At first, I planned this post as a self-absorbed rant in the Ashland tradition (although, to be fair, it would most likely have been too self-aware to be Ashlandian in the true fullness of that term). Then, I came across a New York Times op-ed dwelling on the same themes, but in such a servile, milquetoast and half-coherent fashion, that I had to ask:

What the hell is this garbage?

That someone with a professorship in the sciences at a first-tier university such as Georgetown can’t write a readable short essay is no surprise. Who else, after all, shall write our textbooks? Academia is swarming with terrible writers, especially in the STEM fields, although I’d be remiss not to note that my non-science “field,” history, also has surprisingly many shitty writers.

Two things, however, set the author of this op-ed, Cal Newport, apart from the competition. First, as he made clear in his  navelgazing introductory paragraph, by the time he graduated from college, he “had also just handed in the manuscript of my first nonfiction book, which opened the option of becoming a full-time writer.” This overachiever’s other options were “a job offer from Microsoft and an acceptance letter from the computer science doctoral program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.” The Times’ readership was treated to a bunch of retrospective bellyaching about how this poor eager beaver couldn’t decide which of three very prestigious offers to accept, any one of which would have been out of the league for most of his audience. (Keep in mind that real overachievers don’t allow themselves the time to read America’s wordiest broadsheets.)

Times readers were also treated to the illogic (probably just sloppy writing) that submitting a manuscript “opened the option” of becoming a professional writer. It did not. Either Newport had turned in the manuscript pursuant to a deadline, probably in fulfillment of an advance contract, in which case the option was already open, or else he dumped it on a publisher’s slush pile, in which case the option existed only in his dreams. It was probably the former, but this “full-time writer” did a poor job of eliminating the latter as a fourth “option.” I, for one, expect better of professional writers. As an unpublished rank amateur who puts in anywhere from about five to twenty hours a week honing the old craft, which is a very pretentious way to phrase it, I rarely, if ever, self-publish anything so sloppy. There should be no need for a fluent reader to reread a Times op-ed in the hope of understanding what the fuck the author is trying to convey. This is to say that Professor Newport and the Times copy editors, if any, assigned to his piece were less competent in their work for a national newspaper of record than I am in my work for a blog that has fewer than 2,000 lifetime hits.

The second thing that sets Newport apart from other shitty academic writers is that he produced such a disjointed essay on a nebulous topic that he could have taken in any direction he wished. His were not the clunky transitions that one finds in Thomas Sowell’s economic histories, whose narrative flow is disrupted by Sowell’s insistence on incorporating huge numbers of discrete facts with full citations. Sowell sometimes does a mediocre job on transitions in his very scrupulous historical publications; Newport did an even worse job on transitions in a think-piece-cum-mini-memoir about the very fuzzy concept of “passion.” It’s worth noting that Sowell’s syndicated columns, which are purposely written as essays rather than research publications, usually have better narrative flow than his histories. It’s also worth noting that although he is rarely eloquent, he is a very competent writer. If Thomas Sowell were a police officer, he would probably write some of the best incident reports in the district. If Cal Newport were a police officer, he would probably be the kind of cop whose reports drive the watch commander up the stationhouse wall. Unconstrained by the need to provide precise details, given a degree of literary license that doesn’t even occur to the average historian, he turned in a piece that combined off-putting narcissism with trite namedropping (he put in a plug for Daniel Pink, a social science writer who is apparently another overrated Malcolm Gladwell type) and appalling disorganization.

Newport’s piece was also a cleverly disguised managerial class screed. This assumes that he’s sentient enough to recognize how useful his condescending, yet overwhelmingly anecdotal, writing is to managers who would like to crack the whip on the help, but do so by proxy so that their own fingerprints don’t come into evidence. Dude has either self-awareness or ethics; he doesn’t have both. That’s all there is to it. You simply don’t waste a newspaper column with smarmy proclamations of your own superiority over less ambitious people who quit unpleasant jobs in search of better ones if you’re a reasonable person of goodwill.

My guess is that Newport is missing the reasonable part. He doesn’t seem like a person who has ever had to defer his true professional interests in order to make a living at a Denny’s or a tool and die factory. By his own description, he had too many options as he approached graduation. Now, as a professor at one of the most prestigious colleges in the United States, he’s decided to descend from the ivory tower for a moment to helpfully advise the rest of us–who for the most part do not have book advances, job offers from Microsoft, or PhD acceptance letters from MIT, let alone all three–to stick it out in our shitty jobs because we’ll totally start enjoying them once we mount the learning curve. The job traits that he describes as ideal, namely “a sense of autonomy and the feeling that you’re good at what you do and are having an impact on the world,” are not ones that can reasonably be expected from most jobs at any level in the US. In much of the world, the “options” problem is solved by the realization that you’ll spend your career in the rice paddies, just like everyone in your family has always done, so this whole self-actualization thing is something of a First World Problem, but the goal of Newport’s piece, of course, is to empower America’s younguns find greater satisfaction in their work, not to empower them to be debased to the lifestyle and expectations of the Burmese peasantry.

