Tuesday, September 19, 2006

A *Chance* Encounter

I was delivering a closing keynote at a conference in Medora, ND last week and happened to run into an acquaintance who has a coffee shop in Medora. We had a nice chat and she shared with me a story she used to share with her volleyball players when she was a coach at my alma mater, Concordia College.

Even 16 years later, it still gives me a lot to think about.

Here's Ben Stein's 1990 take on what was then, and still may be, going on with our youth and their attitude toward hard work.

Fable of the Lazy Teenager
Condensed from Business Month

"It takes a sense of history to have a sense of purpose"

One day last fall, I ran out of file folders and went to the local drugstore to buy more. I put a handful of folders on the counter and asked a clerk, in his late teens, how much they cost. "I don't know," he answered sullenly. "I guess a buck each."

"A dollar apiece?" I said. "That can't be right." The clerk shrugged.

Another clerk - an older Asian woman - told me the price was 12 cents apiece. I returned to the counter, where a teenage girl was now at the cash register. I counted the folders. "Twenty-three at 12 cents each," I said. "That's $2.76 before tax."

"You did that in your head?" she asked in amazement. "How can you do that?"

"It's magic," I said.

"Really?" she asked.

No modestly educated adult can fail to be upset by such an experience. While our children seem better-natured than ever, they are so ignorant that they terrify me. In a class of 60 juniors and seniors at a private college where I recently taught, not one student could consistently write a short paper without misspellings. Not one.

But this is just a tiny sliver of the problem. The ability to perform even the simplest computations is only a memory among many students I see, and their knowledge of world history or geography is zilch. Moreover, there is a chilling complacency about all this ignorance. The attitude was summed up by a friend's bright, lazy 16-year-old son, who explained why he preferred not to go to UCLA. "I don't want to have to compete with Asians," he said. "They work hard and know everything."

In fact, this young man will have to compete with Asians whether he wants to or not. He cannot live forever on the financial, material and human capital accumulated by his forebears. At some point soon, his intellectual laziness will seriously affect his way of life. It will also affect the safety, security and prosperity of the rest of us. A modern industrial state cannot function with a slothful, ignorant labor force. Planes will crash on carrier decks. Computers will jam. Cars will break down.

To drive this message home to such young Americans, I have a humble suggestion: a movie, or TV series, dramatizing just how difficult it was for this country to get where it is - and how easily it could all be lost. I offer the following fable:

As the story opens, our hero, Kevin Hanley 1990, a 17-year-old high school senior, is sulking in his room. His parents insist he study for his European history test. He wants to go shopping for headphones for his portable CD player. The book he is forced to read - The Wealth of Nations - puts him to sleep.

Kevin dreams it is 1835 and he is his own great-great-great-grandfather at 17, a peasant in County Kerry, Ireland. He lives in a sod hut and sleeps next to a hog. He is always hungry and must scrounge for food. His greatest wish is to learn to read and write so he might get a job as a clerk. With steady wages, he would be able to feed himself and help his famly. But Hanley's poverty allows no leisure for such luxuries as going to school. Without education and money, he is powerless. His only hope lies in his children. If they are educated, they will have a better life.

Our fable fast forwards, and Kevin Hanley 1990 is now his own great-grandfather, Kevin Hanley 1928. He, too, is 17 years old, and he works in a steel mill in Pittsburgh. His father emigrated from Ireland and helped build the New York City subways. Kevin Hanley 1928 is far better off than either his father or his grandfather. He can read and write, which means he can follow the instructions for operating an open-hearth furnace. His wages are incomparably better than anything his ancestors had in Ireland.

Even so, Kevin Hanley 1928 believes real hope lies in the future generations and knows that education is the key. He had to go to work before he could finish high school. His son will finish so that he won't have to work in a factory.

Next Kevin Hanley 1990 dreams that he is Kevin Hanley 1945, his own grandfather, fighting on Iwo Jima against a most tenacious foe, the Japanese army. He is always hot, always hungry, always scared. One night in a foxhole, he tells a buddy why he is there: "So my son and his son can live in peace and security. When I get back, I'll work hard and send my boy to college so he can live by his brains instead of his back."

Then Kevin Hanley 1990 is his own father, Kevin Hanley 1966, who studies all the time so he can get into college and law school. He lives in a tract house in a new development. He has never seen anything but peace and plenty. He tells his girlfriend that when he has a son, he won't make him study all the time, as his father makes him.

At that point Kevin Hanley 1990 wakes up, shaken by his dream. He is relieved to be away from Ireland and Iwo Jima and the steel mill. He goes back to sleep.

When he dreams again, he is his own son, Kevin Hanley 2020. He lives in a virtual stockade. There is gunfire all day and all night. His whole generation forgot why there even was law, so there is none. People pay no attention to politics, and government offers no services to the working class.

Kevin 2020's father, who is of course Kevin 1990 himself, works as a janitor in a factory owned by the Japanese. Kevin 2020 is a porter in a hotel for wealthy Europeans and Asians. Public education stops at the sixth grade. There is no tax base to pay for decent schools. Americans have long since stopped demanding good education for their children. Asians dominate American life. The rest are either drones for foreign investors - who consider Americans inherently stupid and lazy, fit only for manual labor - or criminals who supply drugs to the numbed workers.

Fast foward to Kevin 2050 who has no useful skills. Machines built in Japan and Taiwan do all the complex work, and there is little menial work to be done. Without education, without discipline, he cannot command even a subsistence wage. He lives by rifling through trash piles.

In a word, he lives much as Kevin Hanley 1835 did in Ireland. But Kevin Hanley 2050 gets a break. He is befriended by a visiting Japanese anthropologist studying the decline of America. The man explains to Kevin that when a man has no money, education can supply the human capital necesary to start acquiring financial capital. Hard work, education, saving and discipline can do anything. "This is how we rose from the ashes after you defeated us in a war about a hundred years ago."

"America beat Japan in war?" asks Kevin 2050. He is astounded. It seems as impossible as Brazil defeating the United States would sound in 1990. Kevin 2050 vows that if he ever has children, he will make sure they work and study and learn and discipline themselves. "To be able to make a living by one's mind instead of by stealing," he says. "That would be a miracle."

When Kevin 1990 wakes up, next to him is his copy of The Wealth of Nations. He opens it at random and reads: "A man without the proper use of the intellectual faculties of a man is, if possible, more contemptible than even a coward and seems to be mutilated and deformed in a still more essential part of the character of human nature."

Kevin's father walks in. "All right, son," he says. "Let's go look at that stereo stuff."

"Sorry, Pop," Kevin 1990 says. "I have to study."


At 9:52 PM, Blogger Terry Starbucker said...

That Ben Stein writes some very good stuff, doesn't he? It seems like I quote him every other week these days. He's fearless when it comes to telling us things we don't necessarily want to hear. Thanks Jodee for sharing this. All the best.

At 6:52 PM, Blogger Jodee Bock said...


I really like Ben Stein, too - he's funny yet really on the money. Thanks for visiting, Starbucker! Hope all is well out west!!



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