Education and the Time Horizon of Maturity

Original Post (and comments)
Over time, I have become increasingly convinced that maturity is a function of how much considerations of the future play into one’s decision-making process. Now that I am a father and am able to witness the development of a little human from birth, my belief is stronger than ever. My nine month old son is light years from mature, and it shows by the fact that his actions are dictated entirely by whatever happens to be occupying his attention at any given moment. As he grows, I expect that he’ll start to develop the ability to see into the future to predict the consequences of his actions. This will happen as he learns the physics of this world – action and reaction. Right now, he presses keys on the piano to make a sound. Before long, he’ll press specific keys to make specific sounds. Then he’ll transition into being aware of time. This, in my view, will be the real start of his maturity, and it will continue to progress as the time horizon of his considerations gets longer and longer.

My job as a parent, beyond seeing to it that my son knows he is number one to me and my wife, is primarily to ensure that he grasps the concept of consequences, but not just immediate consequences. If he is to reach maturity, he will have to develop the ability to consider both the long-term and short-term consequences of his actions, which implies that he’ll be concerned about the future. The short-term consequence of doing something dangerous may be having a good time. However, the longer-term consequence is likely to be a severe beating. Just kidding. He’ll actually be facing some sort of undesirable punishment, and the nature of that punishment will have to be consistent with his concept of time if it is to be effective. I can’t expect a three-year old to be swayed by the threat of missing a birthday party that is a week away. Five minutes of time-out (man, do I hate that phrase) will do nicely. The point of all this is that our society is chocked full of immature individuals, individuals who have a very short time horizon.

It is a commonly held view in many circles that poverty is a mental problem. I am inclined to agree. The vast majority of individuals who are poor are that way because of the choices they have made in life. But the point that I never hear about this is that the root cause of their poor decisions is their inability to see far enough into the future. For whatever reason, these people do not respond to arguments such as, “If you don’t study for the test you have tomorrow, you won’t be able to get a job that is years away.” This, to them, is no different than threatening a toddler with punishment that will not take place for a week. So, it isn’t helpful to just point out that these people chose to goof off when they should have been studying. And since the problem is deeper than that, so must the solution be.

I believe our educations systems need a time-horizon component to them. At the beginning of every school year, children need to be reminded that each advance in grade brings with it a requirement for more consideration of the future. Again, they should be held responsible for considering time horizons that are realistic for their ages. But the key is to make sure that the concept of time horizons is one that is pounded into their heads on a continuous basis. When children engage in actions that demonstrate their failure to sufficiently consider the future, they need to be counseled immediately. But this has some implications that our current educators seem unprepared to accept.

The current trend in education is focused on the self-esteem of all students, and it is virtually guaranteeing that the children emerging from US schools will be the most immature that this country has ever seen. If failing makes kids feel bad about themselves, and feeling bad about one’s self is unacceptable, the only option is to see to it that no one fails. That is exactly what is happening. Unfortunately, the real world doesn’t care about self-esteem. It cares about results. That means we have to abandon this touchy-feely approach to education, and we have to do it right away.
The consequences for failure as a child are minimal. So what if you fail a spelling test in third grade. In fact, failure, in the presence of skilled educators, is a good thing. It makes for the best possible object lessons. Kids should be allowed to fail so that they can be instructed as to what they did wrong and how to avoid failing the next time. It is a mistake to assume that failure automatically means feeling bad about one’s self. That’s where skilled educators come in. When a child fails, he or she must be made to understand that failure is explicable. Rarely does it boil down to inherent inferiority. It is almost always a function of effort, education, or mindset. The educator’s job is to figure out which is the culprit and then to guide the student to the solution, all the while reinforcing the time horizon component of the equation. If this simple little change happens, we’ll see our test scores relative to the rest of the world come up dramatically in almost no time. More importantly, we’ll graduate students with the ability to understand the long-term consequences of their actions. Given the aging population and the fact that when these kids are adults, there will be more retired people than working people, this is something that we simply cannot live without.