Or maybe it is. This young professor is very reminiscent of some of the eager beaver dipshits who had staff positions in the Lebanon-Lancaster Council of the Boy Scouts of America. I started paying attention to those freaks when one of them stormed onto the stage at a lock-in at the Lebanon Valley Mall and stopped a troop’s performance of the Grateful Dead’s “Casey Jones” midverse on the bizarre basis that it glorified drug use. This idiot didn’t recognize that the song recommends cocaine use as a great way to get dead in a train crash. To return to Cal Newport, but more smoothly than the professor himself comes full circle, the portrait that he agreed to have printed alongside his op-ed shows him standing among the desks in a lecture hall, smirking and stroking his chin in a sort of Rodin “Thinker” pose. Seriously, he would be a perfect fit as a counselor at Camp Bashore, yelling at a bunch of pimply misfits because he’s sure they’ve been huffing rubber cement.

There are ways to be photographed without looking self-important. For that matter, there are ways to write without sounding self-important. Newport chose to do neither.

Instead, he chose to toot his own horn in the Gray Lady by way of chiding people half a generation his junior to ask “not ‘What is this job offering me?’ but, instead, ‘What am I offering this job?'” We who are of such inferior ambition and mettle to Professor Newport should just try sticking around and paying our dues instead of jumping ship when things get tough. This computer science professor is all worked up about workplace turnover, which is exactly what has America’s managers, so called, getting their panties into a bunch when they aren’t going about firing their staff without cause.

We kiddos aren’t trying hard enough. If only we really gave it the old college try, we, too, might come to be thrilled with our jobs, just like Professor Newport.

Or we might be JDs working at Starbucks.

As with any proper managerial class snit, Newport’s doesn’t mention whether management plays a role in the suckitude of the American workplace. The problem is with kids these days. They’re too demanding. They unrealistically expect that they’ll be able to find jobs that fit their interests. And whatever deficiencies exist in their workplaces are obviously their fault, not management’s. The newbies are incompetent greenhorns, so there’s no reason to imagine that management might be a bunch of incompetent lifers. These aren’t mutually exclusive propositions, but it’s telling when a writer carries on about labor’s faults without writing a word about whether management is actually doing its job.

For example, do the line managers know what the hell is going on in field training, or have they completely delegated responsibility to a bunch of untrained youngsters while they themselves either run around the office having public meltdowns or else Zen out in front of their computers and tell field employees that the scope of work is “whatever you want it to be?” Does the field equipment work? (Probably not.) Is there anyone in the office who can troubleshoot AutoCAD, or does it have to be done remotely from Piscataway? (Hint: Piscataway.)

The environmental consulting company that I just described, where I worked for six months, was, as far as I could tell, one of the better run in the industry. It could be an awful place to work, but most of my brief encounters with the competition were worse. A smugly self-actualized bloke like Cal Newport may not be able to conceive of this, but there are reasons for high turnover in industries other than the staff being by disposition a bunch of quitters. Churn is exactly what you’ll get if your company’s personnel management consists of line employees playing musical chairs with cutthroats while being supervised, but really ignored until shit hits the fan, by disengaged, dejected lifer dogs.

Are there reasons not to quit such a company? Yes. Are there reasons to quit? Again, yes. It’s a judgment call, often a difficult one. Cal Newport can’t make it for you, although he’d like to try.

You may wonder about what companies do to increase retention. Like, maybe they try to see what other companies are doing and then copy it. Yeah, right. Best practices aren’t something that HR actually examines and then implements; they’re something that HR talks about to no end in between rounds of Covey training. I generalize, but not as much as I wish. What you probably want to do is apply to companies that have low turnover, or else have high turnover among vagabond employees who have no stick-to-it-iveness but at least aren’t all bitchy about their jobs, like maybe Starbucks. But good luck getting any kind of readable signal through the ether to Starbucks’ hiring managers, or competing with the 53-year-old grandfathers who have stopped quitting their barista jobs.

This is the point at which some self-important business consultant or business writer type is liable to swoop in and make a bunch of noise about how good companies with low turnover hire only the best applicants, in contrast to all the other companies that hire nothing but dipshits. There’s something to this, but it’s half-cocked, and probably by design. The managerial types who buy books and magazines on HR bollocks enjoy being flattered by sycophants. They don’t enjoy being told that they have real room for improvement, particularly if it’s the kind of improvement that comes about by their holing up in their offices and playing Angry Birds instead of pretending to “manage” their victims. The workplace self-help press is geared to the sensibilities of these sniveling losers and their delusions of grandeur.

Of course, this sector of the press barrages the wider market of job-seekers with biased advice on the same theme, to the effect that the applicant is unworthy and that the self-flagellation should continue until morale improves. The kind of people who buy books on how to find a job are very much interested in learning how to expediently flatter those with hiring authority, but there’s also a social control purpose to these publications. The “How to Land a Job for Dummies” press isn’t particularly interested in how employers retain their employees by not treating them like shit or leaving the joint in the hands of total boneheads. Actually, part of it is; that’s the part that compiles the lists of best employers, best work-life balance, most room for advancement, and so on. Most of the rest, however, is whip-cracking by proxy.

