Over-Prized Productivity

This is a guest post by John Young, a former teacher in the Baltimore City Public Schools, a homeschooler, and an adjunct professor at the Community Colleges of Baltimore County, who divides his time between Maryland and Florida.

During the most prime of all media markets—Super Bowl TV season—IBM heavily touted how its supercomputer Watson was collaborating with the elites of the world—from medical specialists to music artists to accountants. Those who do not wholeheartedly buy into this supposed greatness may respond, “As if it weren’t hard enough to make a mark in the world, now we have to compete with a computer!”—and if art and medicine are even somewhat analogous to the world of taxi drivers, truckers, and factory workers, then these detractors may have a point. While not all futurists believe that humans will be entirely replaced, nearly all of them conclude that the majority of jobs that exist now will be—including white-collar ones. Regardless, the past century gives credence to the statement that no one human is indispensable and to the prediction that each of us is becoming less so.

In the face of this, it makes sense to focus on measures of success other than productivity. In response to Ayn Rand’s claim that mankind’s noblest activity is “productive achievement,” Dr. Albert Ellis—the founder of Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy—states that “we would do better to deemphasize the virtue of productiveness, and perhaps emphasize some other of the virtues of living” (Is Objectivism a Religion? p.150). While pure unproductiveness equals starvation, starvation in developed countries is hardly a threat—whereas an unending rat race certainly threatens if not the literal heart, then the figurative one.

In 1966, John Holt published an article in the New York Times Magazine called “The Fourth R—The Rat Race,” in which he states that colleges secretly or unsecretly promote exclusivity for the purpose of enriching endowments. What constitutes the legitimate role of universities, he states, is to “help boys and girls become, in the broadest sense of the word, educated adults and citizens” (this article is reprinted in Holt’s book The Underachieving School). Now, five decades later, the Harvard Business School’s mission equates educated with a literal world-changer. It proposes “to educate leaders who make a difference in the world.” (An idealistic goal, even for a business leader.) The largest public school system in the United States—the New York City Department of Education—has a mission statement including the phrase that “every child [be] prepared for college, a career, and a future as a productive, critically thinking adult.” Critical thinking, as Holt pointed out, is the goal, but this is hardly equal to a productive career. As Ellis points out, productivity is often antithetical to critical thinking. The third largest system in the United States—the Puerto Rico Department of Education—goes so far to say, “Our mission is to promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness . . .” I believe the past has proven and the future will show that this mission is doomed to failure.

Holt calls us to deemphasize the virtue of productivity for the sake of becoming an educated citizen. Dr. Ellis would have us forego changing the world for the sake of enjoying oneself. And both men would have approved of Dr. Daniel Fader’s approach to teaching reading in his book Hooked on Books, which used a matrix of “reading enjoyment” as a mark of success over and above anything else. Dr. Fader did not attempt to break the reading process into clunky categories to judge a student’s whole ability and then rank them. Yet, isn’t that how the competitive institutions of education operate almost exclusively? Why is over-analysis growing more popular in an overly analytical age?

While I am not saying that young people should never compete, to say that all young people should be forced to achieve makes as much sense as saying that all youth should be forced to appreciate fishing in a canoe all day. If some individual wishes to devote her life to the cutting edge of cancer research and tickle her vanity by becoming rich and famous, fine! But to start with the goal that all students possess a similar goal is silly. The aforementioned men were asserting this in the 1960s. As Holt so richly expressed in his canon of work, children should always have a route to the same reservoir of enjoyment that happy adults do; homeschooling parents should principally allow children to enjoy themselves, even at the potential cost of not being productive. The risk is minimal, for the world does not need our productivity. The potential upside is great.

In a wonderful article in Outside Magazine (Sept 2014), Ben Hewitt wrote about how his children sat and studied in a scholastic manner for only two hours per month. The rest of the time, they discovered the world around them with as much or as little help as they themselves desired. The result: a happier, healthier, and wittier family could hardly be found. In comparison, I believe the tidal bitterness of this last presidential election is due to Americans—on the Left and the Right—who competed their whole lives but who felt they didn’t get their fair due.

Lest someone call my point quaint (“How cute that he suggest we spend our lives doing what gives us pleasure! But in the real world . . .”), I would first quote Holt:

“The younger generation . . . [does] not seek more knowledge and power so that they may do great work of their own choosing; instead, they do their tasks, doggedly and often well, because they dare not refuse” (The Underachieving School).

How sad, but how preventable. I will also be so bold to claim that especially the Hot Shot Universities (as Holt called them) have failed to read the obvious signs writ large. Automation proves a serious threat to every avenue of employment; China is the largest English-speaking country in the world, and the amount of people against whom one is potentially competing grows enormously every day, especially in already competitive areas. Just as Hot Shot Universities eulogize how many people they reject, so do publishing houses, consumer magazines, fiction venues, non-fiction venues, travel-writing venues, and so on.

If I could have given myself one piece of advice when I was a child, it would have been: “If you happen to make your mark by doing what you purely enjoy, then fine. But never do what you fail to enjoy for the sake of making your mark.”