Friday, February 18, 2011

Being a Person or a Commodity

The bottom line seems to have fully migrated to the top of the page. How are we going to get our money? How much money are we making? How can we get even more money? This mindset seems to have overtaken, grabbed by the throat and stomped to the consistency of a fine paste the old adage – money isn’t everything.

I have frequently spent my column inches bemoaning the fact that too much of our modern world only gives value to the utilitarian and cares not one whit for the aesthetic. Just ask most anybody in charge of government budgets. (Better yet ask our esteemed lawmakers the definition of “aesthetics” or even “whit” and see what you get.) We can dissolve the Kansas Arts Commission. We can stop giving money to NPR and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. But if we ask the Koch brothers to pony up a bit more tax money to help float one of the few countries in the world which would even allow people to get that stinking rich we are being un-American.

The thing that I have noticed recently which bothers me about this belief system is not just the overt desire for money (heck I want money too) but that skills which directly lead to earning money are the only skills worthwhile. My real job is in the world of education. Over the last several years there has been a shift to what is called outcomes based education. This means we decide what students should be able to do and engineer our schools backwards, from the “outcomes” to the “how-to-get-theres”. We can’t be surprised that almost all the outcomes are skills tested with multiple choice questions. Just to show that multiple choice tests do not necessarily show great intelligence try this one. The winner of this year’s Grammy for Best New Artist was: A. Justin Bieber B. Esperanza Spalding C. the Square Root of 12 D. Milli Vanilli. I recently read a quote from some renowned smart guy (I forgot his name because I didn’t know there was going to be a quiz) stating all we learn from a person’s results on the SAT is how well he can do the SAT.

My daughter is a senior in high school and has been looking closely at the University of Kansas, my alma mater (that’s Latin, a dead language which will not lead to a high paying job). I was not a stellar student. I went to class (most the time). I did all the work (usually late at night just hours before the deadline). I took some hard courses (not just Popular Culture of the 1930s – Busby Berkely made some far out movies). The thing about my curriculum was I took classes just to learn stuff which no longer seems to be the goal of higher education. I took Western Civilization I and II (those are Roman numerals, something else which does not lead to a high paying job) which had me reading the thoughts and philosophies of great minds from long ago. I took a course all about the Civil War which helped me understand many aspects of human nature, both the darker and brighter aspects of men’s souls. I took logic to become better equipped to make decisions about everything from which peanut butter to buy to who to vote for for President. None of these things led to marketable skills sets which jump off the page of a resume but I firmly believe they made me a better human being. My goal was not “employee of the month”. My goal was “caring thinking growing person”. My goal may not have been achieved but I did a fine job avoiding the marketable skills trap. My degree from KU was in Theater and Media Arts. This meant I was eminently qualified to work at Blockbuster and now they are simply Blockbusted.

So, my kid is looking at the list of classes put before her in order to get a degree in music therapy, a degree, I might add, I think is a pretty good fit for her skills and ALL the classes have to do with music and therapy. There is no Western Civilization, no forays into history and no room for Popular Culture of the 1930s which was quite fun. They are creating a resume and an employee. I really wanted her to go to college and become a multi-faceted person. Oh well, maybe she can support me in my old age because my skills never contributed to a viable retirement fund.

Christopher Pyle can quote Shakespeare but he can’t describe a hedge fund beyond the money one saves to buy shrubbery. He can be contacted at