Magazine article Insight on the News

Good Work: A Trio of Psychologists Attempt to Define Good Work in Difficult Times. (Books: Good Riddance to Good Work)

Magazine article Insight on the News

Good Work: A Trio of Psychologists Attempt to Define Good Work in Difficult Times. (Books: Good Riddance to Good Work)

Article excerpt

There's something about the very title of this book, Good Work (Basic Books, $26, 301pp), that irks rather than inspires. Is it the whiff of self-righteousness that rises from the Hallmarkish dust jacket, the overripe odor of noblesse oblige? Or the studied insouciance of the phrase itself, implying solidarity with the working class while holding open the door to l'haut monde? One's prejudices quickly are confirmed in the preface where the authors, a trio of psychologists, reveal their purpose: "We decided to focus on what it means to carry out `good work' -- work that is both excellent in quality and socially responsible -- at a time of constant change. Thus was born what we now call the Project on Good Work."

Such earnestness is its own reward, but the authors -- Howard Gardner, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and William Damon -- have been much clapped for their excellence and social responsibility. Gardner, a cognitive psychologist with appointments at Harvard and Boston universities, is a MacArthur genius who specializes in "multiple intelligences." Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced CHICK-sent-me-high), a social psychologist at the Drucker School of Management at Claremont Graduate University in California, has written a number of best-selling books, including Flow and Creativity. Damon, a developmental psychologist at Stanford, is another MacArthur grantee who with colleague Anne Colby "has carried out a pioneering study of individuals who have lead exemplary moral lives."

Originally, the three planned to interview professionals from a variety of fields -- medicine, law, theater, education -- but serendipitously found that their initial choices, genetics and journalism, served the project just fine. "We came to conceive of the present book as a `parallel study' of two professions, one poised to control the composition of our bodies, the other with the potential to control the content of our minds," write the authors. Furthermore, they argue, genetics and journalism as practiced today illustrate both the potential for good work in difficult times as well as the perils their practitioners face. The two "domains" (one of the authors' pet phrases) are "virtually polar opposite," one thriving and sanguine about its prospects, the other struggling and dour about the future.

"Geneticists are working at a time in which the profession is tremendously exciting; all of the relevant forces in their universe are well aligned," write the authors, sounding more like astrologists than scientists. "In sharp contrast, journalists tell us they are working at a time when their profession is wracked by confusion and doubt -- that is, a time when the relevant forces are massively misaligned."

Basically, the authors' research consisted of "semi-structured in-depth interviews" with leaders in the two fields, about 100 in each, including stars such as James Watson, who discovered the structure of DNA, and Tom Brokaw, anchorman for NBC Nightly News. Many of the interviewees are quoted at length during the course of the book, too often anonymously (as in, "A Nobel Prize-winning molecular geneticist said ..." or "According to a prominent television journalist ...").

While the authors assert that their question-and-answer sessions were rigorous and probing, the respondents' replies too often come off as whiny and obvious. "With the conglomerates that now hold media power, where more and more is held by fewer and fewer, I fear we are becoming too cross-pollinated with commercial interests, and that news is becoming too homogenous and, worse than that, dumbed down," declares an unnamed reporter. Others babble on in the kind of symposium-speak that sounds important but adds little to the debate. "It's an utter corruption to believe that news is, by its nature, too negative and we need to make it more positive," says Carol Marin, a TV journalist. "... Once we become proactive on the solution side, we risk corrupting our own desire to tell the truth if our solutions fail. …

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