Bad stories: high school for careerists


As gods go, money is one of the worst.

The main story of schooling is a simple tale. Students are told implicitly and explicitly over and over that the meaning of school is that they need to work hard so they get good grades, they need to get good grades so they can get into good college, they need to get into good colleges so they can get good jobs, and they need good jobs because otherwise they will have failed.

Like most myths that have staying power, this one has some truth. It’s true that work–effort toward a goal–is the foundation of most people’s lives. How large and how good the order we build for ourselves has much to do with the wisdom and persistence of our effort. The young seldom realize how true this is, so guidance into wise and persistent work should be a foundation of the education we offer them. And, yes, it is a truism that we need things–food, clothing and shelter.

But from this truth it’s a small step into an old error: seeing the economy, which is a means of providing the materials of a good life, as an end in itself, and seeing the jobs it offers as the only work in town. Neil Postman notes that this story “is rarely believed by students and has almost no power to inspire them.” Besides, he says, “any education that is mainly about economic utility is far too limited to be useful, and, in any case, so diminishes the world that it mocks one’s humanity.”

He is correct that this story doesn’t motivate most high school students. After all, competition only motivates those who think they might win. How hard would you practice your basketball skills if someone told you next week you would play Kevin Durant one-on-one and the winner would receive a thousand dollars? You’d have to be a far better player than I am to break a sweat over your chances with that.

By the time they get to high school, students who are below average at schoolish skills know who they are. They know someone else will always have the answer more quickly or in a form the teacher likes better. A cliché among experienced teachers is that threatening such kids with bad grades is like beating a dead horse.

A first-year teacher told me a few weeks ago that she was frustrated with some students in her class who simply refuse to read or write anything. One young man was daydreaming through a test, not bothering to write answers on his paper. “This test is going to have a big impact on your grade,” she told him helpfully. “I know,” he said more in defeat than rebellion. “I never pass English.”

The life-is-a-market-economy story also fails to motivate other kids: those whose families are well off and who expect things to come naturally, those whose parents have never organized their lives around jobs and who have only a vague sense of what that means, and those who see that this story simply has poor answers to the questions that actually drive them-questions about who will love them, how they will matter, and where joy might lie.

I should make it clear that I’m not criticizing capitalism as an economic system. Poor people do better under capitalism than under other socialism, communism and various other economic forms we have tried. Capitalism has increased our wealth, leading to better food, better health and more educational opportunities. I have no desire to see people lose the freedom to start enterprises, to buy and sell or to own property, and I see economic equality arrived at by any means other than the freely given gifts of the wealthy as a mischievous chimera.

What I am criticizing is the belief that profitability provides an adequate guide to how we conduct our lives. Most of us have passed up opportunities to make money that would have required us to do things we thought were wrong. Most of us hold some things too dear to sell-our relationships to loved ones, our honest opinion, our vote. Capitalism does not require that everything be for sale, and it does not require us to allow the love of profit to overcome other values.

As we begin to lose such restraints, the life-is-a-market-economy story encourages people to suppress and sometimes extinguish their concern for what happens to others. The unconstrained pursuit of profit unleashes the demons of history. If the political disquiets that plague the world today are traced back in history, we inevitably find someone placing the acquisition of wealth above the welfare of their neighbors.

To pick one example from thousands, a hundred and fifty years ago, British government policy removed from Ireland millions of dollars worth of grain, cattle, pigs, flour, eggs and poultry-enough to feed twice the Irish population-while nearly a half million Irish citizens were dying of starvation or famine-related disease. A family with a barrel of grain could not eat it because it was marked for the rent. Tenant farmers were evicted and their thatched huts pulled down as they watched, with no means of survival, so that the absentee owners could use the land to grow food for Englishmen at a profit.

In Skibbereen, monstrous graves called “the pits” were dug in the churchyard of Abbeystrowry, and the dead were dropped in without funeral or ceremony. In more remote areas, bodies ravaged by starving dogs and rats were dragged into ditches and covered with rocks and brambles. People were found dead beside the road with pieces of grass and leaves in their mouths. A traveler in Kenmore, County Kerry, one day met a dog traveling with a child’s head in its mouth.

