By Alesha Seroczynski, Science of Virtues scholar
This last month I was invited to read to three fourth grade classes at an elementary school in our area. Like most schools in our district, over 60% of the students at Nuner Elementary participate in their free or reduced-lunch program—a pretty good indicator of familial low or poverty-level income. The staff at Nuner had organized a Celebration of Reading Event and several prominent local personalities were invited. I was humbled to be among the South Bend School Corporation superintendent, the mayor of South Bend, local non-profit presidents, several popular and long-standing newspaper, radio and television journalists; even members of a local college’s basketball team. I think I got the nod because a former student currently words at Nuner
I never turn down opportunities like these, though, because I so enjoy trying to get children to think on a more virtuous plane. My go-to novel on such occasions is invariably Kate DiCamillo’s (2003) The Tale of Despereaux. Now—much like my elementary students—if you’ve seen the movie (probably with your children), you have in no way fully experienced the beauty of this Newberry Medal winner. I always fast forward to chapter three where Despereaux’s brother and sister attempt to train him in the finer-points of mousehood—like the art of scurrying and the culinary joys of a well-glued novel. Despeareaux, as you may know, is not any ordinary mouse though. He is much more interested in the brilliant light streaming through the stained glass windows than scampering across the castle floor; he would far prefer to actually read the words written on those tasty pages. And in so doing, he discovers a greater purpose. He discovers virtue. To be virtuous, though, DiCamillo reminds us that sometimes we must not succumb to the pressures of those around us; and that often “an interesting fate…awaits almost everyone, mouse or man, who does not conform” (p. 25).
In settings like these, kids rarely just want to be read to; they want to know the reader. They asked me what I do, where I work, how long I went to school for that. In one class, a particularly bold young man asked me if I make a lot of money as a professor. “You know,” I said, “something important that I have learned in my 40+ years is that if you are doing what you love, the money will take care of itself.” He seemed quite taken aback.
When we got to the end of Chapter 3, I asked them what it means “to conform.” They quickly understood classroom rules and the importance of conforming to those. When I asked them to think of a time when not conforming would be a good thing, however, they were stumped. I brought the group back to this boy’s early question about income. “What does society say about money?” I asked. They quickly knew that they were supposed to make a lot of it. “What if we did not conform?” I probed. “What if we just said we don’t care what other people are making? What if we just do what we love, what we know will be for the good of all people—regardless of how rich we get? Now, that would be ‘not conforming’ for a good reason.”
This is a tough concept for kids today to absorb, and no wonder. We adults can hardly grasp it ourselves. In the last two decades, America has become more than a military superpower. Our national consumer spending is so excessive we make the rest of the world look like kids in a
peanut gallery. Consider these figures produced by the New York Times in 2008, just before our economy tanked.
Moreover, the size of our country does little to account for our excesses. Only one country (Norway) spends more per capita than we do on electronics, and only four countries (Switzerland, Ireland, Norway and Finland) spend as much per capita on alcohol and tobacco products as the U.S. We are, without a doubt, leading the world in per capita spending on clothing, household products, and recreation (The New York Times, 2008). In 2007, we spent over $1,000 in each of these three areas per person annually.
The market “crash” of 2008 hardly slowed us down. Despite the fact that we hear almost daily reports about our sluggish economy and trepid consumer spending, our GDP (i.e., Gross Domestic Product; a measure of the dollar value of goods and services produced and consumed within a given time frame; Sherman, 2010) has actually returned to pre-recession levels (The Associated Press, 2010). Moreover, in the midst of the “Great Recession” our own GDP was almost as high as all 27 members of the European Union, as well as the combined total of 170 countries not included in the top 12 producer/consumers (International Monetary Fund, 2010). And although unemployment continues to hover around 10% nationally (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2010), and less than 2% of our population is considered “wealthy” (i.e., earns more than $250,000 annually; Leonhardt, 2010), we continue to spend like there is no tomorrow. On this most recent Black Friday, the New York Times reported that “American’s are shopping selfishly again” (Clifford, 2010).
I am not an economist, and I acknowledge that these are complicated issues; but I am a developmental psychologist, and I know for certain that if we do not provide our children with an alternative economic model, we could be witnessing the beginning of our own capitalistic end. No consumer-driven-only economy in the history humankind has ever survived. Certainly, what the Great Recession has done more than anything is accentuate the growing disparity between the rich and poor in America. Allan Ornstein (2007) agrees, and in his book Class Counts: Education, Inequality, and the Shrinking Middle Class, he notes that “capitalism…if left unchecked and unrestrained, … leads to vast inequalities, augmented by Social Darwinism, survival of the fittest, and a host of get-rich schemes, as well as by the perverted notion that greed is good …” (p. 80).
Greed is not good. We must not want more to get more. We must want more to do more good—that is the virtuous path of a temperate personal, national, and international economy.
Clifford, S. (2010, November 26). “Shoppers flock back to the malls to hunt deals.” The New York Times. Retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/27/business/27shop.html?scp=3&sq=
International Monetary Fund (2010, October). World Economic Outlook Database; Nominal GDP list of countries; Data for the year 2009. Retrieved from: http://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/weo/2010/
Leonartdt, D. (2010, December 5). “What does $60 billion buy?” The New York Times.
Retrieved from: http://economix.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/12/05/what-does-60-billion-buy/?scp=1&sq=consumer
Ornstein, A. (2007). Class Counts: Education, Inequality, and the Shrinking Middle Class. Plymouth,U.K.: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Sherman, H.J. (2010). The Roller Coaster Economy: Financial Crisis, Great Recession, and the Public Option. London, England: M.E. Sharpe.
The Associated Press. (2010, November 23). U.S. Economic Growth Revised Higher. National Public Radio. Retrieved from: http://www.npr.org/2010/11/23/131536297/u-s-economic-growth-revised-higher.
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2010). Unemployment rate. Retrieved from: http://www.google.com/
What your global neighbors are buying. (2008, September 4). The New York Times. Retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2008/09/04/business/20080907-metrics-graphic.html.
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