American schools are modeled to teach children that affirmation comes from achievement and that’s a dangerous model to follow. We’ve seen a general evacuation of interest in the humanities, in favor of more ‘profitable’ and ‘tangible’ studies. But along with that sea change, Americans are reporting more stress, less satisfaction, and earning less. So why do we work? Is our appreciation of education for hard skills misguided?
During the past decade, enrollment rates in the humanities, e.g. English, philosophy, language, etc., have declined. At Stanford, it is reported that only 15% of the student population is enrolled in a humanities major but 45% of the undergraduate faculty teach it.
Teaching students that working hard, studying, being innovative, etc., will result in success is great. But they may have no means of quantifying that success. In fact, it has been found that some of the richest nations in the world, by the tangible measurement, see that approximately 1 out of every 10 adults uses an antidepressant. In the United States, that number has been increasing by 20% for the past 3 years.
During the Olympic Games, Cadillac, the luxury car dealer, ran a commercial that typified the sentiment that taking time off is equitable to a kind of softness that makes America better than those “other countries” through our refusal to do so.
“Other countries they work, they stroll home, stop by the cafe, they take August off. Off. Why aren’t you like that? Why aren’t WE like that? Because we’re crazy-driven, hard working believers, that’s why.”
The commercial is right. We are believers.
Our economy, our education, our belief is that if we work hard enough, strive long enough, walk the straight-and-narrow straighter and narrower than before, we’ll get somewhere. But what we’re finding more and more is that, that new somewhere is not very different than where we started. All of the added stuff doesn’t change that.
The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius once wrote that “Men seek retreats for themselves, houses in the country, sea-shores and mountains; and thou too art wont to desire such things very much. But this is altogether a mark of the most common sort of men, for it is in thy power whenever thou shalt choose to retire into thyself. For nowhere either with more quiet or more freedom from trouble does a man retire than into his own soul.”
But in America, we don’t even seek retreats any longer. The United States is among the developed nations as the only nation to not provide statutory vacation requirements. But even without this, over 50% of Americans will go without using the vacation time their employer does provide.
Finding that accumulating great wealth will not alter or change our desire for more, our faith should rightly be shaken. It is for this reason that it has long been known that a vital piece of the education puzzle is not only to teach students how to perform a skill but how to live well.
The failure of our education system to do this, the avoidance of that difficult task, is a terrifying cancer that needs to be cut out.
The Cadillac commercial calls out a number of pioneers and exemplars of their model of American exceptionalism, among them are Bill Gates and the Wright Brothers. These individuals are lifted up as testament to what avoiding your vacation and striving to earn more things can do for you.
Nevermind that Bill Gates takes a week to retreat and think about technology twice a year or that the Wright Brothers would abandon their bicycle shop for a month to camp in the wild, we still believe that those two weeks we take off in August and all of our shiny toys are enough.