurgitations of various studies but with the studies and researchers themselves. But taken as a whole, the political diagnostic work forms the weakest portion of the book.

To be specific, Vance believes that his experience is unique, when it is actually quite widespread. Two generations of genealogical data in most families can uncover violence, substance abuse, poverty, family dysfunction, and lack of access to education. When Vance contemplates going to college, he feels he’s not ready and joins the military. This too is a common American story (albeit one with far more clear-sighted self-knowledge by the 18-year-old in question). Finally, Vance describes not knowing what to do with all the silverware on the table and not knowing how to order off of an extended wine list while being pursued by  employers as a Yale Law student. This experience would be alien in the exact same ways to most Americans in their mid-to-late twenties.

It is only in passing that Vance ever notes the problems of class inequality and its causes, which reads as an ideological blind spot given his regular publications in National Review. When he speaks of political and social solutions, it is both lovely to see how he holds up the need for strong communal institutions alongside strong families to create opportunities for people, but it is dismaying to not see him dig deeper into how institutions and government work together.

Even with these caveats, I won’t hesitate to recommend this book widely. I love memoirs, and this is easily among 2016’s best. Perhaps best of all, and not mentioned thus far, this is a book-length thank you to Vance’s Mamaw. The gratitude that flows for this woman—a foul-mouthed, quick-to-violence, idiosyncratically religious, and ultimately loving human being—is a grandson’s gift to her memory.

family.html

God’s Filing Cabinet

The X-Files

When I was growing up, I was taught to understand the daily Christian life as “walking by the Spirit” (cf. Gal. 5:16).  What that meant until perhaps ten years ago (and still means at times of high stress and low coping) was that there was some exactly right plan in God’s head, and I was anxiously trying not to fail it.

Things which aren’t psychologically healthy are never spiritually healthy.

They’re not theologically accurate either: that vision of God and God’s plan had nothing to do with Jesus or the Spirit of Jesus Christ (as the Holy Spirit is repeatedly named in Scripture).

Thomas Merton puts this all so well (from “Renunciation and Contemplation,” quoted in Fr. Albert Haase, Swimming in the Sun, pp. 123-124):

“Your vocation isn’t something that’s in a filing cabinet in Heaven that is kept secret from you and then sort of whipped out at the Last Judgment and [God says], ‘You missed, buddy! You didn’t guess right.’ But your vocation, or anything in life, is an invitation on the part of God which you’re not supposed to guess and you’re not supposed to figure out. It’s something you work out by free response.”

I still think “walk by the Spirit” is a decent, short description of the daily Christian life. But now I want to offer a bigger picture: “walk by the Spirit” when the Spirit is experienced through the whole Biblical canon; in community with other Christians, living and dead (the Tradition); via the Sacraments; and in lived experience, both my personal experience and in connection with the larger human experience.

Joyfully.

What of the Star?

Magi following star
This week I finished reading Scott Hahn’s Joy to the World: How Christ’s Coming Changed Everything (and Still Does). It’s a good devotional read for the Advent/Christmas/Epiphany seasons, especially for its deep dives into traditional Christian interpretations of the Christmas story.

From his chapter on the Magi of Matthew 2:

And what of the star?

As far back as the fourth century, Saint John Chrysostom pointed out that it didn’t behave like any other star anyone had ever seen…

“This star,” said Saint John Chrysostom, “was not of the common sort, or rather not a star at all, it seems to me, but some invisible power transformed into this appearance.”…stars in the sky were often identified with angels in heaven. The motif appears in the Bible, and in other Jewish sources from the time of Jesus. The philosopher Philo of Alexandria speculated that the stars “are living creatures, but of a kind composed entirely of mind.”…

John Chrysostom may have been pre-scientific and pre-critical in his thinking, but he wasn’t stupid.

With John Chrysostom I have to conclude that an angel appeared to the Magi as light and led them to true worship—which, as I’ve said before, is what angels were created to do.

Key for me is this sentence: “Chrysostom may have been pre-scientific and pre-critical in his thinking, but he wasn’t stupid.” For some of us, we need that basic fact: he wasn’t stupid. For others of us, it’s not that we think people of the past were stupid, but rather that we assume they were ignorant.

“Pre-scientific” means that Chrysostom didn’t understand the motion of celestial bodies as well as we do. At the same time, Chrysostom’s view of reality was larger than many of ours. He had room for the observable and empirically measurable as well as room for things beyond those categories. I hope I have room in my life and my outlook for things that don’t make sense. I hope I don’t have an explanation for the glory of God. I hope that sometimes I can still experience wonder and worship and lead others to worship—which is what humans were created to do.

16 in 2016: Best Books in the Year

Best Books of the Year lists make sense for trade awards, but people don’t read that way. Here are the best books–roughly the top 10%–I read in 2016. You can look at my full 2016 reading list on Goodreads. Friend me while you’re over there.

Flight by Sherman Alexie
I would feel better about the world if everyone would read this book. It’s painful and uplifting, with prose of a quality that shows there is no upper ceiling to YA writing.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
A black father writes an elegant, long-lasting memoir as a letter to his son in the present-day United States. If you can swing it, buy the audiobook to hear it straight from the author’s mouth to his child.

The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage by Paul Elie
If you’re interested in Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Flannery O’Connor, or Walker Percy, read this four-character biography. If you’re interested in just how well history and biography can be written, read this book.

The End of White Christian America by Robert P. Jones
Jones is the CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute. This is a brilliant book on history, politics, sociology, and American Christianity in our present moment. It might be the best book published in 2016 that I read in 2016.

Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem
Lethem has been in the back of my mind as someone to read for a long time. This story is sci-fi-warped reality, populated by well-drawn characters, written with great prose and humor. I’ll be reading more Lethem in 2017.

Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown
This is the book I have most widely recommended this year. I can’t speak to other “unclutter your life” books, but this one is directed at people who have too many good ideas to pursue them all, or who have too many claimants on their time to please them all. That’s just about everybody.

Journals of Thomas Merton
Although I’m a long-term Merton junkie, the collected journals are not mere arcana for Merton scholars. Most of his published writings were first birthed in these pages. In 2016, I read Volumes 1, 2, and 3. We’ll see how many of the other four volumes I can manage in 2017. If you’ve read no Merton, first try The Seven Storey Mountain (his classic autobiography) or No Man Is An Island. If you’ve already liked some Merton, there’s no reason to wait to dig into the journals.

The Index Card: Why Personal Finance Doesn’t Have to Be Complicated by Helaine Olen and Harold Pollack
Is this a lasting great? Maybe not. But it’s still great. Buy it for the new graduate in your life. Buy it for a wedding present. It’s useful, excellent, and short.

A Long Way from Chicago by Richard Peck
A brother and sister are sent to some small town in central Illinois to stay with their off-the-wall grandma. I would have adored this as a kid. I still do.

Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick
Several years ago, Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret invited me to create a new category of books in my brain: “Huggable.” There are some books so wonderful that they make you pause while literally hugging them for a slow inhale and exhale or three. And after a few moments you’re able to keep reading. With this book, Selznick created another one, following the same format of Cabret, with its alternating pages of texts and sketches. Here’s a picture of the main character traversing a scale model of New York City.

selznick-rose-on-the-pano

The Rabbi’s Cat by Joann Sfar
An Algerian rabbi’s cat eats a parrot and then is able to tell his master that he wants to be a Jew, drawn strikingly and originally, with great intelligence and humor. See?

Rabbi's Cat

Batman: Court of Owls by Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo
Batman is a very hit-and-miss dynasty, the New 52 is even worse, and yet this story was born out of both, and it’s tremendous. Familiar characters, deep history/mythology, Batman as detective (the best kind of Batman?), and great suspense-building and storytelling, alongside great art.

Collected Poems, 1928-1985 by Stephen Spender
Spender was of the same generation of W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood. I was introduced to him via Thomas Merton’s journals. If you like Auden, you’ll likely be a fan of Spender too. But buy this newer edition, instead of the one I have.

Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers
If you only know the marvelous Disney version, then you owe it to yourself and any kids in your life to read these. They’re magic.

Astonishing X-Men by Joss Whedon and John Cassaday
Whedon fans won’t be surprised that he’s good at writing literally anything, including this astonishing series from 2004 (that year between Firefly and Serenity).

Level Up by Gene Luen Yang, art by Thien Pham
I read Yang’s great Boxers & Saints and American-Born Chinese this year as well, but I list this because it’s the one I connected with the most emotionally.

The Church Is More Than a Business

Church by Buildings
This is the time of year in the United Methodist Church where much of our formal reflection on the previous year’s ministry takes place. Among the persistent goals in my ministry is to fully live into my job description from Ephesians 4:12–“to equip the saints for the work of ministry.” I’ve written previously on just how little attention is given to leadership formation (in terms of character or skills development) in seminary. This lack is multiplied when the ordained minister’s job is both to lead and to form and lead other leaders (many of whom highly capable leaders in the marketplace).

For United Methodists, there are particular leadership structures already laid out for us in our Book of Discipline. Instead of a board of deacons or elders, we have various leadership committees dedicated to particular tasks. Sometimes this prescribed structure is very, very helpful: it’s possible to develop a deep and wide lay leadership within the church. Sometimes the structure is very unhelpful: even small churches have slow decision-making processes, and the number of required roles can mean filling leadership positions with bodies rather than placing people according to their gifts and calling.

(I hope this last doesn’t sound like a slight against anyone. In Paul’s bodily terms, sometimes the Book of Discipline calls for a set number of ears, a set number of eyes, a set number of hands, but your church doesn’t have those people, so it just uses whoever is willing to fill prescribed roles. The best pastors and leadership teams get shrewd at this point, through creating alternate structures, re-crafting roles around particular people, and trusting that the Gospel at its heart says that God is creating beautiful things with whatever raw materials we have to offer.)

And then there are the meetings. Even if meetings are good meetings–actually, especially if they are good meetings–they are full of business from beginning to end. But the church is more than a business. In far too many churches, a church meeting is a small business meeting with a prayer at the beginning and maybe at the end, if we remember. Most pastors and most lay leaders long for something better, something that differentiates what we’re doing from what any other institution with a business side is doing. But we don’t know how to do better.

There was some literature several years ago on transforming church business meetings into worship services. You introduce a liturgy, have a call to worship, some prayers, maybe some singing, maybe even celebrate the Eucharist, and in the midst of the worship service is the business meeting. This might work in some settings, but it has massive downsides: 1) It’s difficult to actually enter into worship because of the business that actually does need to be done, and 2) It’s difficult to get all the business done because we’re trying to worship together. I’m glad if that works somewhere, but it sounds like a lose-lose.

So here’s my goal: find a schedule and shared practices for the coming year in which business happens at business meetings, but we also have time for worship and spiritual formation specifically as leaders. The foundational text for thinking through how to do this practically is going to be the ever-excellent Ruth Haley Barton’s Pursuing God’s Will Together: A Discernment Practice for Leadership Groups.