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Hard America, Soft America: Competition vs. Coddling and the Battle for the Nation's Future Hardcover – Bargain Price, May 4, 2004
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America is divided into two camps, according to U.S. News and World Reports writer and Fox commentator Michael Barone. No, not Red and Blue, though one suspects Barone may taint the two groups in the hues of the 2000 presidential election. Barone's divided America is one part Hard, one part Soft. Hard America is steeled by the competition and accountability of the free market, while Soft America is the product of public school and government largesse. Inspired by the notion that America produces incompetent 18 year olds and remarkably competent 30 year olds, Barone embarks on a breezy 162-page commentary that will spark mostly huzzahs from the right and jeers from the left. Certainly the unforgiving nature of the marketplace can sharpen skills in upstarts, but what's softer than the landing of a CEO with a golden parachute? And one would assume Barone would favor toughening up coddled kids by retaining, if not drastically raising, the inheritance tax, but the subject never comes up. Still, the Washington, D.C.-based pundit's premise is provocative, his arguments are nuanced, and his writing is sharp. Ultimately, Barone forecasts "a Harder America on the horizon." Would that be what they used to call "hard times"? --Steven Stolder
From Publishers Weekly
In his latest book, Barone, a writer for U.S. News and World Report and a well-known political commentator, describes America as comprising two diametrically opposed characteristics: hard and soft. "Hard America" is characterized by competition and accountability, while "Soft America" attempts to protect its citizens through government regulation and other social safety nets. While Barone's book is not without its political overtones-he identifies Hard America with the political right and Soft America with the left-his book should not be seen as the latest installment in the conservative-liberal cultural wars. Rather, Barone provides a deeper look at the way in which ordinary people live and work and the meaning behind the decisions they make. His concrete historical examples highlight the advantages and disadvantages of Hard and Soft America, creating a compelling picture of two very different ways of looking at the world, without degenerating into mudslinging or name-calling,. Although Barone, a conservative, clearly favors Hard America, he appreciates the necessary difficulty that comes with balancing the two Americas. He concedes that a society without some softness would be a cruel one, but warns that "we have the luxury of keeping parts of our society Soft only if we keep enough of it Hard." Despite his conservatism, Barone (The New Americans) writes with moderation and insight. Even those who do not agree with his normative conclusions can enjoy his thought-provoking and perceptive analysis.
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That is why it was with considerable excitement that I opened Michael Barone's Hard America, Soft America: Competition Vs. Coddling and the Battle for the Nation's Future. The book was just over 160 pages long and proved nearly impossible to put down. In this extended essay, Barone pounces upon one of the most important questions of our day and his work overlaps public policy, politics, history, philosophy and education. In short, it is a text that just about everybody should be able to relate to if not appreciate.
The theme of Hard America, Soft America is that from the ages of 6 to 18 Americans grow up in a downy world that is largely devoid of competition and accountability, but from the ages of 18 to 30 the texture of their lives radically changes as it becomes rocky and subject to the laws of nature. One either produces or they are fired. It is this world, this cauldron of struggle, that forges the Americans who awe the world with a never-ending parade of inventions and discoveries.
Barone gives us a tour of our own history and concludes that much of our illustriousness was created by the rigid and unforgiving forces of Hard America. Men like John D. Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan may not have been able to release their inner child or give group hugs but they were able to employ thousands and provide the means for mass production that made us the victors of war and peace. Barone views their torch as being carried forward by men like Bill Gates, Jack Welch, Fred Smith, and Sam Walton. Barone makes use of cultural works to justify his thesis and includes films like "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit," novels like Sister Carrie and infamous dementations like Charles Reich's The Greening of America.
The author stresses that there are no firm boundaries between the hard and the soft. Schools may be bastions of softness but within them are islands of sinew. High school graduates immediately encounter Hard America when they enter the military or the private sector (perhaps earlier should they work at McDonalds or Wal-Mart before age 18).
There is a parasitical relationship between the solid and the downy aspects of our culture. It is only by the grace and skill of Hard America that Soft America can survive: "Soft America lives off the productivity, creativity, and competence of Hard America, and we have the luxury of keeping parts of our society Soft only if we keep enough of it hard." Without a robust military, there would be no way to preserve the freedom and laxity that is Soft America.
