Category Archives: Philosophy

Selfish ‘Public Servants’

I see this not only in public service, but in all areas of life. Natural outcome when nothing restrains the individual.

Sometimes the most obvious thing is the most unnoticed. I find myself thinking this week about the destructive force of selfishness in our political life. This common failing is the source of such woe! Politicians call themselves public servants, so they should be expected to be less selfish than the average Joe ; their views and actions should be assumed to be more keenly directed toward the broad public good. But no one expects that of politicians anymore, and they know it and use the knowledge to justify being even worse than they’d normally be. “If I have the name, I might as well have the game.”

They are the locus of selfishness in the modern world.

Chris Christie’s problem isn’t that he’s a bully, it’s that he’s selfish. Barack Obama isn’t stupid and therefore the maker of mayhem, he’s selfish.

There isn’t a staffer on the Hill who won’t tell you 90% of members are driven by their own needs, wants and interests, not America’s. The former defense secretary, Bob Gates, has written a whole book about it, and the passages in which he speaks most plainly read like a cry from the heart. The chaplain of the Senate, Barry Black, made news a few months ago because he’d taken to praying that the character of our representatives be improved. “Save us from the madness,” he prayed one morning last October. “We acknowledge our transgressions, our shortcomings, our smugness, our selfishness.” The single most memorable thing I ever heard from a Wall Streeter was from one of its great men, who blandly explained to me one day why certain wealthy individuals were taking an action that was both greedy and personally inconvenient to them. “Everyone wants more,” he said, not in a castigating way but as one explains certain essentials to a child.

People in public life have become more grasping, and less embarrassed by it. But the odd thing, the destabilizing thing as you think about it, is that we’re in a crisis. We’ve been in it since at least 2008 and the crash, and the wars. We are in unprecedented trouble. Citizens know this. It’s why they buy guns. They see unfixable America around them, they think it’s all going to fall apart. In Washington (and New York) they huff and puff their disapproval: Those Americans with their guns, they’re causing a lot of trouble. But Americans think they’re in trouble because their leaders are too selfish to face challenges that will do us in.

What’s most striking is that in a crisis, you don’t expect business as usual. You expect something better from leaders, you expect them to try to meet the moment.

Mr. Christie is a great talent, a political figure of real and natural gifts. What has jeopardized his position is not that he’s gruff, in-your-face, insistent—a bully. It’s that he’s been selfish. In 2012 he was given a star role, keynote speaker at the GOP national convention. His speech was strong, funny and ran about 2,340 words. But it took around 2,000 of them before he got to a guy named Romney. Everything else was “The greatest lesson that mom ever taught me . . . When I came into office . . . I have an answer.” The GOP nominee needed a boost from blue-state man, but there wasn’t much in it for blue-state man. He’d only get Republican cooties on him. So he played it like a vanity production and made a speech about himself.

That wasn’t a major sin—it’s only politics, not policy. But it fit in with his effusive embrace of Mr. Obama in the days before the 2012 election. Any governor would show strategic warmth for a president in charge of ladling out federal money after disaster. But Jersey was about to re-elect president Obama by nearly 18 points, and Mr. Christie wanted to win over Democrats when he ran the next year.

He was already going to win big. But he had to win bigger, had to have more.  Again, not much of a sin. But when Bridgegate came, it seemed to fit the pattern—he’ll ding you when he doesn’t have to, even if it makes local citizens cry, to gain an advantage, to get more. Whoever made the call, selfishness is at the heart of the scandal.

There’s an increasing sense in our political life that in both parties politicians call themselves public servants but act like bosses who think the voters work for them. Physicians who routinely help the needy and the uninsured do not call themselves servants. They get to be called the 1%. Politicians who jerk around doctors, nurses and health systems call themselves servants, when of course they look more like little kings and queens instructing the grudging peasants in how to arrange their affairs.

Which gets us, inevitably, to the King of I, who unselfconsciously claims ownership of . . . everything. “My military,” “my White House,” “my cabinet,” “my secretary.” The president does first person singular more than Mr. Christie does. But his actions are so much more consequential, because they’re national and because they play out in the area of policy.

The president’s health-insurance reform had to be breathtaking, mind-bending, historic. It had to be a Democratic Party initiative only. It required a few major lies to gain passage, but what the heck.  It was political selfishness that blew up the American health-care system. And it’s the public, in this and other messes, that’s left holding the bag. But as government gets bigger the bag gets bigger, and people will get tired of carrying it. They’re already tired.

