Megan McArdle points out the errors in what the various subjects of this article believe — and she’s completely right. But then the question is: why? Why do people remain ignorant of (blatantly obvious to some) things that could make themselves better off? Especially when one would think that if you were poor, figuring out how to save money on cashing checks or buying groceries would be a very, very important skill to pick up. So, why?
Why doesn’t Jacob get the bonus savings card at the supermarket? Why doesn’t Lenwood just go get a new driver’s license and go to the bank? Why does Jacob react like this at the store:
[Jacob] Carter, a building engineer, snatches up the money, then gives it to the clerk. His final bill is $39.07.
He looks at the receipt and then announces without the slightest indication as to why: “Just give me all my [expletive] money back. It’s too high in this [expletive].” The clerk calls the supervisor, who comes over. The supervisor doesn’t argue with Carter. She just starts the process of giving him a refund.
“I want my money back. This [expletive] is too high. My grandmother told me about this store.”
Even though the prices actually are lower than he normally pays, he’s angry and ends up walking out, insulting the people who are just trying to help him. Why? It’s because he’s humiliated by a system with which he’s unfamiliar. Regular supermarket customers, when arriving with $43, make sure that the things they have put into their basket are less than that amount. Why didn’t Jacob do this? I don’t know the specifics, but I’m sure that if he had been going to this store (or one like it) since he was young, he would. It’s the same reason Lenwood doesn’t like the bank. It’s an unfamiliar place filled with rules and people that you don’t understand, and you feel like you’re being taken advantage of.
I know — I feel the exact same way about the home refinancing that I’m working on right now. I have a basic understanding about the fundamentals, but I dislike working with the loan people about it, because I always feel like I’m being scammed, because I am unfamiliar with the entire process and all the complexities. I ask stupid questions and I get the mental *sigh* as they politely walk me through what seems blindingly obvious to them. And I know they do it, because I know I do the same thing when trying to explain some triviality in a field in which I’m relatively adept.
So now we get to the point: why are supermarkets and banks unfamiliar territory to Jacob and Lenwood? At some point, everywhere was unfamiliar and scary to us, but then usually our parents took us there and we understood it. This didn’t happen with their parents — so who can we lean on to teach it? I vote that schools should. Is there any reason at all that public schools, theoretically designed to grant all the skills one needs to survive in our society, aren’t teaching these things? Why are there classes on the American Revolution but none on how to save money at the grocery store? Why are there classes in chemistry but not how to deal with getting a check cashed? Are these things really “beneath” the noble construct that is a high school education? While we’re at it, why not have classes on how to save money, how to earn interest, how to apply for a job, how to write a resume? I didn’t get “taught” those last two until halfway through college.
This leads to the final issue: the frustration and anger felt by Jacob and Lenwood at these systems. The reason for this is somewhat related — I’m sure they got forced through quite a few years of public school, the system with which everyone is probably most familiar when learning about how the world works. And that system sucked. It tried to make them learn what seemed like useless stuff, got angry at them when they didn’t want to, and basically treated them like crap. However, they did learn one thing: that systems/institutions suck and are out to get them. To them it was arbitrary, chock full of rules and rule-enforcers who thought very little of them. And it’s not just their schools — mine was, and everyone I knew as a kid thought so. Certainly this girl will agree.
I think this is why the “stay in school” line feels like such a betrayal — why are these famous people telling us we should stay in our terrible schools that aren’t teaching us anything useful, while many of them earn fabulous wealth using skills these schools couldn’t possibly teach? If this is what you went through, schools, banks, governments, cops, grocery stores all get lumped into the colloquial screwer of the little guy: the Man. The fact that some of these institutions really aren’t trying to screw anyone is usually ignored in favor of the fact that so many of them are.
How do we make schools something that teaches students to make institutions work for them? My vote for a solution is school choice — certainly our current method isn’t working too well. So long as we make public school the showcase institution that shapes the worldview of our children, people like Jacob and Lenwood are going to feel anger, confusion and betrayal with every institution that comes after. And the only way to improve schools is to give the students (and/or their parents) some power in the relationship — the power to vote with their feet.
Edit: commenters at Megan’s site post things like this, while at least accurately assessing that education is the heart of the matter:
We offer education. We pressure them to stay in school. As Basil states, there are clear and definite advantages to getting as much education as you can, and going as far as you can.
The problem is that even if you get 12 years of ”education,” it’s absolutely terrible. I went to a “good” public school, the kind parents moved into the town for the primary reason of sending their kids there. But it was terrible. If I were relying solely on the things the school taught me, I’d be a complete disaster. I know people like to think they are refined products of their education, but look over your daily life. What enables you to succeed? Is it what you learned in your grade 1-12 education? Unlikely. More likely you succeed via things your parents/mentors/peers taught you, and potentially what you learned in college, if you are actually in the field you majored in. Ask yourself how well off you’d be without those things. For me, it’s certainly not a pretty thought.