We should educate our children about how much money is enough
Chris Johns: Some of the most miserable people I know have lots of money
Three new courses should be compulsory for all students. They should be taught philosophy, curiosity and how much is enough. Photograph: Armend Nimani/AFP/Getty Images
Jeremy Clarkson last week tried to reassure disappointed school leavers with the observation that, despite only one middling A-level grade, his biggest current dilemma is deciding which Range Rover to drive. Success, he implied, can come via many routes, not just the conventional one of academic success. Whether in receipt of Leaving Cert or A-Level results, many young adults on both side of the Irish Sea have been told similar stories: it’s not the end of the world if you didn’t get the necessary grades. As someone who also has a solitary A-level to his name, I can understand what Clarkson is getting at, albeit without possessing quite the same conventional markers of achievement.
Of course, the experience of two individuals is not a body of convincing evidence – it just reveals the role of chance and circumstance. The route to success is still heavily dependent on exam grades.
It all depends on what we mean by success and achievement. We measure what we can and disregard the rest: the single most important metric is almost always expressed in terms of money: how much we have and what we have bought with it. It is commonplace to assert that this shouldn’t be what we teach our children but it is, by and large, what they absorb from the moment they are born.
The first consequence of this lesson is that few of us are ever able to answer the question: how much is enough? Ask anyone, tech entrepreneurs, finance chiefs or people at the top of the usual professions, and, once you dig behind the knee-jerk facile answers, it becomes apparent that the only answer they can give is “more”. Dissatisfaction, if not outright angst, anxiety and other mental disorders are, therefore, extremely common. Some of the most miserable people I know have lots of money and are operating at Clarksonian levels of achievement. They work ridiculously long hours – the modern term is presenteeism – and are often suffering symptoms of stress-related disorders.
The study of “happiness” has attracted much academic interest, not least by economists, and the findings are robust: happiness peaks at quite modest levels of income and is unaffected by the achievement of more. The striving for more often has negative consequences for happiness.
So it is curious, to put it mildly, that so many people seem to educate their children in ways that are designed merely to replicate the success (I use the term loosely) that they themselves have achieved. Get the necessary academic points so that you can become a stressed-out doctor, lawyer or tech wizard. We pay a lot of lip service to work-life balance and non-monetary goals, and then go ape if our offspring show any signs of pursuing those kinds of objectives. I once took my son skiing the week immediately preceding his Junior Cert mocks and I was at risk of being reported to social services by some of my high-achieving acquaintances.
We moan about rote learning but don’t really mean it. We know deep down what the exam system really prepares children for: the test of stamina that, as much as anything else, constitutes modern working life. Employment may not be as physically demanding as for previous generations, but it is consumes the bulk of every day, necessitates total commitment and requires willingness to perform trivial (if not pointless) and boring tasks. It is a test of tribal membership: our bosses promote us if we can demonstrate just how like them we are. Competence, effectiveness and efficiency are important but nothing guarantees a climb of the slippery pole more than the wearing of the tokens of the tribe.
JK Rowling’s single most important piece of literary genius was “the sorting hat”: the device that selected Harry Potter’s school House; which, in turn, determined his destiny for the rest of his life. Modern education systems and economies are just a collection of sorting hats: devices that determine who gets what. It used to be all about inheritance and brute force. Today it’s inheritance, of all kinds, and sorting hats. But always on the assumption that what we want is more.
The current wave of populism sweeping so many countries is a direct result of those sorting mechanisms starting to malfunction: too few getting too much. The sorting hats need to be fixed, particularly in the US, or things will get worse. The irony of Donald Trump and the Brexiteers is that they both promised to fix the problem and are pursuing policies that have precisely the opposite effect: the have-nots are getting even less.
Ireland can count itself lucky. It never had a large working class comprised of coal, steel and car workers that subsequently became disenfranchised – and disenchanted – by technological change and globalisation. Our peculiar tax system takes little or nothing from low-paid workers yet quickly rises to Scandinavian levels for middle to higher incomes. Our tax and welfare system is a bulwark against the populist wave. Our education system still produces cohorts of people who are smart enough to believe in vaccination and that the EU is not responsible when bridges collapse.
For what it is worth, I think three new courses should be compulsory for all students. They should be taught philosophy, curiosity and how much is enough.