Thursday, January 16, 2014

Few Get Involved

Recently on one of my favorite essay-blogs, by Scott Berkun, someone lamented that “appearances are deceiving,” that the blogospere was not full of thoughtful commenters; instead, the “involved” folks like the ones going onto Berkun’s site were an insignificant minority. People liked my reply:
“If only a minority are involved in life, then I want to be part of that minority.”

This I decided back in high school. At the time, admission to university required certain “academic program” courses, such as algebra and a second language, French.

I coped OK with French for my first year, no doubt because we were on the semester system. The next year I managed to pass too. And the next fall—I failed. Now what? I guess it bothered me that my big peer group, the smart academic students around me, could walk along their academic road leaving me behind. Never mind—I would try French again in the winter semester, along with the other half of the academic students in my grade.  Then, before Christmas, Lady Fortune smiled on us: Surprise! The university announced there would no longer be a second language requirement. Jubilation!

When the winter semester arrived, my golden academic peers totally avoided French—I forget whether this surprised me. For my grade, the school offered only two sections, each filled by only six students. I know, because I was one of them. Call me stubborn!

This time around, to my amazement, I really enjoyed taking French. (I earned a C) As you may recall, young teens, academic and otherwise, are known to talk of feeling bored, trapped and oppressed in their “jail.” They pout, with shoulders drooping, saying, “I hafta (have to) take this.” As I see it: Even if they take a classic about Macbeth and three witches, or Harry Potter and magic, they will complain gloomily, “We hafta take Harry Potter” and for years afterwards they’ll be unable to read him or Macbeth with any pleasure. Furthermore, some of the younger teens will be vandals, supposedly “for kicks” but actually from frustration.

So there I was, with a few kids of high morale, none of us grimacing to say, “I haftta.” How wonderful. Some of the boys and girls in my lively French class, in both sections, went in for track and field. Me too; I have such nice memories.

Meanwhile, at lunch hour, my default was to hang around with a dozen smart academic types who sat and talked of trivial stuff all lunch. I noticed they never joined any clubs, no, not even the audio-visual club. (By the way, this was almost before silicon chips: Next year, in math class, one of us had a slide rule, and only three or four of us had calculators—including me, using my brother’s calculator, as I was desperate to pass… no punch-card style personal-sized computers were anywhere on the horizon, not even as rumors.)

And back in French class, to echo Shakespeare and his Battle of Agincourt, “we happy few, we band of keeners,” were being treated by our French teachers as willing and responsible young adults, being led in the direction we already wanted to go, and not treated as kids needing to be pushed… I decided I really respect volunteers. No wonder my favorite writer and political party member, Robert A. Heinlein, in his book about getting involved in politics, advises: When your party offers you wages, for the work you are already doing as a volunteer, just say no. (To keep their respect and credibility)

Speaking of Agincourt and soldiers, during Vietnam the National Guard was manned by a lot of people who were—“I hafta join”—avoiding conscription, aka Universal Military Training, aka “the draft.” For their training, back then, it could take months, according to a US Marine Corps major I talked with, to bring the group’s standards up. The older man and I would probably never have met over an easy beer—rather, we talked because in the dead of night I volunteered to walk with him at great length when his wife was having a baby—oh, the military secrets I was privy to that night! (I had clearance) I’m sure the National Guard of today is much better.

Meanwhile, I knew well the Canadian reservists. (I was one) They have always struck me as being bright eyed and bushy tailed because they are volunteers, albeit being paid a small salary: If their motivation ever drops below a certain threshold they drop out. As you might imagine, in a time when the city leisure catalogue covers everything from Acting to Zen Archery, when arcades and Gameboys abound, that’s when only a precious few will volunteer to dig a trench in the rain. As compensation, I’m sure, when they sing songs over beer in the warm dry evening, they must find each other’s company quite worthwhile—not a single wimp in the bunch.

Years after high school I entered university. Once again I learned to seek out the involved minority because I found that for many of my fellow students—I couldn’t truly call them my peers—the campus was a glorified high school, something they “have to” attend “to get a good job.”


Partly because—forgetting about we precious few—standards were lowered for expanded enrollment: My campus had to add a fourth year “at the bottom, not the top, as a (glorified) high school make up year,” according to the V-P Academic. (The province next door still has some three-year degrees, like in Britain) In fact, unlike back in my day, high school graduates now have to take a test of basic English before starting. (Sigh!) I guess if they can’t avoid glaring errors in English grammar then no wonder the university thought they should be sheltered from trying to conjugate French verbs.

On my brave new campus... I found only a “precious few” young scholars getting involved in campus activities and eagerly discussing typical student topics like “the meaning of life, the universe and everything.”

