Job 28, Opportunity Costs,
I love this passage in Job 28:
But where shall wisdom be found? and where is the place of understanding? Man knoweth not the price thereof; neither is it found in the land of the living. The depth saith, It is not in me: and the sea saith, It is not with me....
Whence then cometh wisdom? and where is the place of understanding? Seeing it is hid from the eyes of all living, and kept close from the fowls of the air....
God understandeth the way thereof, and he knoweth the place thereof... And unto man he said, Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; and to depart from evil is understanding.
Recently I was reading an article in a Northern Virginia magazine about how to get your child into some of the top private schools in the area. The writer was hyperventilating about how great some of these schools are, and it made me smile--and feel sad--and think about the wisdom of this path. Job said that wisdom is difficult to find--can it be found at school? If we do put our children in school in order that they may gain in wisdom (and what other worthy reason could there be?) let's hope that they are successful, since if there's one thing the study of economics has taught me it's that every decision has "opportunity costs." If I choose “that thing” with my time, my money, my energy, I will not then be able to choose “that other thing” with the same time, money, and energy. You have to look at not just what is GAINED in a particular decision, but also what is LOST.
Parents are constantly confronted with information touting the benefits of the schools--especially the private ones. But let's look first at the opportunity costs, then back at the wisdom question.
Time is what life is made of. There are a limited number of minutes between when your child is born and when he leaves your home for good. But there are forces out there demanding your child's time, telling parents that if their children don't spend most of their time in classrooms when they are 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, and 18 that they will be crippled in their future prospects. When we hear "education" with our ears, we think "money" with our brains: a good education is supposed to provide a good future income. And this is true, in many cases, for higher education--but patently false for your child's first years, and her second years as well. In fact, Ivy League schools are openly recruiting students who have had a "non-traditional education," knowing that the factors that make one successful in college and beyond are often not well learned by those who've been sitting at desks for most of the day, most of the year, most of their lives.
The other under-emphasized fact is that the four to eight years spent at a desk between the ages of 18 and 26 is often a waste of time too. Just Google "successful college drop-outs" and you'll see some phenomenal lists, starting with Steve Jobs. I'm not opposed to college the way I am to lots of formal schooling before college, because at these ages people have developed their own goals, and college can often get them to where they want to go. I am very grateful for the wonderful experiences that my kids have had at BYU and BYU-I--learning things they’re passionate about from brilliant professors, being immersed in an atmosphere of learning and righteousness, taking advantage of all the art and culture that is available there. College is not a waste of time unless students aren’t drinking from the fountain of knowledge. But many don’t, and the exchange of years of their time plus tens of thousands of their dollars in exchange for a degree in "white studies" or some other silliness is a poor one, especially when moral degradation is rampant in the environment you're immersed in: the lies of race and gender politics, socialism, and sexual promiscuity are daily fare on many campuses.
So we must think about what is LOST in making the choice to send our children to school: time. Many of the children the magazine article discussed didn't attend a school that is close to them, so also spent time commuting before and after school. Then there's lessons, sports, and homework (my biggest peeve--if they can't get their learning done in 7 hours at school, why spend that 7 hours at school!). At this rate the time spent as a family is minuscule. Study after study has confirmed that in families who eat dinner together--just 20 minutes or so a day--the children fare much better on a host of desired outcomes from emotional health and avoidance of self-destructive behaviors to their grades in school. Think about unleashing the power of family on a large scale by spending much of each day together--either at home or out and about--it's a powerful thing.
So sacred family time is sacrificed on the altar of school, but perhaps even more important is that personal time is lost--the time children spend developing their own person. They lose playtime, which is the most important time for brain-building in childhood. They lose pondering time, to think about themselves and their family and their world and their Heavenly Father. They lose time in nature; time to develop the scientist within by making observations and predictions and being able to observe outcomes. The only use that is made of the amazing human hand, for the most part, is in holding a pencil and being raised to obtain permission to go to the bathroom. What about development of the cerebellum that comes through manipulating objects from Legos to clay to fabric and yarn? Building, sculpting, sewing and crocheting all strengthen neural pathways that improve memory.
The slow pace of life a few generations ago (hard work, but not frenetic) has been replaced with rush, rush, rush, do this task, check this box, something going on every minute. Is it really wise to spend childhood this way? Does it teach wisdom?
Autonomy (a.k.a. creativity, independent thinking, entrepreneurship) is also lost in the trade-off to put children in school. As just mentioned, if a child is not free to use his time how he sees fit, he will not be able to direct his energies toward the playing, creating, and daydreaming that are so important. There is concern by many that the younger generation is not developing the thought processes that lead to innovation and creativity (this TED talk has been viewed 64 million times). For the past twenty years or so there has been an increasing emphasis on the group, on working together, on cooperation. It's as if educrats think they can unite the brains of children to function as one, like in the book A Wrinkle In Time. It's been bothering me that I'm seeing this in the field of math education now as well. It's one thing to assign a group to work together to build a diorama or something (though usually one person ends up doing most of the work) but I've been reading about math becoming the new method of teaching "social justice." Group math problems are assigned, and each child is given a role: one person comes up with different strategies, one person evaluates the strategies, one person performs the calculations, one person takes notes, one person bosses everyone else around, etc. No one "owns" the process. Failure and success are equally spread between students, so no one is really invested in the effort, since it will not be to his benefit or detraction very much.
