It’s Wednesday – Farewell Tour – April 22, 2015

Boker Tov.

I continue to focus on my more favorite or IMHO more important It’s Wednesday columns as the retirement looms. The year 2010 – 2011 was our Israel theme year and there was plenty about that, but the most provocative column – based on your responses – was about the Intel Science Talent Search. You may recall the column – longer than usual but worth reading. I feature it mostly because it showcases one of my favorite aspects of It’s Wednesday, that it helped create a virtual community where we could share what our members and fellow travelers think about issues of the day.

02/16/11

          Boker Tov.

Last week I shared with you the names of the 2011 Montgomery County semi-finalists in the Intel Science Talent Search. The surnames – those there [almost all Asian]  and those missing [Jewish]– caused me to ask certain questions and seek your thoughts on why the names are the way they are and aren’t and whether it matters or not.

You were not hesitant to share your thoughts.  Combined, it’s 21 pages of responses – that’s using a small font. 6857 words according to the software counting system. I am glad I asked you to be brief.

As has been the custom over the years, I will now share some of the comments, picking ones representative of the thoughts shared. Choosing those narrowed the document to a mere 8 pages. It will take two columns [this is the first of the two] to share just a little from those 8 pages. Read as much as you can and have a great Wednesday.

Best regards.  Bill Rudolph

[My wife] and I are both evaluators for the Intel Science Fair. We, too, were amazed at the demographic shifts over the years that we have been doing this. Although Montgomery County did very well in the semi-finals, they have no students in the top 40 finalists. Across the country, students from China, Japan, and South Asia are taking the lead. Many of them were not even born in this country. When we started, Jewish heritage names were common as they were when we taught at City College in New York. You are right in that something has changed, but we don’t know what.  E 

Wall Street…quick and substantial returns on the heavy loans weighing them down. Look at the lineup of rescued banks and who runs them. That’s where our best and brightest go…alas to the detriment of our national interests.  S

The third issue is that the training required to be a science person is far more involved, and incurs greater cost than do the non-science careers.  A Ph.D. takes 5 years, an MD even longer.  The real money doesn’t come until you are well into your 30s.  Yet, a good MBA can be making real money by 30 and moving up the corporate ladder by 35, the age at which many post-docs and medical residents are just getting started.  So, the teenagers who are growing up in a comfortable environment see the easier route and take it.   Not Yet Congregant M

I sent your Wednesday letter to a friend of mine and her response was as follows:  As you may have heard me opine, the Jews left science because there’s no money in it anymore; they are leaving medicine now also for the same reason (unless you are a specialist who has the capacity to deal with processing insurance claims)!  And they will flee law (no jobs) and all be on Wall Street, or tearing down houses in Edgemoor!  T

The “hard press” from parents may also have diminished in part because our society has drawn major attention to the large number of student breakdowns in college, binge drinking, eating disorders, and other psychiatric problems relating to “perfectionism.”  What parent wants to feel responsible for that result?!  Parents would rather prepare their kids to get into good colleges by providing cultural/travel opportunities, schlepping them to sporting events, paying for tutors and college prep advisors, and finding the niche activity that will make their child stand out.  Students still have the burden of getting good grades and test scores – but it is all a means to an end.  Students do not tend to focus on the joy of learning – rather they just want to know that they are keeping their GPA in the range for the colleges of their choice.  Is this sad?  Yes.  But it certainly is practical.  Same T [still learning about brevity]

In my son’s 4th and 5th grade MCPS magnet program, several of the (many) Asian students attended math enrichment classes after school.  Many of these children were bouncing off the walls during the school day, probably because they had so little time to relax after hours.  Most memorably to me, one of the 15 students now on the Intel list — who, like many of these kids, struggled socially — had a father who very vocally drove him to excel academically.  Case in point:  At an orientation program with several hundred parents in attendance, he grilled the presenters regarding opportunities for his son to take calculus during elementary school (as many of us laughed nervously).  Maybe the joke’s on the rest of us; his son has been accepted early to MIT, and now he has this Intel honor as another feather in his cap.  But boy, was he lost socially.  Was it all worth it?  I guess it depends who you ask.  Another Not Yet Congregant, S

Given who [my daughter’s] friends are [mostly Asian American science and math majors] and the intense interest among them in the Tiger Mom phenomenon, we’ve had many dinner table conversations on that subject. [My daughter] says this parenting style explains why the Asian-American kids feel they had “unhappy childhoods.”  At the same time, she (correctly) chastises us for “wanting me to play the piano but not making me practice.” This is the heart of the dilemma, I guess.   She says we should have used “positive reinforcement/rewards” and not the “abusive” techniques of the Tiger Mom. My dilemma as a parent has always been that I don’t believe in “rewards” any more than I believe in “punishments.” (This makes me Neanderthal Mom, I suppose.)  I simply believe in the goodness and abilities of kids to find something meaningful that interests them and to pursue it to the nth degree. I think that’s what I did, and I expected our kids to follow the same path.    But, alas, they often seem less motivated. Why? Perhaps all the distractions (technological, etc.) of the society in which we live and the externalization of all value– What happened to intrinsic rewards, the stuff of the spirit, and why should it be necessary to threaten to burn the stuffed animals to get the kid to practice to get her to feel the intrinsic joy of playing the instrument?   I hope you have an answer, I don’t.   C

The imbalance of the semi-finalists speaks more to select segments of Asian American communities than it does to the Jewish community.  First, we should not rush to envy, competition, nor emulation as we did with the Japanese influence in the 1980’s (the concept of false gods among us).  These 15 kids may well be products of the Amy Chua school of parenting where robots are created emphasizing rote execution rather than creativity.  What then do we make of the dearth of Asians in the writing, arts, and theater fields where Jews may be “overrepresented?”  How much do Amy Chua’s “offspring” contribute to Gemilut Hesed and Tikkun Olam?  And most of all, if there is a “joy” quotient, looking at the kids at Beth El, I would guess they surpass the 15 winners.  So on balance, I think a patient confidence in Jewish values, family, community, and youth will prove trustworthy.  S

          Back to now, 2015. I don’t think this reality is changing, not just on the high school level. Study the home sales in our high-cost real estate neighborhood, check out the surnames of those selling and those buying. More important, I don’t think we are at peace with how much to pressure our kids about their studies, congregant S notwithstanding, if the recent months of tension over college admissions is indicative of anything. We are definitely conflicted about what we want for our kids. I totally understand that. Jewish tradition has two answers: 1) each of us was made the way we are for a purpose and 2) we will be truly rich and successful if we are happy with our portion in life. Those are quaint but good understandings and what we should want our kids to embody.

Ponder all this and have a great Wednesday.   Bill Rudolph

P.S. Today is Yom Hazikkaron, Memorial Day, in Israel. Israel has lost so many to its enemies – 25,858 lives lost in war and terror, 147 soldiers and civilians in the past year. Tonight the mood changes for the celebration of Israel’s 67th year of independence and all this little country has accomplished in that short time; we will include a brief Yom Ha’atzmaut service within the evening minyan, 8:20 – 8:40.  Among the many weekend activities is our last major food theme program, Sunday at 12:15 – the Kugel Cook-Off Luncheon. We have 12 cooks, and kugels and a whole lunch menu for you, who will eat and judge. Please rsvp.  Information on this and much more at www.bethelmc.org or see yesterday’s listserv.