Monday, June 4, 2012

America, Land of the Do-It-Yourself Self

Jack Hitt, Bunch of Amateurs: Inside America's Hidden World of Inventors, Tinkerers, and Job Creators

Andrew Carnegie never went to school. Thomas Edison had no professional credentials whatsoever. America’s greatest innovations have come from the hands of people who the “proper officials” said had no business getting involved. Journalist Jack Hitt asserts that amateurism, the pursuit of a field out of sheer love, without expectation of reward, sits at the heart of American identity.

Amateur derives from a French term for love, and signifies that we have a passion for some subject that no amount of money can approach. And that’s what makes America strong. We made a country without relying on kings or popes. We advanced science sometimes in the face of proper scholarship. Our best businesses started as shoestring operations. We are a people that has built ourselves without waiting for someone to rubber stamp our enterprises.

Amateurism stands, for Hitt, against “credentialism,” the dogmatic belief that externally bestowed endorsement makes somebody an expert. Credentials often impede innovative thought—a point that isn’t even new this year, since it played so large in Jonah Lehrer’s book Imagine. The very process of becoming a professional insider instills habits of thought that ensure the thinker can do the job exactly how it’s always been done, and not one step beyond.

We can see this in Hitt’s book, when professional ornithologists wear blinders that keep them from seeing what even an amateur birder can see: that ain’t an extinct bird returned to earth. Or in the chapter on amateur astronomy, when the professionals have to keep doing work that will produce results. The amateurs have the liberty to study the sky, looking for the kinds of discoveries that rarely come, but actually move human knowledge forward.

Jack Hitt
We know this, just looking around. We can see that business school graduates make lousy entrepreneurs. Journalism school graduates seldom do meaningful investigations, preferring to repeat official statements with the agreeability of bobblehead dolls. Most physicists’ best work is done before they turn thirty. Outsiders, guerillas, and eager neophytes make the actual inroads that keep America’s greatest disciplines thriving.

Hitt notes an important study showing that compensation actually sucks the life from pursuits. From an early age, pay changes the equation that drives our actions. Small children will draw or write or play for the sheer joy of the process; but when rewards, or grown-up approval, gets into the equation, creativity and productivity go through the floor. That’s why, when you get a job doing what used to be your hobby, the joy goes out of whatever you used to love.

Not every chapter supports Hitt’s thesis. Indeed, his chapter on amateur archaeology, with its implications of sublimated racism and pseudo-intellectualism, suggests that amateurism contains the roots of powerful abuse. Even in his largely laudatory chapter on amateur genetics, he never quite addresses the risk he brings up of some exuberant teen warping the common cold into the next Black Plague. These serve as cautions against unbridled amateurism.

The do-it-yourself ethos taps into the best America has to offer, but also the worst. It forms the lifeblood of cultural development, allowing those truly passionate about their field to make substantial contributions. But it allows ignorant crackpots to go off half-cocked, propogating ideas that are dangerous or wildly offensive. But maybe that’s a fair description of America and her people: a nation of unrecognized geniuses and wild-eyed fanatics.

How, then to counter the worst impulses of amateurism? Hitt has no suggestions. Instead, he simply reminds us that, for all its risks, amateurism has contributed more to our national well-being than we can possibly calculate. It falls to us to ensure that we keep up the passionate immersion of amateurism, without lapsing into the dangerous extremes of moronic crankery.

Hitt overlaps with several other recent books. In addition to Lehrer, mentioned above, Hitt shares many themes with Susan Cain’s Quiet, Charles Pierce’s Idiot America, and Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers—must be something in the water. Sometimes they correspond almost verbatim, since they’re quoting the same sources. While Hitt doesn’t necessarily bring new ideas to the table, he brings new and interesting context.

Hitt makes a strong case that Americans’ frontier ethos, where we do it ourselves, and where we make our own expertise, makes us the people we are. He sells his point with careful insight, unexpected dry wit, and spirited narrative panache. If he can get just a few people out of their TV-induced comas and out doing what they love, he will have done a good service to this great land.

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