When I was in high school, I played on the baseball team, and one shadowless spring day we were playing our rival, Boonton High, which fielded a very large pitcher on the mound who was being watched by Major League scouts. In the first inning I surprised everybody by knocking a clean single to left and, feeling cocky about my hit, took a long lead off first base. The pitcher tried to pick me off, but I slid back safely. Brushing myself off, I heard my girlfriend’s voice rise from the sparsely filled grandstand: “You’ll never get him!”
I of course took an even more daring lead on the next pitch; and was promptly picked off, never to get on base again during a long afternoon.
Overconfidence is characteristic of the American male, and I’m fairly confident — perhaps overconfident — that this holds true for males across the globe. Personality tests indicate that this is often matched by underconfidence on the part of most females.
But as we look at cold statistics, this situation seems backwards. Today, girls outscore boys in school grades in every subject, even math and science, and you’d guess this would bolster their egos. The girls must think, "these idiots not only don’t know the capital of Idaho, they can’t even add!" In addition, if I remember what’s now called “middle school” accurately, the girls at that formative age usually grow faster than the boys. I recall dancing at an 8th grade prom with a partner a head taller than I, and wondering if I should try resting my head on her slender bosom, see what happens. She might kill me, I thought, but still…
Many of our most confident male leaders — as evidenced by our so-called primary “debates” — are pretty clearly nincompoops, proud because they don’t read anything: not books, not magazines, not scientific articles, certainly not poetry. They lift their biased “info” from the internet, from emails, from Lewis Carroll (well, I made that up: I’m thinking of Tweedledee and Tweedledum). Whether they’re talking about sex (“Rape doesn’t cause pregnancy,” Congressman Todd Akin); science (“Science is one of the Four Corners of Deceit,” pundit Rush Limbaugh); climate change (“Climate change is good for your health,” Heartland Institute “think tank”); Iraq (“My belief is we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators,” Vice President Dick Cheney) etc., they are all — like me playing baseball — wildly off-base. My favorite remains, oddly enough, one by an overconfident woman, Sarah Palin (the exception that proves the rule): “Refudiate, misunderestimate, wee-wee’d up: English is a living language!” she pouted to Sean Hannity. In subject after subject, American students show more confidence and less competence than their European and Asian counterparts.
T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” less influential than it used to be, still can hypnotize us with its rhythmical visions of a decadent society (“I think we are in rat’s alley / where the dead men lost their bones”). One of the most disturbing is that overconfident clerk “seducing” an already defeated young woman. Since 1919, when Eliot was writing the “The Waste Land” and American women didn’t even have the vote, our society has improved — think Michelle Obama, Janet Yellen, Elizabeth Warren, Hillary Clinton, Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor, Rachel Maddow — but we still have a long way to go: on the radio as I write this, reporters are debating how many college students are the victims of rape (intolerable, whatever the real percentage). Human change, including the distribution of confidence as well as money, is evolutionary rather than revolutionary.
Of course, many Tea Partiers still don’t believe in evolution, which is a bit of a drag on progress.
—Both quotes from “The Waste Land” by T.S. Eliot (1888-1965)