Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Education: Whatever Works

I've finished up my Ike biography (though perhaps not finished writing about it).  I've moved on to Walter Borneman's The Admirals--a group bio of Leahy,* King, Halsey and Nimitz who stood at the forefront of the Navy in World War II.  The fascinating parallel is not just the war stuff (actually, I  haven't got to the war part of Borneman yet), but the stuff about all these guys before they were famous--"Ike before Ike" and so forth.  And the inevitable question: for any of the five could we have known on graduation day that they were bound for greatness?  And the related question: what (if anything) about their experience and education prepared them for what they became?

As to "could we have known," one kind of answer is easy:  "of course not,"   because we didn't know that there would be a global war at just the time they were positioned for high command.  But this is a cop-out.  Remember the precise question, and beware the problem of 20-20 hindsight.  Had we been present as they walked down the aisle, would we have said "he's the one!"--?   I grant that I can't give a conclusive answer but I doubt it.  By Borneman's account (with Smith's), only one of the five seems to have been impelled by naked ambition from the beginning.  That would be King who never shied from telling people that he intended to make it to the top and that he deserved to be there.  Yet that kind of ambition can damage a career just as often as it pushes one forward, and in King's case, I wouldn't be at all surprised to find there were people who would have taken the chance to derail him if it came their way.

Another of the four Navy men--Leahy, the oldest, though apparently less brazen about it than King, does seem to have shown remarkable foresight in picking his protectors.  He signed up early in the club of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, then Undersecretary (but de facto boss) of the Navy, and formed a bond that lasted through FDR's time in the White House.  But did Leahy know in the 20s that he had backed the right horse (maybe a better metaphor would be "yacht").  The question answers itself.  Picking Roosevelt as protector may show nothing more than good luck.

The other two Navy men--Nimitz and Halsey--seem less focused on the very top rung.  Or at any rate, more happy with their day to day work: both men just seemed to enjoy being sailors.  Of the four, so far I find Nimitz more likeable--Nimitz who, after all, once plunged into the ocean to rescue an enlisted man.  Great for PR, I must say: maybe Paul Ryan should push somebody into Lake Michigan, so he can pull him out.  Or maybe Mitt Romney can push Pau--but I digress.

Perhaps what they do have in common is a quality somewhat more abstract: a capacity for learning from experience, a knack for taking something out of the job every day, of building  book of skills and intuitions that will serve them in their different ways when, as and if.

Back to the particular matter of schooling.  Evidently Annapolis was pretty much of an intellectual backwater in those days.  In pure academics, King did well; the others less so.  But in retrospect it is hard to see how the classroom experience --or deficiency thereof--had much to do with their careers one way or another.  Aside from the Borneman bio, another thing I stumbled on today was a post from the personal blog of James Kwak, he better known as co-proprietor of  Baseline Scenario.  Regular blog-shoppers will know that Kwak graduated last year from Yale Law School-in his 40s--after a career (or careers) of stunning variety   Here's a bit he wrote back as he entered his final semester at YLS:
In the long run, what I’ve learned is that being good at school is not that important in the real world. In the business world, for example, academic and intellectual skills are far less important than the ability to pick up a phone, call someone you hardly know who doesn’t owe you anything, and get him to do something for you — and that’s something they don’t teach in any school. In the academic world, even, the skills you need to take classes are far less important than the ability to identify promising research areas and convince other people (particularly funders) that they are promising areas of research. And of course, in life as a whole, being able to get along with other people and enjoy your time with your family and friends is more important than just about anything. But that’s made law school even more enjoyable in some ways, because it’s this little cocoon where I can forget how complicated life can be outside the classroom.

*Leahy or Leahey?  The preferred spelling seems to be "Leahy," but "Leahey" is widely reported, including at least once on the book's Amazon page.  And yes, Nimitz.

1 comment:

bjdubbs said...

Interesting. Nimitz.