As this went on British lawmakers continued to argue against any policy that would interfere with the rights of those in power to make a profit, and those in power continued to make money. Irish starved in a bountiful country while land went to weeds because they had no money to rent it. The Irish were victims not of the potato blight so much as of their lords’ love of profit. The needs of profit seem so absolute to believers that to ignore them is to ensure the destruction of society.

What on earth might have happened if poor people were allowed to farm land they did not own and had no legal right to?

People have always sensed that the real powers of the earth are, like gravity, invisible. We see their effects but we do not see them. The earth has never known a people who did not believe in the invisible powers, who did tell stories that promised insight into how to manipulate, appease, or extort power from them. Small societies tend to remember they are never far from starvation, so fear leads readily to attempts to control the world through rituals-ensuring good crops by, for example, slicing the jugulars of young girls.

All societies are religious, worshiping what they understand of power. Stockbrokers are as enamored of invisible forces as any other pagan tribe. In binges of “downsizing”–firing thousands of workers-corporate spokesmen utter the words of their faith with the same cold-blooded certainty that must have accompanied the incantations of Aztec priests performing human sacrifices. What was being done was ordained and required by higher powers: “We need to remain competitive; if we are not competitive the gods of the economy will devour us. Therefore, to save ourselves we need to devour each other.”

People whose first motivation is to grasp the world’s power learn to bow to the dictates of global financial markets, the sanctity of unconstrained competition, and the glory of quarterly profits. Profit is sacred, and what it demands cannot be ignored.

Many people, and not just students, understand quite accurately that the market story is an attack upon them rather than a communal narrative they can join. Many people recognize it as the political ideology of activists whose agenda, if successful, will strip them of dignity and more. In many cities and villages and hamlets around the planet, winners who expect to make a killing-the common slang is revealing-by what’s happening around them are easy to find. But the others are more numerous, trying to stay out of the way, maybe hoping like the D student at the back of the room that they won’t be noticed.

Today millions live in poverty and in the wastelands left behind as an “invisible hand” rakes unimaginably vast treasures into the coffers of the more fortunate. Meanwhile, our children are taught a faith that is much the same as that held by the British during the potato famine. They too worshiped an economy built on certainty that the need for profit comes first. The misery of the underclass created no obligation on the part of traders, speculators and agents whose first duty was to increase their wealth.

Most societies have taught their young to resist the profit-as-religion story, teaching that greed and unbalanced self-interest are bad. Lycurgus, the Spartan lawgiver, resorted to using iron rather than gold and silver for money to put an impediment in the path of those seeking gain. Accumulating vast stores of iron made one a laughingstock in other cities, and transporting enough of the money to make much difference was so difficult that even thieves tended not to bother. Lycurgus did this so that people wouldn’t be distracted by their financial prospects from the pursuit of virtue-as he understood virtue, of course.

If we conduct an education that pushes back against the notion that the main reason for learning is to make money, we needn’t worry that people will suddenly become careless about prosperity. Our concern with money is nothing so flimsy as that. Education has always been concerned with the inculcation of virtues precisely because the vices are so powerfully ingrained in our nature. We do not teach chastity out of hope that people will no longer procreate-there’s scant danger of that-and we do not teach thrift out of hope that people will become misers. Rather, we seek to balance strong natural tendencies with prudent forethought.

The economy is real and those who completely turn their backs on it are punished, as every unmarketable artist learns. Money originated in temples, one of the power strategies of the priestly class. People have always granted it sacred powers. “Like spellbound savages in the presence of the holy,” William H. Desmonde tells us, we endure rituals of high finance, watching “in wonder the solemn proceedings, feeling in a vague, somewhat fearful way that our lives and the happiness of our children are at the mercy of mysterious forces beyond our control.” The wealthy know that money is not primarily about buying things. It is primarily about power. With money we can bend the forces of the earth to serve us. Disease, social turbulence and disaster are held at bay for those with financial might, and those without it are vulnerable and naked.

