E for effort

Leave it to college students to discover a new approach to higher education.

I was visiting with some students in a classroom one evening this week. One student described a video he had recently watched (presumably on YouTube) which demonstrated that contemporary education is failing because it is built on a social model that is obsolete. I replied that efforts to reform and restructure education have been around since the 1960s. Another student then remarked, “Why should a person have to take algebra in college if that person is going to be an artist and will never use algebra?”

“The usual answer,” I replied, “is that studying algebra develops thinking skills that are used in a lot of areas other than mathematics.”

The first student then said that education should be more career-oriented. The students were careful not to use history as an example—I am their history instructor—but the students did mention classes they are required to take that have no use in most careers. “The usual answer to that,” I said, “is that education includes more than learning how to do a certain job. Students need to learn how to make a living, but they also need to be exposed to various things that make living worth-while.”

A couple other students nodded. “But why should they have to pass those classes?” the second student asked. “Being exposed to other things is good, but—as long as they come to class and do the work—why should they need to pass the class or take it again if they didn’t pass?”

“That,” I told him, “is a very good point.”

I’ve been thinking about that conversation for a while. A high school graduate should be able to do basic computation—addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. He or she should be capable of giving correct change, balancing a checkbook, and filling out a simple tax form. A high school graduate should be able to communicate—to read, to write, and to speak in public. Beyond that, a high school graduate should be exposed to science, to history, and to the fine arts—visual arts, music, literature, and drama. It’s best for a high school graduate to have skills in some vocation, especially if that graduate does not plan to continue on to college. For that matter, all those things are true of a college graduate. Each college student should go deeper into his or her chosen field while at college, while also being exposed to a range of experiences from the sciences, the fine arts, and the liberal arts.

But why should they have to pass the classes not related to their major or career?

We already have a grading system perfect for this change, since grades are assigned as A, B, C, D, or F (for failure). Why not add an E for effort? If a professor or instructor perceives that a certain student is trying his or her best in the class but just not getting it, why not give that student an E? Those who don’t show up for classes and don’t turn in assignments would still receive the F, but the student who tries to comprehend algebra or history or chemistry or music appreciation and fails should be given some credit for his or her effort. After all, the object of education is to expose the students to various facets of life. That object has been achieved. Why demand that the student take the class again, when that will only sour the student upon the subject matter, reversing the point of that exposure?

This idea would suit high school and undergraduate college work. Elementary students are still mastering basic skills, so an E for effort would not be appropriate at that age. Likewise, graduate students are focusing on deeper and narrower aspects of their chosen specialty, so an E for effort would be pointless. Honors students would not be allowed to accept an E, nor would an E be given for a class in the student’s major or minor department. In all other cases, though, whether the class is required for all students or chosen as an elective, if the subject has no bearing on the student’s career or personal interests, why not leave the teacher the option of awarding an E?

An E would not enter into a student’s grade point average. That average would reflect only the student’s basic skills in computation and communication, as well as the student’s mastery of knowledge and application relevant to his or her career. The artist would not be barred from graduation because of his or her inability to master algebra. The engineer would not be barred from graduation because of his or her inability to understand Shakespeare. But the artist was exposed to algebra, and the simple effort to handle it enriched his or her thinking skills. The engineer was exposed to Shakespeare, and he or she may return to Shakespeare’s work later in life with a better opportunity to understand and enjoy that work.

What do you think? Should high school and college teachers be permitted to grant their students an E for effort? Why or why not? J.

If I won the lottery

What they say is true: you can’t win the lottery if you don’t buy a ticket. I bought a lottery ticket once to use as a visual device for a lesson at church; we were talking about coveting and about contentment. God could have made a good joke from my lesson by making that ticket a winning ticket, but in his infinite wisdom he chose not to make me a millionaire. I can still dream, though, that someone buys me a lottery ticket as a joke and it wins the big prize, or that I pick up a scrap of paper in the grocery store parking lot and it turns out to be a winning lottery ticket.

What would I do if I won the lottery? For convenience, we will assume that the prize that week was one hundred million dollars. Instead of accepting the full prize over twenty years, I would ask for the smaller immediate pay-out (Why be greedy, right?) which is about half the total prize. Then federal and state income taxes would claim roughly half of that prize. If I won one hundred million dollars, then, I would have about twenty-five million dollars to spend. Here are a dozen things I would do with that money.

Ten percent would go to churches and to charity. To prevent a large gift of unexpected money to any one place, and the problems that kind of gift can cause, I would limit each gift to fifty thousand dollars, giving me the opportunity to help fifty different groups. I would start with congregations that have been important to me over the years, places where I have worshiped and places where I have benefited from their ministries. I would also support charitable work and mission work through certain organizations in the church. In addition, I would give gifts to museums, libraries, and fine arts organizations like the local symphony orchestra. I would support public television and public radio. I would send a gift to my alma mater. What I would not do is start supporting charities about which I know nothing; and I would not give a gift to some organization that started asking me for money after I won the lottery.

