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  • Glenn Sonnenberg

Musings from the Bunker 3/4/21

Good morning! HISTORY BOOKS WORTH A LOOK Les Bider suggests two books, but I have a few others…:

  • The Zealot and the Emancipator and the Struggle for American Freedom,” by H.W. Brands. It is well reviewed; I haven’t read it yet. But this is purported to be a great story juxtaposing John Brown and Abraham Lincoln, representing two different approaches to dealing with the tragedy of slavery. Brands is incredible. If you haven’t read any of his works yet, try these “greatest hits”:

  • The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin

  • Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times

  • The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace


  • JFK: Coming of Age in the American Century, 1917-1956, by Frederick Longevall. I have commented about this one already. It’s a great story of JFK, the Kennedy family and their times. I recommend it highly. For a view of the Kennedy administration and the complications of leadership, I really recommend David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest.

THOUGHTS ON ASPIRING FOR THE TOP QUARTILE I wrote a couple of weeks ago that one should aspire to be very good at something but that it isn’t necessary (or perhaps even advisable) to be among the absolute the best. My thesis is that, while it’s a laudable goal to be in the top 1% in any one area, perhaps it is best for us as individuals and as a society that we all strive to be well-rounded and I referenced aspiration to be in the “top quartile.” Is it better to be a great ice skater, devoting thousands and hours toward a short moment in the sun at the Olympics or is it better to be a person of many interests and achievements that can last a lifetime? There is no “right answer,” of course. But here are some thoughts: Well-rounded means liberal arts. Peter Bain observes that being well-rounded is connected to the importance of a liberal arts education: “Your discussion of “top quartile” resonated with me. As I read it, I kept thinking, “This is a great formulation of why I love the liberal arts.” I have a welling dread as I watch our higher education system creep ever more towards specialization. I also confess a…deep fondness for my own New England liberal arts college (Trinity), as well as its northeast colleagues [and its] venerable cousins in the south (Washington & Lee, Davidson), Midwest (Dennison, Kenyon), and dare I even say way out there with you on the left coast (Pomona!). These colleges, in my view, consistently prepare folks to function in the top quartile across a broad spectrum of functions, equipping them with both curiosity and nimble problem-solving habits.” Peter is on to something. Our educational system is being pulled in multiple directions. “New math,” the focus on reading books that don’t offend, and the view that education should be a vehicle for furthering political objectives all detract from the more basic mission. But what it is missing out on is an education that trains in language, math, and argument. Further, we should try to inculcate a broad-ranged appreciation for the arts, for our shared history, for our shared challenges, and for how to be better citizens, voters, and actors in a complex society. The educational system should prepare people for the workplace (a task it doesn’t seem to do that well) but also inform better citizens. The Pleasures of Mediocrity. Renee Marlin observes that life isn’t a competition: “I must disagree with the striving for the top quartile in all things. Definitely go ahead and strive for the top quartile in some things (if you must), but it’s ok to enjoy something you’re not great at. I don’t have time or patience to be in the top quartile of people who crochet or knit. But I can whip up some pretty granny squares or a serviceable scarf, and I enjoy the process. Crocheting and knitting is pleasant. I don’t need to succeed at it.” Renee mentions running and exercise as things at which she’s good enough: “At some point, I realized that being willing to be mediocre at something opened up possibilities for new experiences in life. And that gives me joy. Of course, I am driven to attain excellence in some things, but I dislike the notion of ranking myself. I want to be an excellent scholar and teacher. I also pride myself in being an excellent home cook. The pursuit of excellence is fine, but striving for the top quartile makes life into a competition. My ranking depends on the success or failure of others. I don’t grade my students on a curve; why should I grade myself that way?” Even being at the median is good enough. An unnamed reader suggests that even good enough is good enough: “For any of us to reach the top quartile in any thing is a life's major achievement, and likely beyond the reach of most. More to the point, there remains a perceptible gulf between those born to certain skills and those who push to acquire them while lacking any innate ability. For example, putting every last shred of supposed modesty aside, I think I am smarter than the average bear, and that through nothing more than the happy accident of being wired a certain way, coming across the right family and friends, having extraordinary resources, and living in an enlightened community in an enlightened era, I am pretty wise. Nevertheless, despite good schooling, hard work, and a singular professional focus for the past 40 years, I doubt that I am among the top quartile [at what I do]. But I have been able to make a decent living at it. My point, perhaps you should make your cut-off the top half instead -- still a remarkable and noteworthy achievement in most lives, not accomplished without significant time and effort.” I agree. Being just good enough is, well, good enough. My point is that the striving to be among the best makes us better. Striving to be among the absolute best will drain our energies from so many other pursuits and, in most cases, result in disappointment. But striving and simply achieving enough is good enough. I think we all can agree! LIFE-LONG LEARNING Apropos to the idea of learning new things even if we’re not good at them, Bob Badal suggests Tom Vanderbilt’s new book, Beginners--The Joy and Transformative Power of Lifelong Learning. If nothing else, it will give you a deep respect for what toddlers must go through in learning the ropes of becoming human! FORGIVENESS I’ve written a lot about forgiveness and mutual understanding. I got this from Brad Mindlin, as wise an observer of the current world as there is: “The apology by Grant as President really stayed with me. Many people feel that an apology shows signs of weakness. I disagree. I think that apology shows signs of growth and ownership. I remember my father once apologizing to me when I was a child. I don’t remember what he did but I do remember my feeling. I remember thinking more of my father and loved him and respected him even more. Even a child understands fairness and equity. Maybe even more than adults. He owned up to what he did and I felt like he was fair and a good man. I also believe that the people of America understand fairness. We know how to forgive as long as the person owns up to a transgression.” Would that our leaders understood this simple observation… Stay safe, Glenn

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