Given A Choice…

Given the choice, would you rather be productive or happy? I remember posing that question to six high school students from independent schools in and around New York City, 15 or so years ago. To a boy and girl, all said they would rather be happy. Being a New Englander to the core, I was surprised, even shocked. In the conversation that followed, I argued that the main road to happiness went through productivity. I don’t think I convinced any of the kids.

What’s your answer?

Here’s another forced choice: Which is of greater importance, the quality of the teacher or the work that students are expected to do? And while you ponder that, let me go back to the first question, because I now believe I know why those young people answered the way they did.

Frank McCourt had an idea about the true purposes of schooling from his days at Stuyvesant.

They didn’t choose ‘happiness’ because they were spoiled and overprivileged (although some were). Nor did they opt for ‘happiness’ because of their youth. Rather, I think they simply weren’t capable of understanding the question because their life experience — especially their schooling — hadn’t allowed them to experience the joys of being productive. I was asking them to choose between something they knew, happiness, and something that was foreign to them, and so of course they went with the known concept.

In the vast majority of schools, including theirs, students don’t experience the hard, often painful but ultimately satisfying work of creating real products; instead they most often give back to their teachers the answers that are expected. That’s what’s rewarded, and kids are smart enough to get with the program. They have been taught to follow the that road leads to a better college, a better job, and a comfortable existence.

When I interviewed Frank McCourt, the author of Angela’s Ashes, back in 2000, the issue of expectations came up. Here’s part of what he said:

One parent in my 18 years at Stuyvesant (High School), one parent said to me, “Is my son enjoying school?” And I was up to say “I think he is.” Only one. Because the rest say, “Oh God, is he doing his work? I’m worrying about his PSATs and his SATs and his application to Yale and Cornell ” and the rest of it.
And that forced me to think about what the hell was I doing in this classroom? And then I had to say to myself “Well, it sounds banal, but you’re doing it for freedom. To go from fear to freedom, because we all suffer from some kind of fear. To have the kids think for themselves and not to be afraid to think for themselves. But they’re discouraged from thinking for themselves because they’re told all the time “the test, the test, the test.” We don’t, in any Socratic way, pursue wisdom. And I think that’s what it’s all about. The pursuit of wisdom.

How does one successfully make the journey from fear to freedom? Only by confronting fears, trying, falling short, and getting up and trying again. Being able to point to something of significance and say or think, “I did that” or “We did that” is liberating.

The one arena where students are expected to fail and learn and try again — and the only places where students regularly create and produce real work — are the so-called extra-curricular activities like sports, theatre, music, art and journalism. Whether it’s shooting free throws or trying to achieve perspective in a sketch, failure and second effort are assumed. When a kid flubs a line on stage or double faults, she’s expected to suck it up and try again. Coaches are there to help kids get better, and everyone understands the rewards of hard work. And it’s real work, with a product: a newspaper, a successful musical or a strong team effort on the court.

That’s why so many kids are willing to work as hard as they do in their extra-curricular activities. For some kids, that’s their main reason for coming to school!

Can schools figure out ways to incorporate the attributes and demands of extra-curricular activities into the regular curriculum? I hope so.

To my second question: What’s more important, the quality of the teacher or the work that students are expected to do? The conventional wisdom puts teacher quality at the top of the pyramid, of course, and everyone has heard about the research that seems to suggest that having outstanding teachers three years in a row is life-changing.

I don’t buy it . Teachers matter, but I think the work matters more. If we designed schools so that students were challenged to create knowledge, instead of regurgitating, we would see kids soar — even if they had average teachers. And today’s technologies allow young people to connect with just about anyone, anywhere. I have written about this in The Influence of Teachers and in a few blog posts over the past year and so won’t rehash those arguments here.

But I hope we will, after the election, begin a serious conversation about what we’d like our young people to grow up to be. Recall the wisdom of Aristotle, “We are what we repeatedly do.” If we want our youth to be productive and happy adults, then we must create opportunities for them — now, while they are in school — to enjoy the joys of genuine productivity.

Your thoughts?

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6 thoughts on “Given A Choice…

  1. Answering, for me, your two questions is identical: THEY BOTH MATTER EQUALLY!!! Going further, I strongly believe one cannot have one without the other. Even after formal education ends, it’s our “rolodex” of contacts that become our tutors / mentors.


  2. You may know of Phillip Lopate’s Being With Children – if not, it’s worth reading – here’s a quote from it that I particularly value:

    “My thinking about education has undergone a very noticeable shift…Then I was more concerned with releasing children’s imaginations. By now, I almost take [that] for granted…[and] would say my main thrust is teaching the discipline of sticking to something. Building, finishing on a promising start are the skills I most want to give students. And beyond that, an understanding of how continuity operates: how far one can follow out a strand, and when it is necessary to abandon it and start a new one, and whether, at some later point, it is possible to combine the two strands.

    “…The discovery of talented products by children creates a burden to bring them to light. But there is no getting around that burden. What is true for our own work is equally true for the children’s. They need to learn how to see and respond to the desirable burden which good, unfinished work places on people…In any case, it is impossible to overstress the importance of building habits of work completion at an early age. Whether…from the scientific…or the artistic area,…the value of following through the work and sharing the information with the community is universally applicable.

    “[Children] like to feel connected to the world of work, production, manufacture. I will go so far as to say that they often hunger for work. But that work must be serious… Of course they resent the busywork of satisfying an endless stream of workbook demands…They are adept skirters of other people’s assignments… But give them a job which is seriously going to amount to something, or which they have chosen to do through their own interest, and they can work at it all day. Then the myth that children have short attention spans is shown up for the oversimplification is it.”


  3. Just to reaffirm the idea of the arts. I was a middle school art teacher for 36 years. In seventh grade we did a very big project making large paper mache fish. It took nearly 8 weeks. But the students dedication to this one thing (they named their fish – gave it identity) was amazing! They NEVER had spent so much time on one thing. They worked diligently, enjoyed each others’ company, came in extra time, and were so proud of their finished products. ALL the students finished them – even if it meant coming in at lunch. Some even told me that was the only quarter they had perfect attendance. Years later when I run into past students many of them tell me they still have their fish!! They learned so much – and most of it was outside the assignment – it was about life and, yes, productivity and patience and “stick-to-itiveness”.
    Thanks, John, your insights and wisdom are an oasis in the desert of educ. reform rhetoric!!


  4. John, you seem to be thinking about secondary school as you write this. But, sure, motivation matters at all levels.

    the second question is perhaps not so much about the quality of teaching as about the definition of teaching. Note that story last week in the NYTimes generally about how the growing place of ‘screens’ in children’s lives is making classroom work harder for teachers . “I’m having to be an entertainer”, one California teacher was quoted as saying.

    Well, sure, if you try to keep doing whole-class ‘instruction’.

    Have a look at this, John: It might respond to both your questions.


  5. good questions, as usual, John…

    I think the “answers” are multilayered…bifurcating “happy and productive” is a forced choice, of course, and developmentally, I am not at all suprised that high schoolers chose “happy”.

    One issue here is the assumptions that are behind the concept of “happiness”. If you ask adults, as I do, what that means, it includes productivity, meaning, joy…..perhaps breaking apart the underlying thoughts and feelings that give rise to “happy” vs “productive” would be the next step in the conversation…

    and that we can be both..happy and productive…

    thanks for the thought!


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