I close with the selfishness story of the week, the stunning New York Post expose on Public School 106 in Far Rockaway, a neighborhood in the borough of Queens. The grade school is a poster child for the indifference of those who are supposed to be helping the country. There are no gym or art classes, the Post’s Susan Edelman reported. The library is a junk room; the nurse’s office lacks essentials; there are no math or reading books for the Common Core curriculum. Kids are left to watch movies. Kindergartners are shunted off to dilapidated trailers. The principal, Marcella Sills, often doesn’t show up for work, or swans in near the end of the day. School staff were afraid to speak up because they feared retribution from Ms. Sills or the teachers union.

When the Post broke the story, the city’s Department of Education sent an inspector. The principal actually showed up early that day. The school took delivery of some books. Everyone was in high spin mode. The union will look to the union’s interests, Ms. Sills will no doubt see to hers, the new city administration will try to limit embarrassment, handle the fallout and change the subject. But you couldn’t read the stories without thinking: Who’s looking out for the kids? And what’s happening to us?

Someday history will write of our era, and to history the biggest scandal will be the thing we all accepted in our leaders, chronic and endemic selfishness. History will be hard on us for that.
Peggy Noonan: Our Selfish ‘Public Servants’ –


Love & Math

I don’t think I’m very good at it, but something deep down tells me it so worth loving.
The words love and math aren’t usually uttered in the same breath. But mathematician Edward Frenkel is on a mission to change that, uniting the terms in both his recent film, “The Rites of Love and Math,” and upcoming book, “Love and Math.” Both are attempts to bridge the gap between his passion for math and the popular appetite for it.

“You say the word ‘math’ and people shut down,” says Mr. Frenkel, sitting outdoors in New York’s Bryant Park. In his book, to be published in October, the tenured professor at the University of California at Berkeley argues that the boring way that math is traditionally taught in schools has led to a widespread ignorance that may have even been responsible for the recession.

“It’s like teaching an art class where they only tell you how to paint a fence but they never show you Picasso,” he says of elementary school math classes. “People say, ‘I’m bad at math,’ but what they’re really saying is ‘I was bad at painting the fence.’ ” Love is a different story, though. “People might think they hate math but everyone loves love,” he says. “I want to put more love into math.”

And Mr. Frenkel, a youthful, puckish 45-year-old with a slight Russian accent and a flair for fitted shirts and tailored jeans, hopes to be math’s next leading man. With YouTube videos of his lectures at UC Berkeley viewed by hundreds of thousands of people—”and that’s even the most boring stuff,” he adds—Mr. Frenkel does indeed talk about math adoringly. “It is this great connector,” he says. “Nobody can take it away from us.” What he means is that while the philosopher Pythagoras lived over 2,000 years ago, his theorem still exists today; it holds true across cultures, time and space. “How many things have the same endurance?” he asks. Mathematical formulas “have a quality of inevitability.”

Mr. Frenkel’s own career was far less assured. He says growing up Jewish in Russia in the 1970s and 1980s all but guaranteed rejection from Moscow State University, the primary place in Moscow to study “pure” mathematics (as opposed to applied mathematics, which is math as it relates to other disciplines, like engineering). On top of that, Mr. Frenkel’s grandfather was an enemy of the state and had been sent to the gulag for eight years. Mr. Frenkel’s father had applied to the university’s physics department himself in the 1950s but was denied entry. “That story stayed with me and in some ways I feel like I’m fulfilling his dream as well as mine,” says Mr. Frenkel.

He applied to the university anyway at age 16; the examiner failed him, as he expected. “Being Jewish in Russia was not an issue of religion—there was no religion—it was really just ethnicity, blood,” he says. Despite the failure, after the test his examiner asked him, “How do you know mathematics so well?” Mr. Frenkel had learned it from a family friend who was a college math professor. The examiner advised him to apply to a different school, now called the Gubkin Russian State University of Oil and Gas, because, as Mr. Frenkel recalls him saying, “They take people like you.” He got in.

“I was lucky,” he says. “Unfortunately hundreds if not thousands of classmates didn’t have that opportunity, and their careers were broken, their lives were broken.” He and his friends from “Oil and Gas,” as it was called, used to scale the fences of Moscow University, which had a better known program, and sneak into classrooms to listen in on lectures.

By his second year, Mr. Frenkel managed to solve a math problem complicated enough to warrant its publication in a journal with international reach. His next paper caught the attention of Harvard University’s math department, which invited him to visit just before he turned 21. “I thought the Soviet Union wouldn’t let me travel abroad,” he remembers, but the Iron Curtain was starting to come down and he was allowed to go.

He arrived at Harvard as a 21-year-old visiting professor in 1989. “I bought myself the coolest jeans I could find, and I got myself a Walkman,” he remembers, laughing. He went on to earn his Ph.D. at Harvard and eventually became a professor there, until the University of California at Berkeley recruited him in 1997. Mr. Frenkel spends most of his time working on the subject broadly known as the Langlands program, researching a grand unified theory of mathematics, linking various fields such as number theory, quantum physics and geometry.

