Public Square

Shirking Our Way to Mediocrity

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Second grade marked the beginning of my career as a professional academic. Dad started paying me for my grades in 1985, and I remember it like it was yesterday. Whenever I got a report card, we would sit down and tally up my paycheck: $4 for an A, $3 for a B, and $2 for a C. Thankfully, it wasn’t until pre-calculus in high school that I learned how much a D was worth. This was a wonderful scheme, I was getting paid to do something I had to do.

What triggered this memory was an article I read in the August 19th issue of The Economist, Can’t be asked.” The article was about the continual mediocre performance of U.S. students on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) exams and a recent research paper on this phenomenon. PISA is a set of standardized tests used to compare students in different nations. It is far from perfect, but at the moment it is the best we have.

The Americans’ poor performance on these exams year after year is a bit of a puzzle. On the surface, given the strong relationship between education, innovation, and economic growth, it doesn’t appear that our economy has been hindered too much by our meager academic performance. We seem to be right in line with other high-income nations.

That being said, we would surely have seen more innovation and higher growth if our education system were a bit stronger. Given the tremendous benefits that come from innovation and growth, a marginal improvement in either could dramatically improve the lives of many.

Should Incentives Matter in Education?

To understand why American students do not do particularly well on PISA exams, the researchers offered to pay students based on their performance on a practice test. The higher their score, the more money they earned.

Nate the Economist has no problem with incentivizing students to do well in school. (If it’s good enough for Dad, then I’m all for it.) But Nate the Non-economist wishes more of us thirsted for knowledge because it is a worthy and noble quest.

What troubles me is that researchers found evidence of what I am going to refer to as “systematic shirk.” Offering American students a cash incentive dramatically raised their scores. In order for the researchers to find a meaningful relationship in the data, many individuals being studied needed to alter their behavior. It wasn’t that just a few bozos in the back of the class woke up and decided to try hard. No, this study suggests there is systematic shirking.

Based on the study, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to conclude that shirking shows up across academia. (As a professor, I can attest that it does, at least anecdotally). Education is a lot like weightlifting. If you lack effort in one workout, you aren’t going to get stronger. You need to try your hardest day after day. Most of us can’t rely on raw talent in the weight room any more than we can in the classroom. This was the brilliance of Dad’s scheme. He didn’t wait until high school when my grades would “matter” for college. Instead, he laid the foundation for working hard in school early in life.

Education and Stewardship: What Really Matters?

To my own vexation, I’m one of those ivory tower academics that is concerned with more than the observable ends of education (i.e., getting a “good” job). I care too much about the means. Unfortunately, it’s completely rational to not give a lick about a lot of things in school. Who has the time to care about ungraded exams, Greek mythology, or U.S. history?

But when I discussed my report card with Dad, the conversation wasn’t about whether the teacher was nice, if I liked the subject matter, or if I found it easy. Of course, we talked about these things, but come payday, it didn’t matter. The truth is, and I always knew this, Dad didn’t care about my grades. What he was really after was grit; working hard to achieve something, regardless of the hurdles that stand in front of you. It’s part of the biblical stewardship mindset—not to bury your talents in the ground, but to invest them for God’s glory (Matt. 25:14-30).

Education is an amazing thing. Yes, it may help you find the career of your dreams. But more importantly, it brings you closer to understanding the maker of the universe. His fingerprints are everywhere; from the Illiad to (gasp) economics. Art Lindsley writes,

…we ought to learn everything we can about anything we can. Every particular truth leads us back to the God of Truth.

When we shirk, we miss out on exploring the depths of what it means to be human and what it means to stand before our omniscient God.

Editor’s Note: Read more about biblical stewardship of all areas of our lives in All Things New: Rediscovering the Four-Chapter Gospel, available in the IFWE bookstore

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