The Quick Sand of Incompetence
“Men now monopolize the upper levels... depriving women of their rightful share of opportunities for incompetence.” Laurence J. Peter
Not every important marker of the economy is traced and measured by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Some revealing indicators are not directly susceptible to measurement. However, that doesn’t make them less real.
What I am thinking about now is the vexed subject of incompetence. In my humble opinion, it has blossomed in full flower in the wake of the COVID pandemic.
We have lived through a crisis and are emerging none the better for it. Albert Einstein is credited with delineating the dynamic uniting problems with incompetence. He is reported to have said:
“Let’s not pretend that things will change if we keep doing the same things. A crisis can be a real blessing to any person, to any nation. For all crises bring progress.
There’s no challenge without a crisis. Without challenges, life becomes a routine, a slow agony.
There’s no merit without crisis. It’s in the crisis where we can show the very best in us. Without a crisis, any wind becomes a tender touch. To speak about a crisis is to promote it. Not to speak about it is to exalt conformism. Let us work hard instead. Let us stop, once and for all, the menacing crisis that represents the tragedy of not being willing to overcome it.”
Einstein’s words can be read as a challenge to overcome incompetence. I see little compelling evidence that his challenge will be taken up. Quite the contrary.
As Einstein righty notes,” Creativity is born from anguish…, incompetence is the true crisis. The greatest inconvenience of people and nations is the laziness with which they attempt to find the solutions to their problems.”
As a traveler with an unbridled wanderlust, I recall vividly the moment I realized that American exceptionalism was a relic of the past. I was in a bar in Hong Kong chatting with a British ex-pat. He drew my attention to the clusters of high-rise apartments sprouting on the horizon. And asked, “Can you tell which units are inhabited by families with school-age children?”
Without considering it carefully, I invited him to continue.
“It is ever so obvious,” he said. “The school-aged children are living in apartments with the lights on at 11 o’clock. They burn the midnight oils to do their homework.”
Little wonder that Hong Kong ranked second in an OECD ranking of educational attainment in a massive global study of school performance involving tests of 15 year-olds in 76 countries.
There was a time when American students would have shined in such a comparison had it been made. Copies of standardized tests that students were required to pass to graduate from the 8th grade early in the 20th century leave little doubt that Americans are less competent than they were in the early decades of the 20th century.
Take a look at these questions. Could you answer questions that children in Kentucky had to master to pass the 8th grade in the early decades of the 20th century:
- How long a rope is required to reach from the top of a building 40 feet high to the ground 30 feet from the base of the building?
- Through what waters would a vessel pass in going from England through the Suez Canal to Manila?
- Name three rights given Congress by the Constitution and two rights denied Congress.
- Name the last battle of the Civil War, War of 1812, French and Indian War, and the commanders n each battle.
- Who invented the following — the magnetic telegraph, cotton gin, the sewing machine, the telephone, and phonograph.”
How did you do with those five questions? Would you have been able to graduate from 8th grade in Kentucky in 1912?
I graduated from Oxford but would be hard-pressed to correctly answer some of those questions.
Perhaps I am mistaken, but I suspect I would fare better on the 8th-grade exam from 1912 than most 8th graders in 2021.
Do I implicate myself as a “grumpy old man” by questioning the educational competence of younger generations? That certainly has been a staple theme in many families, as parents recall working harder and mastering the material in their youth.
Yes. The more history you know, the more evident it is that succeeding generations lack the competence that their forebears were obliged to master.
I was a reader at the Institute for Renaissance Studies in The Folger Shakespeare Library in my lost youth. I still recall my astonishment at the prodigious feats of memory and intellectual gymnastics required of law students in Shakespeare’s day.
Unless you harbor an uncommon fascination with antiquarian interests, you probably would be unaware that the study of English law in Elizabethan England involved verbatim memorization of lectures translated from two dead languages, Latin and Law French.
As you know, William The Conqueror. Duke of Normandy brought French with him after he displaced the old Anglo-Saxon elite under Harold Godwinson (King Harold II), with the Norman victory at the Battle of Hastings on October 14, 1066.
As the old Anglo-Saxon aristocrats were killed or displaced into Wales, French became the language of English aristocrats for many generations. Indeed, Henry IV, who became king in 1399, was the first post-Hastings monarch who spoke English.
By that time, of course, English was quite a different language from the version spoken by King Harold II.
In any event, a fossilized version of William the Conqueror’s French, known as “Law French,” remained in use as the language of the courts Until Oliver Cromwell replaced it completely with English in the 17th century.
Nonetheless, many legal phrases from Law French remain in use in both English and American jurisprudence. For example, “attorney.” (atorné Old French), “Bailiff” (Anglo Norman “steward”), “Chatel.” (Old French for “property”}, “culprit” (from cul. prit abbreviation of “culpable” and “prest d’averrer notre bille” — ready to prove our indictment’) “defendant” (French defendant”) “jury” (Old French “juree” — oath); “tort” (French from medieval Latin “tortum” meaning twisted or wrong).
Those are but a few examples of the legal terms that migrated from Law French into common usage in English legal terminology, not just in England but also in the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and other countries with English legal traditions.
Without a doubt, few, if any, practicing lawyers in the United States today would be competent to absorb a lecture in Law French and simultaneously translate it verbatim into English.
