Prosperity and Lack of Motivation

Categories: Education, Ethics, Politics & Economics

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Thomas Friedman has managed to publish a good op-ed in the NYTimes, one in which he looks at America’s shrinking status as a superpower and persistent educational failings (building off two other recent pieces, this one by Michael Hirsh and this one by Robert Samuelson) and ultimately concludes that the real problem has been a “values breakdown” that has led to the many problems we are seeing today. He points to Samuelson’s observation that one reason we continue to pour money into education (for “reform”) while getting seemingly no results for all this money and effort is because the problem isn’t so much bad teachers, principals, or selfish teacher unions.

The larger cause of failure is almost unmentionable: shrunken student motivation. Students, after all, have to do the work. If they aren’t motivated, even capable teachers may fail.

Motivation comes from many sources: curiosity and ambition; parental expectations; the desire to get into a “good” college; inspiring or intimidating teachers; peer pressure. The unstated assumption of much school “reform” is that if students aren’t motivated, it’s mainly the fault of schools and teachers. The reality is that, as high schools have become more inclusive (in 1950, 40 percent of 17-year-olds had dropped out, compared with about 25 percent today) and adolescent culture has strengthened, the authority of teachers and schools has eroded. That applies more to high schools than to elementary schools, helping explain why early achievement gains evaporate.

Motivation is weak because more students (of all races and economic classes, let it be added) don’t like school, don’t work hard and don’t do well. In a 2008 survey of public high school teachers, 21 percent judged student absenteeism a serious problem; 29 percent cited “student apathy.” The goal of expanding “access” — giving more students more years of schooling — tends to lower educational standards.

To this, Friedman adds:

There is a lot to Samuelson’s point — and it is a microcosm of a larger problem we have not faced honestly as we have dug out of this recession: We had a values breakdown — a national epidemic of get-rich-quickism and something-for-nothingism. Wall Street may have been dealing the dope, but our lawmakers encouraged it. And far too many of us were happy to buy the dot-com and subprime crack for quick prosperity highs.

After arguing that it was the self-sacrifice and sense of civic duty that made “The Greatest Generation” great, he points to the present state of affairs by contrast.

Contrast that with the Baby Boomer Generation. Our big problems are unfolding incrementally — the decline in U.S. education, competitiveness and infrastructure, as well as oil addiction and climate change. Our generation’s leaders never dare utter the word “sacrifice.” All solutions must be painless. Which drug would you like? A stimulus from Democrats or a tax cut from Republicans? A national energy policy? Too hard. For a decade we sent our best minds not to make computer chips in Silicon Valley but to make poker chips on Wall Street, while telling ourselves we could have the American dream — a home — without saving and investing, for nothing down and nothing to pay for two years. Our leadership message to the world (except for our brave soldiers): “After you.”

So much of today’s debate between the two parties, notes David Rothkopf, a Carnegie Endowment visiting scholar, “is about assigning blame rather than assuming responsibility. It’s a contest to see who can give away more at precisely the time they should be asking more of the American people.”

Rothkopf and I agreed that we would get excited about U.S. politics when our national debate is between Democrats and Republicans who start by acknowledging that we can’t cut deficits without both tax increases and spending cuts — and then debate which ones and when — who acknowledge that we can’t compete unless we demand more of our students — and then debate longer school days versus school years — who acknowledge that bad parents who don’t read to their kids and do indulge them with video games are as responsible for poor test scores as bad teachers — and debate what to do about that.

Who will tell the people? China and India have been catching up to America not only via cheap labor and currencies. They are catching us because they now have free markets like we do, education like we do, access to capital and technology like we do, but, most importantly, values like our Greatest Generation had. That is, a willingness to postpone gratification, invest for the future, work harder than the next guy and hold their kids to the highest expectations.

One conclusion where I disagree is that Friedman seems to think longer school days are part of the answer, but this runs counter to Samuelson’s earlier point about student motivation. Rather than going for longer days, we should be more efficient and demanding of our students; the law of diminishing returns begins to take effect with respect to time spent at school. Frankly, the bigger problem is that the “students” ultimately need more time around responsible parents and other adults and less time vegetating in slow-moving classrooms. But few are the children who have two parents who actually will take the time to spend with their kids—they’re too busy out working or doing other things (and few kids have two parents anymore to begin with).

Secondly, these sorts of values shifts are not uncommon in a nation-state having gone through a lengthy period of prosperity—awareness of it goes as far back as Herotodus (1, 71), who cites the advice of Sandanus, who warns Lydian king Croesus against attacking the Persians:

“O King, you are getting ready to march against men who wear leather trousers and whose whole wardrobe is of leather, men who don’t eat what they like but but what they have, because their land is stony. Furthermore, they do not use wine, but drink water, have no figs to eat, or anything else that is good. Now if you conquer them, of what will you deprive them, since they have nothing? But if on the other hand you are conquered, then look how many good things you will lose; for once they have tasted of our blessings they will cling so tightly to them that nothing will pry them away. For myself, then, I thank the gods that they don’t put it in the heads of the Persians to march against the Lydians.” Sandanis spoke thus but he did not persuade Croesus. Indeed, before they conquered the Lydians, the Persians had no luxury and no comforts.

