Mel Graykin: What defines us?

For the Monitor
Published: 4/9/2017 12:15:06 AM

‘What do you want to be when you grow up?” That is one of the first questions we ask of children. And we expect an answer something like nurse, or ballerina, or football player, or even millionaire. We don’t expect answers like “wise,” or “helpful,” or “a good person.” Why is this?

Because we define ourselves by what we do for a living, not what kind of person we are.

We have come to expect school to prepare our youngsters to enter the workforce. We want them to learn the skills that will enable them to get a job. The arts are considered frills, the first to go with budget cuts. Classes on civics, understanding government, critical thinking and ethics take a back seat to skills that will be needed in the workplace. Recess – play – is completely irrelevant, allotted grudgingly. The opportunity to be active, social, to let the mind wander or focus on the things that the child finds interesting should be taken when the child isn’t in school. School should be hard work, rigorous, not fun. Any child who is unable to conform to the demands of school must be disciplined or medicated into conformity.

Then, as soon as the child hits high school, specialization begins. Shall the emphasis be on college or a trade? Counselors pressure students to choose a path, what vocation they want to prepare for, what school they will attend to train them for this vocation. Colleges and universities increasingly focus on cranking out graduates ready for the workforce. What sort of skills does business want? What gives a graduate the best chance to be hired and earn a good salary? Because success in life is defined by how much one earns. Status is defined by wealth.

Liberal Arts has become a joke. (Even the word “liberal” is politicized into something negative.) There is no practical purpose in studying history, philosophy, the world’s religions, what has shaped our culture and our evolution. Morality has become the exclusive domain of whatever religion one is brought up to. Open discussion of ethics and what makes a person moral, and how to apply one’s beliefs to one’s life, and even what makes a good life, are optional exercises for intellectuals. Not something the average person bothers with.

We have made education all test scores and competition. And look where this attitude has brought us.

It makes absolutely no sense to pressure teenagers to choose a career path at a time in their lives when they are struggling to figure out who they are. Their future vocation is the least of their worries. Their brains are soaked in hormones; social interactions and sexuality obsess them. This is an age at which they are trying to decide what is right, what matters, what life is about and where they fit in. It’s a stage that extends well into their twenties, when they need to explore, try many things out, in order to see what fits and what works. The last thing they need is to be pressured onto a track that commits them for life.

An education should be far more than just preparing someone for work. Because one’s job is only part of one’s identity, often a small part. Who you are as a person, how you interact with others, how well you understand how your government works and what your responsibilities are to participate, how to recognize the truth and not be manipulated by others – all these are much more important than what you do for a living.

Parents can fill in these yawning gaps in our educational philosophy to a certain extent, but many are unable to or simply don’t bother. Personal struggles, ignorance, overwork; whatever the reason, society cannot depend on parents to home school in the subjects the educational system has abandoned. We cannot simply shrug it off as their problem and not ours, because we all suffer as a result. It is in society’s best interest to have an educational system that produces fully rounded, thoughtful, well-adjusted graduates, and to provide that education equally, regardless of class, income or where the student lives. Making sure every child is fed, healthy, informed and ready to become a good citizen and a wise person should be the purpose of education.

That is how we make America great again.

(Justine “Mel” Graykin lives and writes in Deerfield, and practices freelance philosophy on her website at

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