He is also an advocate of the Common Core State Standards Initiative, a set of academic standards he thinks should be applied nationally. He complains that varying state requirements make as much sense as doorways of different heights. And if more schools abolish core curricula—an idea proposed by some academics lately, to allow more focused students to take only the classes that interest them—he fears private schools would become the only ones to make difficult subjects like algebra mandatory. “So what’s going to happen if you eliminate math or make it selective? The 1% is going to know mathematics,” he says.

The other problem with the public’s meager mathematical knowledge is its role in the global economic crisis. “Mathematical models were misused” by financial institutions, says Mr. Frenkel. “People who were in charge did not fully understand them but were using them anyway.”

Mr. Frenkel thinks that the only way a mathematical dialogue will begin is if it becomes part of everyday discussion and attracts the interest of those who never thought they were good at it. So he came up with the idea for “The Rites of Love and Math,” and worked with a director to write, produce and direct the film. In it, a mathematician (played by Mr. Frenkel) finds a formula for love, which he realizes is so powerful it has to be hidden. So he hides it by tattooing it on his female love interest.

“Being Russian I am very sentimental,” he says, smiling. “I liked the idea that it could get under your skin and it could become part of you.”

Mr. Frenkel shows the film at various screenings and has made it available on DVD and online. At the end of every screening, he says, someone always raises a hand to ask what the formula really means. That is the idea. “If I were to write a formula on the board everyone would walk out,” he says. “But in the film it really…sparked this curiosity.”

His coming book tells his personal story and goes own to describe his research in the Langlands program, as well as recent mathematical discoveries that aren’t regularly taught in classrooms. Mr. Frenkel doesn’t mind if his viewers, and soon readers, don’t understand everything in his work. “If they say, ‘Tell me more,’ I did my job well.”

Mr. Frenkel thinks rapid improvements in science and technology will prompt even more of those questions. “Mathematics will be king in this brave new world,” he says. With the digitization of practically everything these days, math will increasingly be used to order information. “We need more and more math,” he says. “Where there is no mathematics there is no freedom.”

Write to Alexandra Wolfe at

A version of this article appeared August 23, 2013, on page C11 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: weekend confidential: alexandra wolfE.

Weekend Confidential: Learning to Love Math –


Build yourself a great story.

Some good stuff. I’m pleasantly surprised.

From CEO Jeff Bezos’s commencement address at Princeton University, May 30, 2010:

Tomorrow, in a very real sense, your life—the life you author from scratch on your own—begins.

How will you use your gifts? What choices will you make?

Will inertia be your guide, or will you follow your passions?

Will you follow dogma, or will you be original?

Will you choose a life of ease, or a life of service and adventure?

Will you wilt under criticism, or will you follow your convictions?

Will you bluff it out when you’re wrong, or will you apologize?

Will you guard your heart against rejection, or will you act when you fall in love?

Will you play it safe, or will you be a little bit swashbuckling?

When it’s tough, will you give up, or will you be relentless?

Will you be a cynic, or will you be a builder?

Will you be clever at the expense of others, or will you be kind?

I will hazard a prediction. When you are 80 years old, and in a quiet moment of reflection narrating for only yourself the most personal version of your life story, the telling that will be most compact and meaningful will be the series of choices you have made. In the end, we are our choices. Build yourself a great story.

A version of this article appeared April 5, 2013, on page A15 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Notable & Quotable.
Notable & Quotable –


Amy Chua: Tiger Mom’s Long-Distance Cub

We need more ‘tiger Moms’…

A lot of people have asked me whether I still “tiger mom” my older daughter, Sophia, now that she’s in college. Do I block sleepovers from afar, drill her on schoolwork remotely, monitor piano practice by Skype and make sure that she never watches TV or plays computer games?

Actually, it’s just the opposite. My husband and I are probably the most hands-off college parents we know. We never ask Sophia what she’s going to major in or what she does at night, and we accidentally forgot about parents’ weekend. When we got a few stressed text messages from her about finals, we told her to relax, do what she always does, and she’d be fine. And she was.

Here’s the key to tiger parenting, which a lot of people miss: It’s really only about very early child-rearing, and it’s most effective when your kids are between the ages of, say, 5 and 12. When practiced correctly, tiger parenting can produce kids who are more daring and self-reliant, not less.

