Friday, August 29, 2008


I conclude this month's topic of controversies with a discussion of the third Franklin's formula--Health, Wealth and Wisdom. The controversy about wisdom, or at least, learning, where the controversy usually settles, is the same as the others, i.e. the belief that it can be acquired through exchange, generally with a third party footing the bill. This leads to any number of problems, but today I will focus on one--lack of value, created, in my opinion, by lack of values.

It is often bemoaned that a high school education is of little value, and the value of a college education is constantly decreasing. More and more, it is expected that a person get an advanced degree before they can be really useful. The real problem, I believe, that in our public schools, students are simply not taught values and hence, their education is of little value. I begin with a simple example, tying us back to where we began--health.

In a typical public school curriculum, students receive some sort of health education almost every year through high school, and are usually required to take at least one class of health instruction as part of their general education requirements in college. The lack of value in this instruction is clearly evident in the low grade of health, not only of the students, but of the teachers themselves. Of all the health values that could and should be taught, the most important is good posture. Good posture may not be the most important of all possible health values, although, it ranks amongst the most important in a good number of alternative health systems, but it is the one value that can be taught and inculcated in the students in the classroom. A teacher can give ever so many wonderful lectures on the importance of good diet or adequate sleep, but he has little control over whether the student practices what he has been taught. But for one hour a day, he has very good control over whether his students practice good posture. Having substitued in several health classes at the high and junior high level, I can say that very few of the students have been taught in any meaningful way about good posture. Some have not even had the subject mentioned. But when I tell them that for the day, at least, that I am teaching, good posture is an absolute requirement of the class, they stare at me as if I had two heads. They don't mind being given a lecture and even a test on the value of good posture, but that it should be required of them is absolutely unheard of.

In math this has been an experience that is even more pronounced. When I require that the students have some facility with numbers they, and often when they complain about it to their parents, their parents complain vociferously. In one school they complained so loudly that the principal promised to replace me as quickly as possible. "They are here to learn algebra," the parents said. "Why should they have to worry about arithmetic. They can do that with calculators." The result, of course, is that many master calculus, and some even ordinary differential equations, in high school, but are unable perform the simple math tasks required of daily living.

I am reminded of an editorial by Lester Thurow many years ago on the Nightly Business Report. Professor Thurow--at the time an economics professor--was stating the absolute requirement for government charity, since the average American--and particulary, the average college graduate, is too deeply in debt to be charitable. As proof he offered his own experience. He was required to review the applications of students wishing to become economics graduate students at his university and he said that the average student was over 10,000 dollars in debt. (Since this was several years ago, this is the equivalent of 5 or 6 times that amount today). What he would, of course, never acknowledge, was that this was less an indication of the need for more government charity, and more an indication of the failure on the part of his colleagues to teach values adequately, or even at all. Here were students hoping to be able to manage the economies of banks, businesses, communities, states and even nations, who clearly could not manage their own. Professor Thurow would probably have been surprised and even insulted at the idea that he and his colleagues should be held responsible to provide such training.

All of this, of course, results in, as lack of understanding of value always does, in waste and the waste in schools is enormous. Not only in the waste of time, but in resources.

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