Monday, September 13, 2010


From this sharp piece by Thomas L. Friedmen:

“The larger cause of failure is almost unmentionable: shrunken student motivation,” wrote Samuelson. “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.” Wrong, he said. “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.’ ”

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.

Makes me wish I'd read a book that my dad often cites, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, because I have a feeling this would be apropos...

But doesn't this sound more like something you'd see in a conservative Christian magazine, ranting about the disintegration of a nation that was founded by great men, than like something you'd see in one of the country's largest newspapers, published out of the city known for its rich diversity? New York Times, you surprise me.

On a more contentful note: I think the real epidemic is a shortage of purpose, and a surplus of despair and boredom.

In primary school, kids don't participate in class because they're thinking about their future careers--they participate because of much more immediate effects, such as: having fun, wanting the approval of authorities, being interested in the world. Again, in secondary school, students don't become diligent in school because they want to get rich later--they work hard because they believe in something, whether it's environmentalism, preservation of historical artifacts, good-student-ism.

Without a sense of purpose, without a narrative for your life, what's to structure your time and thoughts? You'll be pushed around by your moods and your circumstances, and sometimes, class or work or marriage or whatever just won't seem worthwhile, and that will be all the loss of incentive it takes to let it gradually fall apart. If you don't have a sense of what the whole show is about, nothing in it will hold your attention. That's what I call a breakdown in values.

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