The Lesson of Delicate Arch

May 4, 2010

It was hot and bone dry. It was the desert and over 100 degrees. We kept going — over slickrock, across sand, gulping water and quietly contemplating if perhaps we weren’t just a wee bit crazy. The hike was not a long one, but we’d been on so many during our time in Utah that we wondered if this more “touristy” one was really worth it. But we soldiered on.

And then, as we snaked around an exposed rock cliff, there it was — Delicate Arch! Nothing on the trek had prepared us for the emotional and aesthetic splendor of Utah’s signature natural wonder. Was it the contrast of the barren desert hike to the striking elegance of the red rock arching against the sky that struck us so profoundly? Yes and no. It is at once a tough and a delicate question. Of course it was the beauty of the rock, the perfection of the sky. Or was it perhaps more? And what in the world does all this have to do with education?

Many psychologists believe that a child’s capacity to delay gratification is an indicator that the child might someday grow to be a reasonably well-adjusted, content, and mature adult. What is it about the ability to delay gratification that makes it vital? It is the necessary precursor to innovation, development, change, and sagacity. The ability to wait for a reward is at the basis of hard work, scientific inquiry, artistic creation, and intellectual achievement. Because we as a society seem in danger of forgetting this fact, many of our young people are not learning to wait: rather, they have come to expect instant results. And that we are abetting their impulse is nowhere more evident than in our ongoing attempts to reform our educational system.

Plans to reform the American system of education have been largely ineffectual for several reasons. Perhaps most important is that the conversation regarding what education ought to be in this country has shifted radically, substantively, and, we believe, wrong-mindedly, from a concern about what our young citizens ought to be learning to how quickly we can rifle them through. Book after book, study after study, monograph after monograph bemoans the fact that not enough students graduate and those that do don’t graduate quickly enough.

Private foundations tantalize politicians and academics alike with millions of dollars to entice them to find ways to speed up the process of education: do away with the “wasteful” senior year in high school (why don’t we just make it “useful and valuable”?); go to a three-year college curriculum (because?); move students into college after the 10th grade (huh?); increase online offerings — they’re quicker and more efficient (and?).

The Bush administration gave us No Child Left Behind; Obama’s given us the Race to the Top. Different administration; same message: “Let’s get them graduated as quickly as possible!” We are clearly in panic mode! Clifford Adelman refers to these advocates of speed over process as the “get it over with and get it over with fast” school (The Bologna Process for U.S. Eyes: Re-learning Higher Education in the Age of Convergence). No wonder the world might suspect that we Americans seem less interested in the quality of the diploma than we are in the quantity of those awarded. And why do we expect that our young people would think differently?

For earlier generations, the means of the educational process — that is, what a student actually gained by going to college and navigating the processes (bureaucratic as well as academic) — was fundamentally somewhat more important than the mere end — the degree — which simply asserted that the student had completed a course of study. The diploma was merely affirmation that the graduate had mastered a particular fund of knowledge to carry along when entering the larger social arena.

The emphasis in recent years, however, has been on rapid credential attainment and “seamless transitions” rather than on actual learning. For evidence of this, simply review some of the marketing claims — even from prestigious colleges and universities — which hawk convenience and speed of completion rather than the actual process of education.

In this age in which we glamorize easy money, easy fame, easy everything, we have lost sight of the truth that for an experience to be truly worth something — and truly educational — it must be consciously lived and grappled with. Study after study has shown that delaying gratification allows space for experience and learning and leads to a psychologically healthier, more mature, more sophisticated individual and, by extension, to a psychologically healthier, more mature and sophisticated society.

As educators, parents, and adult role models we have a vital role to play. You may ask why, especially in a capitalist and entrepreneurial society, the promise of more money or fame should not be reward enough. It is because, as a species, humans have always asked “Why?” and then sought the answer. In the processes of answering that question, thousands of discoveries have been made, books written, paintings painted, and yes, beauty discovered and wisdom gained.

Americans have always felt pride in their Americanism, in the “can do” spirit driven by hard work, honor, and creativity. We love the images of the cowboy and the pioneer, the early astronauts landing on the moon, the “greatest generation” storming the beaches at Normandy. But as we have become richer, more reliant on technology, and more populist in our relationship to intellect, we have rushed to produce more graduates and forgotten to help those graduates learn to honestly value their achievement. One often-unacknowledged irony regarding this trend is that many of its exponents — that is, those same policy experts who push for speedier graduation and more degrees — seem to have little hesitation in spending upwards of $50,000 per year to send their own children to America’s elite institutions, where traditional educational values remain a significant element of the core mission.

No other species has as long a developmental stage as do humans. Our complex prefrontal cortex takes more than 20 years to fully develop. We are not able to survive on our own until far into our teens. Why is that? Because the process of becoming human is a complex one. We have a lot to learn and we need time to learn from our social and familial elders. It is we as adults who have, then, the responsibility to teach in such a way that our young will mature and develop the requisite abilities to run the complex human society that we all rely on. We believe that this responsibility has been eroding.

Instead we seem to have surrendered to a youthful notion of impetuosity, creating an educational environment whose values sometimes seem predicated on impatience and expediency. Students are neither customers nor clients to whom we must guarantee instant delivery of knowledge and wisdom. Rather, they are charges to whom we have a moral responsibility to help them grow into people capable of making rational decisions about the world they — and we — inhabit.

We are in danger of failing them, of failing to provide models for our youth to emulate. We are in danger of failing to model for them that learning often has value precisely because it takes time to acquire. Instead, we idolize instant reality stars and often pay scant attention to Nobel Prize winners who have toiled for a lifetime.

When someone decides to climb Mt. Everest, they do so for the sense of achievement, accomplishment, and specialness that the trek will afford. It is not an easy thing to do and they understand they are not the first to climb the mountain. But once they reach the top they know it has been a thing worth doing.

Bio

Nancy Rosenbach is a clinical psychologist. Peter Katopes is vice president for academic affairs at LaGuardia Community College.

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