When we seem to say that winning the money competition is the main project in life, a teenager who knows that within school he will never finish ahead can make only dim sense of his prospects. One intelligent response is to withdraw, disengage, find other stories.

At school, our emphasis on grades and test scores-the coin of the educational realm we have created-leads us to neglect other motivators, some of which have extraordinary power. The desire to join is far stronger in most people than is the desire to win, and teachers doing legacy projects with students have shown that cooperative approaches supported by community recognition for high quality work can energize “at risk” students as well as “honor students.” We live most fully in our attachments to others, and service is the way we express those attachments.

If we were wise, our young people would hear from us often that good food, good housing, comfortable clothing, well-made tools, quality productions of the intellect, moments of ease brought about by work well-done can be sought in a spirit that does not invite selfishness.

And we would show them what we mean. To oppose selfishness is not to choose poverty but to choose relationship. The work we share is not simply making money, which often isolates us from one another. It is Civilization–in the singular–not as an existing state so much as an idea that can be progressively realized. America and what we have called the West is one civilization among perhaps ten in the modern world, and its history and ideals will play a significant role in any universal civilization we might yet construct, but for that to happen we need to believe that America is more than an economy.

We don’t need to believe that America has found the complete or the only truth to believe that its lessons have permanent worth. Serious discussion of such lessons should play a central role in education. For example, one of the ironies of the faith in markets is that markets don’t necessarily create the conditions markets need to thrive. Merchants as a group do best in systems of stable laws, but when the law is for sale in competitive markets, as is increasingly the case as the free market ideology overwhelms those who would moderate and balance it against other goods such as community stability, no one can be sure who will prevail on the morrow. The law becomes more volatile, like the markets, and though some businesses cash in, business in general suffers.

Also, though marketers praise competition, they generally do what they can to eliminate competitors. That’s what competition means. When markets rule, someone eventually wins and monopolies form that undermine the markets. The competitive spirit remains, but new competitors need harder tactics than good ideas and hard work to encroach upon the established merchant kings.

It would be sensible, I think, to deliberately teach and demonstrate to our young people that lasting prosperity is related to good character-the most basic meaning of which is that people hold some values too dear to offer them for sale. We might examine the way people have met hard times in the past, seeing how often the community rather than the individual has been the unit of survival, providing for members through shared action and generosity, doing as a group what no one could do alone. We might suggest that living in an altruistic community is the best security available in this life.

We could also talk about the economy as something that we make to serve purposes we have chosen. We could consider how a well-made economy might help us against our oldest and deadliest enemies: poverty, hunger, superstition, greed, ignorance, pride, selfishness and fear. All these have developed virulent strains that are barely slowed or deterred by the paltry education we now throw against them. As we have abandoned morality to the markets, a world has been forming within which fewer and fewer young people can make sense of old arguments against prostitution, drug deals or pornography. It’s all just business. And beyond these old-fashioned prohibitions lie whole realms of the forbidden that we have barely begun to transgress.

We might talk about the complex ecology of interacting forces that make the global economy the way it is, driving corporate leaders to believe that if they don’t do what is most profitable, their competitors will, and money will flow away from them leaving them unable to survive let alone to accomplish good works. This might lead us to wonder how much of the pressure they feel is not caused by the amorality of their competitors, but by millions of individuals buying goods and services and stocks without wanting to know more than where the best deal is to be found. What if people quit exporting from themselves the blame for greed and began wanting to know more about the ethical practices of the companies they traded with? What institutions to provide that information, which already exist, might grow and flourish?

That so many corporations today invest great sums of money to persuade people that they are good citizens and stewards suggests the power that lies with ordinary people. The great powers of the earth care deeply what you and I think. It has never mattered more what ordinary people think. Because of this, education has never before had the potential to make such dramatic changes to human life.

And the corollary is also true: the disasters that will follow mistakes have never been greater.

adapted from The Power of Community-Centered Education

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