Tiger parenting is often confused with helicopter parenting, but they could not be more different. In fact, the former eliminates the need for the latter. At its core, tiger parenting—which, if you think about it, is not that different from the traditional parenting of America’s founders and pioneers—assumes strength, not weakness, in children. By contrast, helicopter parenting—which, as far as I can tell, has no historical roots and is just bad—is about parents, typically mothers, hovering over their kids and protecting them, carrying their sports bags for them and bailing them out, possibly for their whole lives.

I’ve taken a lot of flak over the last year for candidly describing how I raised my daughters and why I did it that way. But what drives me the craziest may be the charge that tiger parenting produces meek robots and automatons. This just misunderstands what tiger parenting is.

When it comes to parenting, the Chinese seem to produce children who display academic excellence, musical mastery and professional success – or so the stereotype goes. WSJ’s Christina Tsuei speaks to two moms raised by Chinese immigrants who share what it was like growing up and how they hope to raise their children.
Here’s an example of real tiger parenting for you. When I was 15, my father, a professor of chaos theory at Berkeley, took our whole family with him to Europe for his sabbatical year. For one semester, he threw my sisters and me into a local public school in Munich.

When I mentioned to him that we didn’t speak any German and couldn’t understand the teachers, he told me to check out some language books from the library, and reminded me that mathematics and science employ universal symbols. “This is an opportunity,” he said. “Make the most of it.” It ended up being one of the best years of my life.

Tiger parenting is all about raising independent, creative, courageous kids. In America today, there’s a dangerous tendency to romanticize creativity in a way that may undermine it. Take, for example, all the people who point to Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg and conclude that the secret to innovation is dropping out of college. In fact, both men exemplify extraordinary hard work, drive and resilience in the face of failure—exactly the qualities that tiger parenting seeks to promote. What Mr. Jobs and Mr. Zuckerberg teach us is that we should apply those qualities to something that we feel passionate about.

But you can’t invent Google, Facebook or the iPod unless you’ve mastered the basics, are willing to put in long hours and can pick yourself up from the floor when life knocks you down the first 10 times.

For most kids, college is their first experience truly on their own. Tiger parenting prepares kids for just that moment. For kids who are used to hearing “You’re amazing, that’s great” in response to whatever they do, it must be pretty shocking to fail at something. Tiger cubs, by contrast, are typically resilient. It’s empowering for them to know that you don’t need to be brilliant to succeed—that hard work can fix just about anything.

I remember my own rude awakening when I arrived at college. In the first class that I attended, the professor started lecturing about the Peloponnesian War. Everyone else seemed to know what he was talking about, but I’d never heard of it. Was it recent, maybe just before Vietnam? In my expository-writing class, I got a B on my first paper. Undaunted, I poured myself into the next assignment, working around the clock—and got a B minus. It was a tough year. But I kept bearing down, trying different things, and eventually I got the hang of it.

.When our kids go off to college, we want them to have the confidence, judgment and strength to take care of themselves. Even critics of my approach to parenting would probably concede that, after years of drilling and discipline, tiger cubs are good at focusing and getting their work done. If instilled early, these skills also help them to avoid the college-prep freak-out that traumatizes so many American families.

But one of the biggest knocks against tiger parenting is that it supposedly produces kids with no initiative or social skills. This might be true in China, where so much of the educational system is still harsh, authoritarian and based on rote learning. But it’s definitely not true in the West, where tiger parenting is done in the context of a society—or, in my case, in a home, thanks to my husband—that celebrates irreverence, independence, humor and thinking outside the box.

If anything, I’ve found that tiger cubs raised in America have really high emotional intelligence. For one thing, they’ve spent their whole lives maneuvering around their crazy, strict parents. For another, they don’t tend to be prima donnas, because tiger parents are brutally honest.

A lot of parents today are terrified that something they say to their children might make them “feel bad.” But, hey, if they’ve done something wrong, they should feel bad. Kids with a sense of responsibility, not entitlement, who know when to experience gratitude and humility, will be better at navigating the social shoals of college.

When I’m not the Tiger Mom, I’m a professor at Yale Law School, and if one thing is clear to me from years of teaching, it’s that there are many ways to produce fabulous kids. I have amazing students; some of them have strict parents, others have lenient parents, and many come from family situations that defy easy description.

It’s also clear that tiger parenting means different things to different people. For me, it’s ultimately not about achievement. It’s about teaching your kids that they are capable of much more than they think. If they don’t give up, don’t make excuses and hold themselves to high standards, they can do anything they want in life, break through any barrier and never have to care what other people think.

—Amy Chua is the John M. Duff Jr. Professor of Law at Yale Law School. Her books include “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” (now out in paperback) and “Day of Empire: How Hyperpowers Rise to Global Dominance — and Why They Fall.”

Amy Chua: Tiger Mom’s Long-Distance Cub –