Friday, November 5, 2010

Gene is not a 'Flake (I think -- discuss)

The posting of a blog entry from Gina Bareca reminded me of this recent column from her sometime co-author (and 2-time Pulitzer Prize winner and college dropout) Gene Weingarten (see beginning below). While Weingarten's humor is sometimes a bit too scatological and/or prankish for my taste (those who read his work regularly know that the product helpline staff of the world have reason to hate him), I'm pretty sure that he is not a 'flake, for one simple reason: he understands and accepts both human frailty and individual responsibility. This attitude is clear later in the essay below, where he writes, "clear pixelI didn't get that F, I earned that F."

It's equally clear in his second Pulitzer-winning article, which dealt with the absolutely unfunny (sorry) subject of parents who accidentally leave their very young children in hot cars, resulting in the child's death. That article was both unblinking and compassionate. It did not demonize the parents; it even explored why such events happen (everything from changes in routine for the sleep-deprived running on autopilot to the design and placement of car seats) and how they can be avoided (place something that will be needed at the ultimate destination -- a purse or briefcase or id badge, for instance -- in the back with the child). At the same time, it (and the parents interviewed) did not flinch from the fact that these parents had a responsibility to their children, and they failed in that responsibility, with horrific, irreversible consequences.

It strikes me that this combination of compassion (realizing that others are fallible human beings and cutting them some -- but not too much -- slack) and personal responsibility (realizing that the results of one's bad decisions properly fall on one's own head) mark Gene Weingarten as clearly not a snowflake, even during his college years, despite the behavior described below. But I'd be interested to hear what others think.


This is excerpted from a speech I gave last week at New York University, my sort-of alma mater, after being given the 2010 College of Arts and Sciences Alumni Achievement Award.

I want to thank you for this great honor. But as a journalist and truth-seeker, I have to raise an uncomfortable point. While the dictionary informs me that "alumnus" may indeed apply to someone who attended but did not graduate from a college, there might be a problem, in my case, even with "attended."

I am not referring to the lack of attention caused by enough drugs to stupefy a rhinoceros -- though that was a factor for me, too. I mean that even though I somehow amassed sufficient credits to almost graduate with the Class of 1972, I did not actually go to classes. [see the rest]


  1. A snowflake who attended college in the late 60s-early 70s? No, this is completely anachronistic. That generation certainly had its problems - the level of drug use Weingarten refers to probably isn't exaggerated - but snowflakeism wasn't one of them. The snowflake phenomenon is the result of the self-esteem movement in K-12 education, when children were told they were unique and special. That's why so many of them think they're exceptions to all the requirements in the syllabus and should be bumped up a grade because they tried really, really hard.

    Boomers were raised by a generation that didn't promulgate this nonsense. And Weingarten's parents were probably tearing their hair out over a lot of his antics, not making excuses for them.

  2. 'Tother thing that makes Weingartner NOT a flake is that he's not making excuses--and he didn't then, either. He knew that scamming could get him slam-dunked, and accepted it when it happened.

  3. Yeah, not flaky. In fact, I could have written an eerily similar narrative about my own first experience with college. I flunked out a lot faster than he did, but other aspects of the story, including the fact that I spent almost every waking hour shooting pictures for every local rag that would have me, are pretty much the same. My sense is that people like me and Weingarten were never really in any doubt about what we were and weren't doing. It sounds like he was much better at trying to scam through than I was, but we both recognized that we had earned every F.

    Which is exactly what I tell the little fuckers when they try to whine their way into a higher grade. It usually shuts them right down, because they can't look at me and say that a bad grade is going to ruin their future.

    I'm not sure I buy the generational argument though. Plato was complaining about flakes back at the Academy. Maybe the fact that everything in our culture is interpolated through a capitalist lens contributes to an uptick in student-as-consumer flakery. Combine that with the escalating costs and diminishing payoff of a college degree, and a predictable surge of whining ensues.

    Flakery is transhistorical. Only its specific historical manifestations are different. The things students did to piss off Plato aren't the same as what our precious shitheads do to us, but our sense of irritation is probably much the same as his. Maybe that's some comfort?

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  5. He was still a lousy student. I wouldn't want him taking up space in my class, or wasting my time. He does seem more focused and adult than snowflakes are: one of their defining characteristics is that they are -so- immature, along with that strong sense of entitlement and lack of skill commensurate with what used to be a 6th-grade education. So, he wasn't a snowflake: just a flake.

  6. @Archie: Plato wrote The Republic when Athens was in the process of losing a war to Sparta. The aftermath of it would be essentially the end of their democracy. Greece fell to Rome because of fighting among themselves. Greek culture did continue to exist under Rome, but it was sapped of vitality and originality: Ptolemy's Almagest didn't cover much that Hipparchos hadn't already done, and no one would rival Archimedes until the 1600s.

    So, I find it no consolation whenever someone points out that the Ancient Greeks complained about their students. They had good reason to do so, and so do we.

  7. I, too, tend to think the snowflake phenomenon is transhistorical, at least as far as the entitlement component goes. The "right" to get into a certain college because daddy and grandaddy went there (and because one is also male, and white), and to graduate with a transcript full of "gentleman's C"s, is certainly related (and legacy admissions are still going strong at plenty of schools, though the Cs are now Bs). I guess that insisting on one's rights as a member of a privileged class isn't quite the same thing as insisting on appreciation of one's personal, individual uniqueness, but there's some connection in the sense of being inherently "special" regardless of one's actual abilities, actions, etc.

    I think it's instructive that the school from which Weingarten didn't graduate is NYU, which, especially in his day, drew more from the striving classes than from the ranks of the already-privileged. While I'm sure such an environment isn't snowflake-free, I suspect it is, at least snowflake-resistant (or was until the self-esteem movement szoszolo mentions came along; sadly, the idea that success results from self-esteem, rather than vice-versa, seems to have been promulgated even more strongly among already at-risk students than among those who had greater chances to gain the skills that lead to real success early on).


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