School of Soft Pats

Life is soft for Americans — till about the age of 18, writes Michael Barone in U.S. News. Kids drift along without being held accountable for their actions. Yet incompetent 18-year-olds turn into "remarkably competent" 30-year-olds. One day, they're giving you the wrong change at McDonald's; a few years later, they're knocking down statues in Baghdad.

. . . from the age of 6 to 18, our kids live mostly in what I call Soft America — the part of our society where there is little competition and accountability. In contrast, most Americans in the 12 years between ages 18 and 30 live mostly in Hard America — the part of American life subject to competition and accountability; the military trains under live fire. Soft America seeks to instill self-esteem. Hard America plays for keeps.

Soft America runs the schools.

Educators ban tag and dodge ball, because some kids lose. Teacher unions seek tenure, higher pay, and lower accountability. Parents' expectations are often low: Mom and Dad, busy working in Hard America, don't want to notice that their kids are not learning much. . .

Then at 18, kids encounter Hard America — competitive colleges and universities and community colleges, competitive private-sector employers, training institutions from McDonald's to the military. Some fall behind and don't get much of anywhere. Others seek out enclaves of Soft America — soft corners in the civil service or corporate bureaucracies. But most figure out pretty quickly that how they do depends on what they produce. They develop skills that astonish those who knew them at 18. That is what we have been seeing in the American military forces in Iraq.

Most 18-year-olds go to the College of Soft Pats — and a remarkable number manage to flunk out. Then they get fired from that first job that wasn't good enough anyhow, and maybe from the second job. It takes time to figure out how the world works.

According to a University of Chicago survey, Americans think adulthood starts at 26, once a person has finished school, taken a full-time job and is able to support a family.

Once, it was common for girls to marry at 18; now the survey shows 25.7 is considered the ideal age for marriage, 26.2 the ideal age to start having children. (I've always thought a nine-month gap between marriage and child-bearing was ideal, but I'm old-fashioned.)

For categories other than marriage and having children, the average ages were: financially independent, age 20.9; not living with parents, age 21.2; full-time employment, age 21.2; finishing school, age 22.3; and being able to support a family, age 24.5.

Googling Through College

Kieran Healy is sick of dealing with lazy plagiarists, who can't even be bothered to steal a good essay.

Few things annoy faculty more than plagiarism, particularly when it's poorly executed. (That doesn't mean well-executed copying is better, just that it's a different sort of insult.) Because people who plagiarize are usually also poor students, they tend not to realise that it's obvious when a paragraph of bumbling prose suddenly rises from its own ashes to become lucid and flowing, or even just moderately coherent.

The most annoying sort of plagiarism is the low-expectations variety. To my mind, plagiarism ought to be about copying something really good in order to get a better grade. But for many students, it's just about turning in something that will help them scrape by.

Don't miss the comments. Among the prize examples of idiocy: a paper with the URL printed at the top of each page; identical papers from multiple students; identical papers submitted by the same student in two different classes to professors who happened to be married to each other, a paper that plagiarized the professor's own journal article.

Then there's this:

I had a student who "borrowed" a friend's paper, but she couldn't figure out how to get her friend's name out of the header at the top of every page, so she tore off the right-hand corner of every page.

Coming to the Defense of Minutemen

University of Massachusetts officials debated dumping the Minuteman mascot in favor of "Gray Wolves." The Revolutionary War hero is male and carries a gun in the logo.

Eugene Volokh gets this exactly right. Why is it a "concern" that the Minuteman is carrying a gun?

The Minutemen were soldiers, soldiers fighting in defense of liberty and independence. One needs guns for that sort of thing. We should celebrate those who fought on America's behalf, and we shouldn't hide the fact that to do that, they required deadly weapons.

The problem here, it seems to me, is a moral blindness, a failure to draw significant moral distinctions. Some gun use is evil; some violence is evil; some gun use is good; some violence is good; there's nothing inherently worthy of concern in a person being depicted as carrying a firearm, or a person being depicted for his morally praiseworthy use of violence. I've actually objected to the casual glamorization, including in team names, of Pirates and Buccaneers, evil users of violence. But it's the evil that's the problem, not the Minutemen or their firearms.

Yes! Yes! Yes!

Furthermore, the Minutemen are worthy heroes for Americans "of both sexes and all ethnicities."

Yes, the women aren't literally "men," at least under one definition of "man." But they aren't gray wolves either, are they?

Yes! That is, no! They're not gray wolves. And U-Mass is keeping the Minuteman after all.

Cooling the Jet

For 20 years, Encinal High in Alameda, Calif., proudly displayed a retired fighter jet on its front lawn, and the newly refurbished A4 Skyhawk is due to be reinstalled. But some teachers and parents want to junk the jet. It's a symbol of violence, they say.

"Jets" also is the school symbol. But Alameda Naval Air Station has closed, and few students come from military families anymore, reports the Sacramento Bee.

"I would see it as sort of a leftover from a previous era," (teacher Carlos) Zialcita said. "The parents of our Vietnamese and Cambodian and Afghan kids especially ... have been affected by the tragedies of war, and I think we shouldn't say that that's insignificant or somehow not important."

David Olstad, a volunteer who assists on technical support issues at the school, said, "I'd just as soon see a .357 Magnum blown up and put on a pedestal. I mean, there's no difference to me. It's glorifying violence."

Well, the parents of the Vietnamese, Cambodian and Afghan kids know the tragedies of losing a war; their kids probably have the highest military enlistment rates in the school. And I'd bet there's not a single Vietnamese, Cambodian or Afghan parent on the no-jet committee.

Letters

Michael Martin writes:

AMEN!

I wondered if I was the only one who noticed the nerdification and wussification of society. I am so afraid of public school's attempts to make it so "safe" on campus that we end up with a generation of unthinking, unfeeling robots.

And the idea of getting an injunction to govern the appointing of co-valedictorians? These kids may get their way in school, maybe even in college, but they will have to swim with the sharks eventually. In the real world, when they are forced to make their own way, they will marginalize and tend towards failure, both professionally and personally. Toughness, drive and determination were virtues, the last time I checked. I just really wonder if we all want to have our children growing and developing in such a world of crybaby, temper-tantrum, I'll-hold-my-breath-till-I-get-my-way atmosphere.

Welcome to the age of the whiners!

Thor O'Connell of Peachtree City, Ga., writes:

As a kid, I played kickball and it's slightly more vicious counterpart dodgeball as a child. I also played baseball and football, eventually becoming a swimmer as I entered high school. Competition is an important tool for teaching kids about the real world.

I always knew growing up that everyone was created equal, but that not everyone was of equal ability in all things. It is in recognizing this fact of life and learning to deal with it productively that allows us to succeed later.

These well-meaning teachers are keeping our children from learning the joys of competition and establishing mediocracy where everyone sinks to the lowest common denominator instead of encouraging everyone to strive to the greatest heights they can achieve.

Joanne Jacobs used to have a paying job as a Knight-Ridder columnist and San Jose Mercury News editorial writer. Now she blogs for tips at JoanneJacobs.com while writing a book, Start-Up High, about a San Jose charter school. She's never gotten a dime from Enron.

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