Diminishing Returns and its Discontents

Much of adulthood is learning to live with diminishing returns.  Our best efforts, at work or love or the rest of life, are often less productive than our half efforts.  As with the pint of ice cream hiding in the freezer, devouring some is usually better than devouring all.

But we have a harder time  applying that insight to public policy. Our society can help some people some of the time with some expenditure of resources.  But whether we can help more people more of the time with greater expenditure of resources is not simply a matter of being “smart” in our interventions, of listening to the results of “evidence-based policy.”

Human beings are resilient things,  that to themselves are often true, even when those selves are not how we want them to be. Parenthood, unless you are Amy Chua, generally involves this recognition,  that our dreams for other people must ultimately bow before the person they are bound to become.

But when it comes to other people’s children, in Lisa Delpit‘s  famous phrase, we have a harder time managing this acceptance. We acknowledge that college seems to be the sole ticket to a comfortable middle-class life,  so we design ninth grade curricula and six grade curricula and third grade standardized tests that presuppose everyone taking them is on the train to an academic degree, at a “good” 4-year school.

Recognizing that this is not in fact the case, that many and probably most children in the country are not going to complete an academic degree, does not mean counting those children out of the society, or presuming before we could possibly know that their future is predetermined to be X instead of Y.

My wife still recalls the elementary teacher who mocked her in front of the class when she missed a math problem: “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.” For my wife, as for so many other kids, school was respite from the rest of life as a kid, and school and books were windows to the other worlds she was eager to climb into.

It is not that we are free of obligation to other people’s children, if only because they will determine the character of the society when they grow up. But those obligations are to the place they grow up in- that it is clean, and safe, and well-lit, and has enough kind people to talk with and books to read and space to play in. No doubt many schools do not fulfill this minimal list.

The commitment of the society, that can still be largely fulfilled, is to provide an adequate place for kids to grow up in. But it is they who are doing the growing up.



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