Later, we are told (this time through the lips of Cyrus):

“Soft (affluent) lands breed soft men; excellent fruits of the earth and valiant warriors don’t grow from the same soil.”

One of the themes that emerges from Herodotus’ history is that those who have become accustomed to luxury ultimately lose the character and motivation to sustain their prosperity, eventually giving way to those who have been hardened by hardship. So, back to Friedman:

Ask yourself: What made our Greatest Generation great? First, the problems they faced were huge, merciless and inescapable: the Depression, Nazism and Soviet Communism. Second, the Greatest Generation’s leaders were never afraid to ask Americans to sacrifice. Third, that generation was ready to sacrifice, and pull together, for the good of the country. And fourth, because they were ready to do hard things, they earned global leadership the only way you can, by saying: “Follow me.”

What made the Greatest Generation great and separates it from what we see in the present? I would suggest that it was that the Great Generation arose in the midst of the hardship of the Great Depression. From childhood, they knew hardship and what it was to sacrifice. They shared bedrooms with multiple siblings and were happy to receive a piece of fruit for Christmas. By contrast, my generation (not to mention the one after me) has arisen during a long period of prolonged affluence propped up by easy credit and a consumer culture that has lived well beyond its means. Just as the Depression was a key ingredient in producing the Greatest Generation, our prolonged affluence has now provided the key ingredients for what just might turn out to be America’s “Worst Generation.”

(This, I suspect, is something those who consistently push for more and more spending and consumption to prop up the economy, lest anyone have to endure hard times, have not considered: periodic times of difficulty are good for people and nations. Without having gone through hard times, the character and perspective necessary to sustain true greatness are not developed, with the poverty of character ultimately leading to total collapse. It is also one of the reasons that I believe it is important not to prevent the consequences of foolish excess—if we are going to allow boom periods, we absolutely must allow the busts that follow from them. To attempt otherwise is only harmful for the nation in the long run.)

Honestly, is anyone really surprised that our students are unmotivated when so many of them have everything they could want already? I’m just shocked that in raising kids to whom we try to give everything, they don’t seem motivated to work hard or reach for anything! In sports, the difference between a hungry team and one that has gotten satisfied with its success is immediately noticeable. Less talented but hungry teams often beat their more talented but satisfied foes. We have been raising kids who are used to having everything; should we really be surprised that they wind up soft, selfish, and unmotivated? Soft times of prosperity produce soft people with no motivation or strength—it produces people who feel as though they’re entitled to what they already have (and more). Again, look at things physically. How does a person get stronger? By working hard and pushing his/her body through difficult resistance. Resistance is ultimately what produces strength. We’ve been trying to produce a strong generation by making things easier, by focusing more on better teachers, better programs, everything to make things better, easier, more fun for the kids. But what if what they need isn’t for things to be made smoother? What if what they really need is some obstacles to overcome? People from ages past have understood this. Somehow we’ve forgotten it.

We don’t need to make school more enjoyable, more fun, to motivate our students. What we desperately need is for our students to feel like they have something they must overcome, something that gives them hunger. That is where real motivation comes from. Again, in sports, great coaches find ways to let their successful teams feel deprived of something to keep their teams hungry and motivated. Great coaches recognize that success (prosperity) is all too often the greatest enemy of more success.

Perhaps most concerning—and most reflective of the values shift in our culture—is the fact that (thanks in part to hip-hop culture, which has glorified me-first opulence and prominent displays of wealth) this unmotivated, entitlement attitude persists even at low-income levels in the USA. Unlike in the past (and in other parts of the world) lower income students don’t tend to be significantly more motivated than their more affluent peers. Instead of our less affluent groups being the backbone, providing the strength of the nation thanks to their knowledge of hardship and increased motivation, we have managed to enfeeble the core of our society by convincing them that they deserve better, that they’re entitled to it—not because they’ll work harder and earn their way, but because it should be given to them by those who are more more privileged. We have—often as a matter of policy—moved further and further from values based on responsibility, sacrifice, and consequences for actions and more towards the “soft” nation values of entitlement and the “right to prosperity” (or health insurance). I am by no means suggesting that we should never help those less fortunate or that we should try to keep things difficult for the poor; I am only suggesting that in our efforts to help, we all too often weaken, stripping away the special strength and dignity that can only be gained by endurance through trial and overcoming obstacles. Paradoxically, it is when we make others dependent on our good will that we have most dehumanized them and asserted our power over them—when the poor become dependent on the rich (or the government) for their welfare, they are more thoroughly dehumanized (and enfeebled, especially if it comes to be seen as an entitlement) than if they were not given any assistance at all.

The USA is suffering from a values, leadership, and character deficit above everything else. Ultimately, the only answer is a values shift; I’m just not sure this generation is willing to make that move. Excessive prosperity has historically been the enemy of nation-states and societies; it’s only a matter of time before we see how the USA will fare.

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