This is, after all, the era of “human resources.” Normally, when one thinks of resources one thinks of things like timber, coal, and aluminum, which are considered “natural resources,” or maybe “research resources,” which might be books, microfilm, or a Lexis-Nexis database. The old term which “human resources” replaced, “personnel,” conferred a sense of what might be called personhood on the help. They were people, and that was all there was to it. Management didn’t disingenuously claim to reaffirm their humanity in the same breath as it classified them as “resources,” with the implication that its real goal was to serve man.

Yes, it’s a cookbook. More to the point, though, HR wants the help to be interchangeable parts, but interchangeable parts with “self-starting” initiative. Those of us who haven’t fallen up into positions of hiring authority are evidently a hybrid of standardized bolts and MRE heating elements, or something like that. HR really wants to have it both ways. Many companies are led by people who regard their employees as so many pitot tubes that can be swapped in and out of the organizational A330. The main philosophical debate in management circles, then, is whether new hires should be expected to “hit the ground running” as loyal pitot tubes or should be given time and support to “develop their potential” as pitot tubes.

As a wise classmate once told me, “every analogy at some point becomes a disanalogy,” which is exactly what this one is becoming. (Still, it wasn’t stupid by self-help publication standards.) In particular, consider that truly high-stakes businesses, like airlines, don’t have as much latitude to pull this kind of shit with their staff as AECOM and Wal-Mart do. It’s because, you know, they might have a fucking plane crash and probably kill everybody. (There’s no accounting for Air France, or for the joy I take in dogging on French aviation or, as I like to call it, amphibious aviation. Merde alors.)

Oh, and they have to provide the in-depth training and supervisory support that my bosses at the environmental consulting firm didn’t, because the goddamn FAA just might ground all their MD80s if they don’t, and regardless of how bad American has gotten, it isn’t happy when the Mad Dog ain’t flying. The airlines don’t just hire better people. They also train better people. They also realize that if they don’t treat their staff well, or maybe even if they do, they’ll have a shitload of mechanical write-ups at pushback time. Even if the FAA likes the way you bundled the wiring on your Mad Dogs, your pilot group may not.

Do I have all the solutions to these problems? Hell, no. This is because I’m not a smug little shit with pat answers for problems faced by people who don’t have a third of the opportunities I’ve enjoyed. For all I know, Cal Newport may be a swell gent in person, but as an op-ed writer he sure isn’t one. His half-cocked short-form memoir is no substitute for the personal judgment of people who are stuck in bad work environments and having difficulty balancing the benefits of leaving versus staying.

There’s another weird thing: Newport let academia off the hook, too. Here we have a professor at a liberal arts college publishing a rambling screed about how kids don’t have enough focus to develop real competencies but ignoring the possibility that the liberal arts model contributes to their dilettantism.

Dare I say that we have a possible conflict of interest here? The problem with the liberal arts isn’t that they’re somehow fundamentally evil, but for God’s sake they don’t encourage focus. They just don’t. It’s that simple. Colleges pester their students to scatter their attention across half a dozen academic disciplines and various formal extracurricular activities (many of which are nothing but extraneous, resume-padding rubbish), and then they wonder why their alumni end up unfocused and ambivalent.

I think I need John Stossel to tell Billy Fish to give me a fucking break. Frankly, the liberal arts have spent the past century or more in the United States trying to make themselves relevant by hijacking professional training programs and insinuating themselves as educational loss-leaders. Liberal arts professors and administrators have made a point of emotionally blackmailing the public with threats that if the liberal arts lose their formal institutional protection, the citizenry will inevitably coarsen into a race of semiliterate know-nothing idiots.

This is a particularly ridiculous proposition coming from Billy Fish, who is superficially cultured, lettered and refined but who traffics revisionist bullshit as official institutional history in furtherance of his efforts to operate Alma Mater as a kickback racket. This is a man who excoriated the student body over an off-color but witty athletic team T-shirt that poked fun of the college’s real name (which is certainly not one of irresistible phallic oppression) on the basis that it brought the college into disrepute, then subsequently tried to soften his image by publicly reading a thoroughly gratuitous fictional dialogue that had all the refinement of a Reggie Jackson press conference.

Full-time liberal arts education is a shit model for anyone who is disorganized or unfocused, but it’s too prestigious and lucrative for reform to come from within, and probably only the Justice Department can stop bullshit artists like Billy Fish from grossly exaggerating the value of the education that their institutions provide. As I’ve described before, Alma Mater is part high-minded intellectual endeavor, part South Philadelphia mob racket, part Prosperity Gospel scam. And that’s just one institution. More broadly, the model of the liberal arts degree as employment credential is a hopeless morass.

Don’t expect the New York Times to seriously question the value of a shoddy model that is held so precious by its yuppie readership, or to find the misplaced publication standards that might have made Cal Newport do some editing.

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