America’s Next Greatest Failure

Boston cab drivers are full of wisdom. Recently, one lent me some of his. This cabby, now in his mid-60s, had done many things before he started driving. His main career had been with an insurance company, though he had also worked at Home Depot, Shaws, a local nursery and a driving school. His favorite role had been as a member of the Lowell Board of Education. He recalled his greatest accomplishment on the board: Convincing its members that their students could learn. His audience was experienced and skeptical. They had long given up the idea that the average Lowell student was worth much. The students that succeeded did so on their own intrinsic motivation; those that did not, had none. Therefore the board’s efforts were useless, its members had thought. But this Lowell father’s argument changed their minds. As a driving instructor, it had been his experience that if you took the five best and five worst students at Lowell High School, they would do equally well in a driver-training course. This, he said, was because they were extrinsically motivated: they all wanted the keys to the family car. Therefore success was not necessarily dependent on intrinsic motivation. Economists believe in extrinsic motivation; individuals and organizations seek a reward by marginal profit and behave formulaically to achieve their goals. But it’s this beautifully prophetic nature of economic theory that has often led markets to calamity. “According to my formula, the market should have sorted this out by now! And these prices should be lower! And England shouldn’t produce pocket watches! Didn’t anyone read Adam Smith?” Turns out— sometimes the dog won’t see the carrot, or feel the stick, or there is something else going on. Socialists, moralists, philosophizers and/or hippies prefer intrinsic motivation. We do good things because we think they are right. Either they are right for moral reasons, or for our own long-term benefit. “For the motherland, I work late into the night!” Or, “When I’m seventy I’ll have strong bones from all the milk I drink!” Or, “Although antiderivatives seem pointless now, someday I will need them! (Or they will get me into college!)” But to succeed in life, we require both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. The failure of communism proves that people won’t work on faith alone, yet in order to go the extra mile it is important to believe in what you are doing. Successful students have both. For most students at Andover, academic success has always been an intrinsic motivator. Some of our parents emphasized the importance of academics, teaching knowledge as a core value and key to happiness. Others had to find this motivation away from the dinner table, and nevertheless found it one way or another. But Andover students also benefit from extrinsic motivators. To us, the reward of academic success is tangible. Whether it is getting into a good college, achieving career aspirations or changing the world, our goals are viable possibilities. Elsewhere, this is not the case. At most public schools it is rare for a student to be accepted to a “prestigious” university. But then, it may also be less likely for a public school student to reach for one. As a good editor pointed out to me, success can have many definitions. The problem isn’t that people aspire to different things. Students should be encouraged to pursue their dreams no matter how they define success. But I wonder how many more students would pursue academic success if they too could be assured of its rewards. That is to say, if someone invested in their education. Even in many affluent areas, where the possibilities of academic success should be palpable, students can be culturally counter-academic and anti-intellectual. The notion of academic success is often met with skepticism and scorn. (I know, I went to one.)Sadly, society has justified this antipathy. We have given just about every indication to high school students that the United States is not interested in their success. We don’t fund our schools. Parents dump students in high schools but don’t expect them to learn. It’s as if the schools were only built for the sake of day care, though most look more like prisons. When students don’t succeed, adults point to those few who do: “They are intrinsically motivated! It’s not our fault you’re lazy!” It is. Intrinsic motivation is not born in a vacuum. It is learned at the dinner table. Or, if a child is particularly savvy, it is learned on the streets or on the television or in the newspapers. But it must be learned. As a society, we must teach children the value of learning. We must also invest in it. We must provide extrinsic motivation by proving to students that society is interested in their success, and that if they work, they can succeed. We must fund our schools. So long as schools go poorly funded, so long as bright students are held back and so long as they are told, “we don’t care,” neither shall the students. We justify the inequity of capitalism by talking about social mobility. Social mobility is a phantom. It is a ghost. It is a whisper. It is a farce. We accept that the rich should have better schools than the poor. We accept that neither affluent public schools nor poor public schools are effective. We accept poor rates of success. And thus, we accept that social mobility does not exist. As long as our public schools don’t work, neither will our country. James Sawabini is a four-year Senior and the former Editor in Chief of The Phillipian.