Barone dedicated this work to the memory of Senator Moynihan and it is almost a certainty that he would have been pleased by the following description of the effects of excessive softness upon black Americans:
"The Softening of criminal justice, welfare, racial quotas and preferences, and education- had the effect of confining most blacks to Soft America. They were left unprotected against crime, deterred from forming stable families, deincentivized the will to achieve. The advocates of Softening hated the idea of imposing middle-class mores on black Americans, but middle-class mores are necessary for achievement in Hard America, and underclass behavior makes such achievement impossible."
The field of public education is one in which Softness has triumphed and the author believes that this situation will not change until parents force the issue. For many professionals in our schools, the Chaise lounge chairs of pulpous America massages them forever. Only external forces will coerce them into changing their ways or methodologies.
This reviewer has personally witnessed several attempts of individuals to "Speak Truth to Squishiness" by bringing rigor into their classrooms and then observed the predicable punishments that were meted out to them in response.
Shortly after I finished reading the text I told a teacher about it and she said, "Give me that book now! I need it." The basis for her interest may have stemmed from her name appearing on a school wide memo ranking our teachers based on who passed the most students. Her name was on the bottom. I recall her coming up to me in the hallway and wondering if I knew of a way she could have passed a student who missed 70 out of 92 days of instruction. I had no answer then and I have no answer now.
Another educator told me of an alternative school that got around the dilemma of what to do with students who do not meet even diluted academic requirements. They issue a no grades whatsoever policy that precludes all descriptors (including "Pass" or "Fail"). He is currently being considered for the Principalship of this institution and wanted to know what I thought about their anti-grading scheme. I told him it was insane. He agreed but noted that the salary was 70 grand a year. I advised that he not mention the policy at all during his interview and then quickly abandon it once his contract was signed. We will see whether or not he has the strength to do so.
Unfortunately, although it is not as clear cut as the two examples I cite, most children do grow up in Soft America. It is a land in which they are molly-coddled and excuses are made for their every need and whimper. Many adults are more concerned with injecting them with self-esteem rather than buoying them up with knowledge. Who would have ever thought that the word "facts" would have the negative connotations it has today in educational circles? Children are shielded from the Bizzaro world of Hard America until they graduate and then are thrown into the cauldron of competition.
I think Michael Barone has done America a great service by writing this book and I encourage everyone to read it. There's absolutely nothing wonkish about it. The issues are global and should appeal to most citizens- even if it makes the pens of a few bureaucrats run dry.
Barone initiates the discussion by asking a simple question "How does a country which produces such a large amount of statistically inferior teenagers create such capable adults?" His answer is that our youth are brought up in "soft" systems, like education, but are quickly thrown into the "hard" world of our brand of capitalism.
Barone goes through several examples of how our systems have turned harder over the years, and how that hardness has served to make America more competitive and prosperous than our European counterparts, and more prospersous than we were before.
He points to a couple of main trends. The first is the transformation in the 50s and 60s to a more math and science based education system (althought this has changed in the last 20 years). The second is deregulation in business. He argued before the deregulation movement, big business was almost governmental in their approach to the markets and competitiveness, and they fought to maintain the status quo of an uncompetitve marketplace and lifetime employment. After the deregulation movement, businesses had to grow leaner in their business practices to survive competition from both internal and external forces, and he argues this "hardening" is what is chiefly responsible for our prosperity over the past 25 years.
His overall premise is that "hard" and "soft" America are constantly competing against eachother, but we need both to survive. None of us want to live in a country with no safety nets, but those safety nets have to be paid for by "hard" America, and it ultimately falls on "hard" America to provide the luxuries of "soft" America.
Overall this is a fast moving, enjoyable book which will give you alot to think about and both agree and disagree with. The author does not allow his political leanings to influence his conclusions and is intellectually honest throughout the work. My only complaint is that he doesn't delve into the trends with a lot of evidence and hard numbers to "prove" what he is saying, but this is still a very worthwhile read.