Late in life Adam Smith observed that government institutions can never tame and regulate a society whose citizens are not schooled in a common set of virtues. “What institutions of government could tend so much to promote the happiness of mankind as the general prevalence of wisdom and virtue? All government is but an imperfect remedy for the deficiency of these.” In other words, Smith knew that virtue, or traits of character as espoused by the ancient Greeks, are essential to making our free market economy work and deliver prosperity under our capitalistic system.
It takes hard work to develop the critical thinking skills needed for success in the globally competitive 21st century. Too many students take the easy way out. They play mindless video games, spend hours watching television, surfing the web, texting their friends, tweeting and updating their Facebook page. In its most destructive form, too many young people today (and adults) seem to believe that if they do stupid things or act in an irresponsible manner then maybe they will appear on Youtube, someone will see it, and they’ll get their 15 minutes of fame as well as a chance at a reality television show.
By now most of us know that American children spend the least amount of time in the classroom when compared to other countries. Currently, the school year in the U.S. is 180 days, less than half a year. Compare that to the average of a 200-day school year in countries such as Thailand, Scotland and the Netherlands or 243-days in Israel, South Korea, and Japan -- 35 percent longer than in the U.S. Is it any wonder that American students were ranked 28th and 24th in mathematics and science, respectively, in an international assessment of 15 year olds?
A longer school year might help but it’s not going to narrow the achievement gap between American students and their overseas counterparts. More money is not the answer because spending can’t instill a work ethic. It’s not the teachers fault. A strong work ethic starts at home with involved parents that set limits, promote personal responsibility, and provide a positive role model for their kids; and then these virtues should be nurtured by caring teachers.
So, what’s the cause of the declining work ethic? One factor is a lack of focus on the task at hand and an unwillingness to sacrifice short term benefits for the long term good of society. Today’s students grow up expecting instant gratification, material possessions (oftentimes instilled by parents who want their kids to have it better than they did), and a feeling of entitlement. We have a problem with unemployment in this country that may take years to abate. Some have said the unemployed would rather collect 99 weeks of unemployment pay than work for what may be, in some cases, only a marginal amount of extra pay. What happened to the good feeling that work provides simply because we accomplish a goal, provide for our families, and become contributing members of society? All too often laziness has overtaken hard work. Albert Einstein observed that “An idle man does not know what it is to enjoy rest.”
In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville worried that free, capitalist societies might develop so great a “taste for physical gratification” that citizens would be “carried away, and lose all self-restraint.” Tocqueville believed that the genius of America in the early nineteenth century was its pursuit of “productive industry” without a descent into destructive materialism. He pointed to a common set of civic virtues that celebrated not merely hard work but also thrift, integrity, self-reliance, and modesty – virtues that grew out of a sense of morality that informed American democracy and free markets.
Going forward, how can we maintain our preeminence as an economic power in the world? Like an addicted person we must first admit we have a problem. The problem is we have become soft as a nation, self-indulgent, we pursue only our own self-interests and have an entitlement mentality that mitigates against hard work. We need to start a national debate on this issue and develop concrete plans to do what it takes to restore the work ethic that existed when this country first thrived and became an economic role model for the rest of the world. The ancient Greeks had it right -- virtue is its own reward and we should pursue excellence in everything we do.