Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Leaders?

This morning, my campus was plastered with signs reading "Be a City Tech Leader."  Last weekend, I finally saw the movie The Social Network.  For the past month, I've been watching, fascinated and constantly learning, events in the Middle East and beyond.

They all connect.

I'll start in the middle, with The Social Network.  The movie made me uncomfortable.  Harvard has become the crucible for creating American leaders.  Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and a few others, that is.  But, I realized while watching, I don't like those leaders much--and don't think highly of the structures creating them.  It's not that I have a problem with any of the characters, though none is anyone I would much want to know, but that they inhabit a world with little relevance to mine, or to much of the rest of the world.  They have been elevated to a rarefied level far removed from the rest of us--by virtue of measurable ability (such as that 1600 SAT score), family background, or evident talent.  The only question in any of their minds is how much success they will have in their lives--whether or not they will succeed at all has already been answered.  They remind me of the title character of Calvin Trillin's Remembering Denny, the story of a man who was a Yale 'golden boy' in the early sixties--only to be a suicide in the early nineties, for he had managed nothing more than to become a professor at Johns Hopkins (something most of us would see as laudable success).

Such people have little understanding of the world as most of us experience it.

Yet they are running "our" world.

Which brings me to the Middle East.

Yesterday, in one of my classes, I commented that I'd been hearing on the news that Qaddafi had demolished any possible rivals within Libya, that his government contained no one who could have challenged him, leaving a leadership vacuum that the rebels would have a hard time filling.  Yet it has seemed to me that the rebels are rather well organized.  Not only are they recruiting and training their own forces, but are developing a legal system for the areas under their control.  How is that, if Qaddafi had made his government him alone?

One of my students, an Iraqi, raised his hand and said, simply, "tribal structures."

Of course.  And I should have known that.  One of the things I'd learned in my four years in West Africa is the power of traditional tribal structures.  Thing is, in America, we have no equivalent, no system of government that works separately from the official structures.  We had no national system imposed on us from without (our federal system is our own; for all the talk of "states' rights," the states remain part of an integrated structure), as much of the world, particularly the developing world, has had.  As a result, we tend to discount tribal structures when looking at the world.

Not my Iraqi student.  He knows how important they are.  He has lived them.

My students at City Tech are, primarily, immigrants and African-Americans.  They do not come from elite backgrounds and do not really expect to become part of the elite.  But they know the world in ways that the elites in any country never will.  Here, and in much of their prior schooling in New York City, they work with people from an incredible diversity of backgrounds (we have students from some hundred countries, speaking at least that many languages).  They learn to accommodate all sorts of differences and backgrounds, from disabilities to religions and more.  They know what it is like to struggle, and have seen the real consequences of failure.

Those signs that exhort them to "Be a City Tech Leader"?  Better them, I think, than students from the elite schools who are running things now.  They know more and, given the right support, can do even more than Mark Zuckerberg.  For the world, that is.

What Zuckerberg has done should not be discounted (and neither should the skills and possibilities of any of those who have joined the elites).  What is more important (for our communal future), though, is what is done with what he has created.  I'm betting that it is my City Tech students, and others like them all over the world, who will show what that can be.

I'm not betting against the odds, by the way: the Egyptians have already shown me that.

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