In that sense, we are all incompetent compared to students in the “Inns of Court” in Shakespeare’s day. We can thank technology for the fact that we no longer need to develop our brains to perform prodigious feats of memorization and recall. While printing was invented in 1450, law books were still rare and expensive in Shakespeare’s day.
Likewise, today would be hard-pressed to solve the trigonometry problems in the 1912 exam to graduate from the 8th grade in Kentucky.
Thanks to the late Barney Oliver, inventor of the pocket calculator, there can be a function in your pocket that will tell you the answer if you need to know, “How long a rope is required to reach from the top of a building 40 feet high to the ground 30 feet from the base of the building?”
Barney Oliver took me under his wing when I was at Oxford. He was a divine genius, and I spent many happy hours listening to him explore the frontiers of physics. Every fortnight, he used to convene bi-weekly brainstorming sessions in the best restaurants in Oxford. I felt lucky to be on his invitation list.
Our conversations were always held over good meals. Barney made a point of ordering extravagantly expensive wines. (He quoted Thomas Jefferson, “Life is too short to drink bad wine”).
And he always paid. He was a billionaire in today’s terms.
Trigonometry was more pleasant in Barney Oliver’s form than the legacy version passed down from Pythagoras of Samos, which he probably learned from Sumerian sources.
Whatever the origins of the Pythagorean Theorem, there can be little doubt that by inventing the pocket calculator, Barney Oliver devalued it from a headline feature of everyone’s education to an antiquarian footnote.
In this analysis, I have explored two varieties of incompetence, only one of which poses severe threats to the economy.
The example of the pocket calculator’s antiquating pencil and paper calculation of the Pythagorean Theorem is not a defect but an example of progress.
It entails similar effects in respect to other technological innovations. Many people can no longer remember the person’s phone numbers close to them because they are embedded in the contact files on smartphones.
Equally, many drivers can no longer find their way around the block without activating their GPS. Reading maps and following directions or basic geographic intuition are things of the past to drivers in the habit of following step-by-step directions from GPS systems. Many can no longer figure out their movements on their own.
Of course, as a consumer in North America today, you get plenty of exposure to incompetence that has little or nothing to do with the slack study habits of 8th-grade students.
Barney Oliver didn’t make people incompetent by inventing the pocket calculator. He made us more productive.
Last night, I had an ample dose of another type of incompetence. I took my teenage son to a movie in Miami Beach. Getting in and later out of the parking garage was an aggravating challenge. Then I took him to his favorite fast food joint for a supposedly grass-fed, hormone-free burger.
Actually, I had to drive to two locations. The first we give up on because parking — by then a sensitive subject with me, was impossible.
Then, we had to outwit the Miami Beach traffic Nazis who had made it temporarily illegal to turn right off Washington Avenue for mysterious reasons. After a lot of improvisation and little help from the GPS, we finally made it to a second location.
There we were able to park. A visit to the unsex restroom somewhat spoiled my appetite before I could even order. The facility reeked of vomit as it had on our previous visit a month earlier.
This was nothing other than pure, unvarnished, third-world incompetence. If you managed a restaurant, would you allow the restrooms to stink of vomit? In no way could that improve your bottom line. It sends absolutely the wrong message about sanitary practices in the establishment.
What is the point of advertising that your burgers are made with hormone-free beef and then leave customers gasping with vomit-ridden lavatories?
That signal instance of incompetence informed the rest of our experience. I attempted to order iced tea, but they were “out.”
Later, we learned that their custard was also off the menu due to a lack of inventory. Incompetence again.
Growing up on the Chesapeake Bay, Felix Morley (1894- 1982) was a family friend. I spent many stimulating afternoons discussing how the world was tending. Felix was editor of the Washington Post in the years before World War II, when he earned the Pulitzer Prize in the paper’s history for editorial writing (He left the Post in 1940 to become President of Haverford College).
Felix was a brilliant, superbly educated man, the son of a prominent mathematician who earned a Rhodes Scholarship and a Guggenheim Fellowship to support his academic pursuits.
His bleak opinion of modern journalists was based on an indictment of 20th-century education. He thought contemporary journalists were mostly hopeless because educators no longer required students to master Latin and ancient Greek, meaning that they could no longer read the classics in the original.
Felix Morley was a profoundly conservative man who championed the values of the America in which he grew up. In his youth, education was mostly the province of white males from well-to-do families.
In 1912, when students were taking rigorous exams to graduate for 8th grade, the median education trained in America was 8.1 years of schooling. Only 1.49% of blacks had college degrees.
In reporting that, I hardly embrace the sketchy features of critical race theory. But with resources stetted to increase educational opportunities for all Americans, it is hardly surprising that curricula were trimmed of the requirement that students master Latin and ancient Greek to graduate.
I see no compelling evidence that there would be less incompetence in modern life if you needed a reading fluency in Latin and Greek to qualify for your job.
There is a quicksand of Incompetence gumming up the economy today. I have to hope it becomes a crisis as apparently described by Einstein. “Let us work hard instead. Let us stop, once and for all, the menacing crisis that represents the tragedy of not being willing to overcome it.”
Black and brown managers, male or female, no less than white men, should clean the restrooms and keep inventories of iced tea sufficient to meet demand on hot Miami days.