I'm not going to go into why I think this is type of teaching is trendy, but simply observe that what is left out in the cold is innovation. Even the most creative role here (coming up with strategies) is handicapped by having to get them past "the committee." Groupthink is never going to equal one mind soaring into imagination, and the new ideas that come from that. See this article from The Economist, speaking to Europe's "chronic failure to encourage ambitious entrepreneurs." See this stunning example of a youth who has never been taught that his own efforts will equal his own failures and successes (maybe lots of group math projects in his background?). And here is an article that talks about a Sudbury school, where children are completely in charge of their own education.
It's easy to see two things: #1 we do need to learn to work with others, and #2 we do need time and opportunity to daydream and create. Most children are fresh and creative in the morning, so that's the opportunity cost at work when we give those creative hours to the school so the kids can sit at a desk and be told exactly what to do. #2 is sacrificed for #1. (See this article about the purpose of school, which leads into...)
Truth-seeking is not something that happens at school very much. The general public thinks that schools are for conveying information (which doesn't necessarily correlate with truth), but as the above article points out, the passive nature of this information conveyance is one reason for the lack of retention beyond the test. But it goes deeper than that. Because of the desire to convey information to thirty kids at once, teachers cut truth-corners. They dispense with the correct understanding of truth: that it's a journey. Teachers often leave out contrary opinions to the "facts" presented, simply because they don't have the time or interest in getting into them. For example, the teaching of history is often simplified so much (and turned into socio-political propaganda) that if the ghosts of the people who lived then were listening to the discussion, they wouldn't recognize themselves and their time. In math classes kids are taught not only that there is only one solution to a math "problem" but that there is only one WAY to properly solve it (if you think there's only one solution to any given problem, you should read Flatterland, by Ian Stewart). Science...don't even get me started. No nuances, no flexibility, no recognition that what is presented as a fact today may be scorned as nonsense in a future generation.
The worst offender is the beastly invention called a textbook. Written by committees, it suffers from the same problems noted above about groupthink, but the worst of it is the anonymity. If a book has one person's name on the cover, you understand that it is one person's opinion about the topic, and shouldn't be taken as gospel. Without that reality check, naive people (like children) get the impression that everything between the textbook covers is the absolute, objective truth that everyone on the planet agrees upon.
I recently was reading Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang (so good, and horrifying). In the introduction she discusses how she was able to leave China to study at a university in England--linguistics was her major--where she had a huge epiphany.
"I remember the day that I went to discuss the plan for my thesis with my supervisor, Professor Le Page, who, through his sensitive presence alone, had already begun to help dispel the perpetual anxiety and sudden panic that were embedded in me. His mildly ironic manner and understated authority constantly reassured me, as England did, that I had come to a just place, and that I had nothing to worry about. Feeling totally relaxed, I babbled on about my views on the linguistic theories I was supposed to survey. He listened, and at the end asked me, "Couldn't you show me your thesis?" I was nonplussed, and exclaimed, "But I haven't started it yet!" He said, "But you have all the conclusions."
That single remark untied a strangling knot fastened around my brain by a totalitarian "education." We in China had been trained not to draw conclusions from facts, but to start with Marxist theories or Mao thoughts or the Party line and to deny, even condemn, the facts that did not suit them."
This same game is played in American education, to a lesser, but still significant extent. Consider a typical school test. A child must read a question and pick one of four answers as the right one. There is disgrace in choosing three of the four, including the possibility of having the limited amount of time he has available to follow his own interests replaced by the memorization of more "facts" about the subject. That is called punishment, and without thinking we do this to kids every day. So they memorize those facts to the tune of the carrot and the stick, and I believe this shuts out the deeper thinking that may have occurred regarding the topic if a free discussion and hands-on exploration were the methodology pursued--without the threat of a quiz at the end.
From the above Washington Post article:
From my 30-year career, I was clear about what young adults will need in the 21st Century. Yet, I kept seeing variants of that darn 3rd grade simple-machines lesson. Creative expansive thinking turning into narrow, prescriptive “right answers,”. Inquisitiveness shriveling up into “Will this be on the test?” A joy for learning worn down into time-efficient hoop-jumping. A willingness to take intellectual risks morphing into formulaic responses without risk of embarrassment.
How, then, would the teacher assess understanding without right and wrong answers filled in on a bubble sheet? Well, does a good grade on a quiz equal understanding of a topic? Or that the student will remember anything about it a year later? That's going off on a tangent, but the main point is that the stress surrounding learning is NOT conducive to good learning, to deep thinking. So we get generations of shallow thinkers, programmed to knee-jerk answers and sound-bite comebacks, without a thought to seeking underlying truths.
What to do? Do you have to begin every sentence with "Some people believe that..."? No, but you state on a regular basis that we need to be humble about what we think we know, since new ideas could emerge that would require us to consider them. And you pull out some good examples like how everyone used to be taught that everyone used to believe that the world was flat, but in fact many ancient people understood that it is a sphere. And how just a few years ago, cholesterol caused heart attacks, but now it doesn't (funny how that happens...). And then discussion, discussion, discussion--stating what you think to be true, poking at it to see where you might have a weak spot, etc. Often the right answer is "None of the above."
Wisdom is always in short supply. I'm quite certain that I'm not wise, but that awareness causes me to "seek learning even by study and also by faith." That takes time, it takes being humble but independent-minded, and it takes a strong desire to search for truth. I pray that we give our children this opportunity to seek wisdom as well, and not just in the small spaces between other activities, but as part and parcel of what they do every day.
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