Next I would pay off my current debt, which seems large compared to my annual income but would be rather small compared to twenty-five million dollars.

Afterward, I would set aside $250,000 for each of my children, my nieces, and my nephews. I have chosen that amount very carefully; it is more than enough to get them through higher education (or to pay off their student loans), but not so much that they could drop out of life and not work at a productive job. Until each of them turned thirty, the money would be in a trust. Certain expenses would automatically be approved: student loans, tuition, room, board, and fees at a college or university, and other normal living expenses for a college student, including buying and operating a car. The trust money might also be available for medical expenses, if necessary. Otherwise, the rest of the money would not be theirs until they have begun a fruitful life as an adult.

After all that, I still have twenty million dollars left. I would give half a million dollars to my parents, to help them with their retirement years. Then, before spending money on things I want right now, I would set aside money for my future. I would put two million dollars in a low-risk investment, designed to deposit one thousand dollars in my checking account every Monday. Yes, I would be spending the principal of that investment. On the other hand, I would draw a salary of fifty-two thousand dollars a year, and the fund should last for the next forty years. I would create another account, perhaps half a million dollars, to cover my health insurance and other medical expenses. That also should last at least forty years.

I would set aside $200,000 to replace the family vehicles; that should be more than enough to provide reliable vehicles to replace our aging fleet. I would also spend up to $100,000 to make improvements to our house—flooring, wall-paper, maybe new windows and doors. I wouldn’t want to waste too much money on this house, though, because I want to buy a new house.

I would willingly spend one million dollars to buy a larger house with features that shelter me from the noise of the neighbors. (No more Mrs. Dim!) The house would have enough rooms, beyond the bedrooms and kitchen and dining room and living room, that one room could be for television and video games and jigsaw puzzles, another for musical instruments and recording, another as a library, another as a study, a place someone in the house for woodworking, and a guest bedroom or two. The property would have more flower gardens than lawn, and the house would have porches for spring and fall to enjoy the outdoor weather.

At this point I have managed to spend a little less than ten million of my twenty-five million dollars. What should I do with the other fifteen million dollars? I would set aside one million dollars for a new business to provide needed services and employ other people. One idea I have for a business is a lawn care service that does not use loud machines. Workers would use rakes and quiet mowers and trimming devices—no blowers or loud gasoline engines. I would pay them a little more than the competition and would charge customers a little less, since expenses would be lower given the equipment we would use. If we haul leaves and clippings away, I would find a property where they could be mulched, and then my company could sell mulch to our clients. If someone else likes this idea and wants to start this company, you have my permission. You don’t even need to give me credit or pay a commission for the idea. (I was going to call it Stealth Lawn Care. Feel free to use the name or to change it.)

I am aware of a building project that has closed down due to lack of funds. I don’t want to be specific about this project, but if I won the lottery I would commit up to one million dollars to get it moving again. Whether I became a partner of the original planners or bought them out does not matter; I simply want to see this project come back to life.

For one to three million dollars, I could endow a professor’s chair, either at my alma mater, or at a local college. I would not want the endowment to be named for me—it could be named for someone who has effectively taught at the college—but I would like to support higher education in that manner.

Finally, I would like to get involved in help for the poor and homeless in the area, beyond just giving fifty thousand dollars to some organization. I would like to spend two million dollars or more providing facilities to help the poor and homeless—overnight shelters; and daytime shelters where they could take a shower, wash their clothes, and simply rest somewhere other than the streets. I would encourage a doctor and a dentist to volunteer a few hours one day a week to help the people who come into the daytime shelter. More than that, I would like to begin a business that could provide work for the poor and homeless. I’m uncertain about what kind of work it would be—maybe assembly of machine parts, or sewing a line of clothing—but it would provide work and income for these people. Perhaps the workplace, daytime shelter, and overnight shelter could be linked, along with meals and medical care that they could purchase with the money earned from their work. Tobacco, alcohol, and illegal drugs would be banned from all these facilities. Oddly, some ventures of this sort have turned into cults and have abused the people they were trying to help. I would establish a board of directors to make sure this did not happen in my organization. Religious counseling and services would be provided, but we would go great lengths to make sure that they remained legitimate and helpful.

After all this, I still have nearly ten million dollars to spend, and I have no fresh ideas to offer. I suppose I could put more than two million dollars into the help to the poor, or I could start up more than one business, or I could endow chairs at more than one college. The point is, though, that I cannot even imagine spending this kind of money if I had it. I don’t know why the Lord has chosen not to give me a winning lottery ticket. I cannot see anything that I want to do being objectionable to him. All the same, I have to trust that he knows what is best for me; and I should do the best I can with what I have.

J.