Economy's appeal to more for less defies individuality

Posted: Tuesday, February 09, 2010

In the past few weeks, we've heard President Obama and Gov. Sean Parnell make new proposals that would assist students' pursuit of a college degree. Yet despite sounding like noble objectives for the sake of society and our children's future, they both subjugated education to the master we call the economy.

Parnell claims that his merit scholarship program "will position Alaska's economy for growth with a better-prepared workforce" and added that the state's economic future depends upon it. Like Parnell, Obama placed the "need to invest in the skills and education of our people" fourth on his list describing "a new foundation for long-term economic growth."

To his credit, Parnell will challenge students to earn the scholarship. They'll have to enroll in a more rigorous curriculum than the general standards among the state's high schools. If successful, they'll find it easier to pay for tuition at colleges or technical schools in Alaska.

It goes without saying that accomplishing more difficult work should be recognized with greater rewards. Yet if we consider the adjective meaning of the word economy - costing less to make, buy or operate - doesn't it translate into getting more for less work?

Since the beginning of the industrial revolution, work has been repetitively reduced to something done by machines. They do work that humans can't, and they do it faster. Society as a whole has gained more material wealth with less human effort. Our economy has grown, but in the process, manufacturers have reduced hard working people to dispensable bodies on the assembly line.

Less work is implied in the warranty of every modern invention. It's easier to drive than to walk a mile. It's almost effortless to heat up a frozen dinner in a microwave oven compared to cooking a meal with fresh meat and vegetables. Watching television is easier than reading to be entertained, educated or informed about current events.

The economy of effort is behind the get-rich-quick schemes in many tabloids. TV game shows like "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" aren't popular because they reward hard work. Nor are the lotteries teasing the population with instant wealth if only the numbers come up right.

Sure, the economy affects our everyday lives in countless ways. It should be a priority to repair what's broken and steer it onto a stable path. But we might consider severing education from its leash to the economy because it directs us to the idea that at the end of the day, life is supposed be easier.

Education isn't about producing a workforce that will guarantee economic growth. Challenging our children to find meaning from hard work is a value that should stand on its own merits. They should learn it before they begin to imagine a job means earning their own money to spend.

More than 100 years ago, German poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote: "People have, with the help of conventions, oriented all their solutions toward the easy, and toward the easiest side of easy. But it is clear we must hold to what is difficult; everything alive holds to it, everything in nature grows and defends itself in its own way, and characteristically and spontaneously seeks to be itself at all costs and against all opposition. We know little, but that we must hold to what is difficult is a certainty that will not forsake us."

What's missing in an education system that's subservient to the economy is this search to become uniquely and characteristically ourselves. We're teaching our children to conform to a vision of success dependent on money at the expense of nurturing their innate talents and passions.

Look at our teachers, researchers and social workers. They are hard working professions that promise meager financial futures. That people pursue these and other low paying careers may come from listening to a higher call to serve society.

The economy is only one way to imagine how the world works. Its appeal to more for less defies the meaning of work and the fact that the real work in life never ends. It's a more difficult path, but those who heed the call of a different drummer may discover greater riches within the depth their true character.

• Rich Moniak lives in Juneau.

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