Why? Partly because of human nature. Most students, for their odyssey of education, would choose not to be crewmembers straining at the oars in the brisk wind with an interesting view… but instead to be passengers in the dusky musty below-decks. It’s as if they were clones of their non-university peers, except they got to carry textbooks. These students would suddenly discover their school spirit late on Friday and cram like sardinus idiotus into the bar. Meanwhile, the Student Union had arranged for a temporary liquor license up in a nice lounge for a few hours on Friday afternoon. But unless students purveyed the student newspaper, radio or TV, or noticed a discrete sign in the stairwell up past the bar, they wouldn’t know about the Friday lounge. Result? In the lounge gathered the minority who got involved. While the huge campus contained anonymous multitudes, here I knew all the precious faces. No clones and no sardines.

Today as a middle-aged man I notice how, to quote the creator of the International Outward Bound schools, educator Kurt Hahn, “human nature in very prevalent.” It’s queer: The city puts out it’s activities catalogue, as does the volunteer center; newspapers and magazines are full of articles on things to do and the joy of doing them; at community centers, party headquarters and public libraries there are big inviting signs, beckoning people to get involved. Few answer the summons. As for signs, I remember how the average student would walk past numerous bulletin boards all day without ever stopping to read one.

This week I chuckled over a poster on the Vancouver sky train: A skinny guy with a goofy grin wearing a hockey jersey is holding up a brown ceramic Stanley Cup. The caption: Last winter he was gifted with lessons in pottery—Now he is gifting the whole team!

Every year I read magazine articles about people enjoying meaningful activities that teach people about themselves and life, but I suppose, at the end of the day, the majority aren’t motivated to get any further life experience. “OK, live and let live,” I say. Most people genuinely don’t want to, say, get “character training” through recreation, or “develop their leadership.” Good news, then: In the grown up world, there will always be a spot on the team.

On the Internet, most people will find it easier to click and skim than to stop and read, or to think and comment. Hence a post by Scott may have 20,000 readers (by RSS) but only 2 comments.

As for the motivated minority, maybe they are gifted with different glands and temperament, maybe as children they had issues, and… maybe they were tempered in the fire by failing French.

Meanwhile, the popular media shows a scenario of the “jet set,” the “beautiful people,” those “never caught in the fire,” as being people never doing anything more detailed than, say, skiing down a hill. They go out to beaches, nightclubs and parties and then—apparently—more parties and nightclubs. I can’t imagine Paris Hilton dutifully attending a weekly meeting for, say, scrapbooking or for tending community gardens.

Of course, the media could be wrong about the jet set, just as I was wrong back in high school to imagine most college students would get involved. As someone said on Scott’s blog: Appearances are deceiving.

Sean Crawford
Attending a weekly group or two,
~As for the Internet, I proposed that nerds don’t necessarily get involved in reading the Internet, or even books, in my June 2013 essay, Others, Nerds and Readers.

~I archived an essay of involvement, focusing specifically on university, back in June 2010, Of Students, Alumni and Couches.

~Robert A. Heinlein’s book, where he was careful to never reveal the name of his own party, is called Take Back Your Government.

~My favorite web essayist, Paul Graham, wouldn’t conform back in high school, not if conforming meant striving to be popular. Paul Graham writes of being smart in high school in his essay, Why Nerds are Unpopular.

~ Like last week, again I have an excuse to link to the history teachers: Here is Amy Burvall explaining the Battle of Agincourt to the tune of “As Tears Go By” by Marianne Faithful. And speaking of students on an odyssey, here she sings of Odysseus to the tune of “Across the Universe” by the Beatles.



  1. I felt convicted to comment on this. Somehow, I feel that minority is changing, in my sphere of people at least. I am a high school student myself, and our country recently held national elections, and even though we aren't voters, we would still talk about politics, about candidates, about that things, and I wonder why some voters don't even think about their votes. We talk about existence, we talk about religion without flaming each other, we talk about science and stuff like that. But I don't know, maybe there's still a lack of, the chance to act. Talking about something and doing something are still very different, I guess? I don't know myself. In either case, I guess I could agree with your sentiment, that I'd rather be part of an involved minority than a silent majority – and the more I think about it, the more I feel I fall in the latter category.

    Sorry, I just, sigh. It's 12:51 AM, I need to sleep. Sigh.

  2. I think the challenge in life is to keep on doing small things, when the temptation is to do nothing. As I believe the Bible said, and as I know a bank loan man said, "If you can be trusted in small things (loans) then you can be trusted in big." (Big loans)

    As for the big, well, at this point in your young life, "Don't be too hard on yourself." Doing small stuff will always be hard, and that's enough.