Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Marshmallow Eaters

Causes of success or of failure are the same for nations as they are for people: self discipline or lack thereof.

They’re the same for students too, which I was for eighteen years. Then, for thirty-six years I was a teacher, during which time I read hundreds, perhaps thousands of academic studies. I’ve learned that two things are necessary for student success: hard work and intelligence - in that order. In the vast majority of cases, much work and less intelligence overcomes much intelligence and less work.

Intelligent students find school a breeze in the early grades. They seldom have to work in order to learn. As the work gets harder in later grades, their innate intelligence becomes insufficient by itself. Unless they learn to work, they begin to fail. I’ve seen it over and over.

Of the myriad educational studies that have passed before my eyes, by far the best was begun in 1968 and is still going on. Some call it the “Stanford Marshmallow Study,” summarized in a New Yorker article by Jonah Lehrer. Psychologist Walter Mischel experimented with hundreds of four-year-olds by telling them he would give them one marshmallow immediately or, if they could wait, he would give them two marshmallows fifteen minutes later. Most who were able to discipline themselves enough to wait not only did well in school; they went on to lead successful lives as adults. Most who couldn’t wait didn’t do either.

We all know people with the self-discipline to postpone gratification. They work hard and save first, and then enjoy themselves. We also know those who lack that self-discipline. They indulge themselves at every opportunity and seldom, if ever, work hard unless it’s forced upon them. Those people inevitably become dependent on the first group. When the undisciplined get so numerous that they threaten to outnumber the disciplined, everything starts to unravel. That’s true for families as well as towns, cities, states, and nations.
Many of you reading this will have gotten emails containing an updated version of Aesop’s “The Ant and the Grasshopper” fable. Aesop’s original described the ant working all summer preparing for winter while the grasshopper played. When winter came, the ant was cozy and warm while the grasshopper died of hunger and exposure. The modern version, however, has the grasshopper blaming his predicament on the ant, who is portrayed as heartless. The ant’s taxes are raised. He’s sued, fined, evicted, and lost in the snow. The grasshopper moves into the ant’s home. He doesn’t do maintenance and it deteriorates. The grasshopper is killed in a drug deal. The ant’s house is taken over by a gang of spiders which terrorizes the neighborhood.
Lack of self-discipline manifests in many areas. Undisciplined students may receive only one marshmallow in the above-mentioned study, but they eat as many as they want when they get home. Obesity and Type 2 diabetes are epidemic in America’s children, not to mention adults. Childhood promiscuity is rampant, and resultant STDs as well. Adults? I don’t have to say, do I? More people are spending money they don’t have. Credit card debt continues to rise. More Americans spend their home equity and add strain to the nation’s mortgage crisis which continues to threaten our whole economy. It should come as no surprise that more and more Americans vote for congressmen, senators and presidents who ran up a $16 trillion national debt.A couple of months ago, Maine Governor Paul LePage announced that welfare recipients now outnumber taxpayers in this state. Too many grasshoppers. Not enough ants. How long can this go on? Not much longer, obviously.

Can fat people go on diets and tighten their belts? Can the promiscuous control themselves? Can borrowers become frugal? Will Americans elect leaders in November who will cut bloated government? Will we all-of-a-sudden summon the discipline to reverse the course we’re on? Will Americans accept it when their entitlements are cut back? Or, will they throw tantrums like undisciplined children and riot in the streets? That’s what the Greeks are doing. Will Americans be any different?

Time will tell.


Anonymous said...

Mr. McLaughlin, thank you for another insightful article. The problems we see in Greece and other countries who did not learn self-discipline will indeed be seen here. Your caution to get the right individuals into important offices is correct. Our fate is sealed unless we turn our lifestyle around.
Dan P.

Anonymous said...

Tom is correcty in his assessment. There are more wagon riders than wagon pullers and soon the wagon will stop. Then chaos will exist. Do not look for this to change in November; it is too late. We have met the enemy and it is us!

Anonymous said...

The short answer to your final question, Tom, is: NO


Anonymous said...

You seem to be confused about who is a grasshopper and who is an ant.

Anonymous said...

This is sort of related. Thoughts?

Rhonda said...

GREAT post! Thank you!

Anonymous said...

you, sir, are out of your mind. your first assumption is that hard work still leads to success in this nation. the assumptions only get more unrealistic from there. please don't run for office.