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Friday, September 15, 2006

Smokey Briggs

Sage Views

By Smokey Briggs

At what cost?

Hardknocks University has a course called: Unintended Consequences 101.

The brief course description under the title is worded like this: “Unintended Consequences (affectionately known to students as “That didn’t work out, did it?”) is a lifelong course here at Hardknocks U, from which very few ever graduate. At best, our most successful students learn to temper their impulsive urges and to regularly reflect on the actual results of their decisions, rather than on what they wanted to happen.”

All of us get enrolled in this course of study at an early age. Our youngest, Dixie Jo, is 11 months old, and is eagerly completing the first year of this fun-filled course as she tries out new ideas ranging from biting her mother to the head-first-free-fall technique for sitting down.

I’m pretty sure that Dixie does a complete cost/benefit analysis after nearly everything she does these days - sometimes while chewing on whatever she managed to capture, be it a Cheerio or a slow chicken, or while crying in frustration and pain.

We all do it. Those that did not were weeded out early along the evolutionary path, long before fire became a household word.

So, if we are all evolutionarily programmed to perform cost/benefit analysis after we do something, why don’t we do it as a society?

As a society, Americans in particular seem incapable of ever looking back on a decision, and then comparing the actual results with the actual costs.

If we actually took the time to analyze the result of many of our laws, I think we would realize that the Law of Unintended Consequences is very real, and often very expensive.

We would also discover that often, the cure was worse than the disease.

Look at our school system. For 50 years and more we have been tinkering with this thing. We have passed laws mandating everything from desegregation to free lunches to standardized testing to standardized teaching.

Today, our society is more illiterate and more poorly educated, than ever before. A high school diploma means absolutely nothing - it is valueless. If you want a piece of paper that proves you can read and write and count past ten, you have to borrow $40,000 and go to college - so that you can qualify for the job your dad qualified for with a high school diploma.

In the process, we have managed to spend gazillions of dollars we did not spend in the past, raise taxes to ridiculous levels, destroy the concept of a community school, exponentially increase the number of administrators we “need,” and kept teachers’ salaries at ridiculously low levels.

Thirty-some-odd years ago I walked into fourth grade with chewing tobacco in one back pocket, a sling shot in the other, and a five-inch pocket knife stuffed in my front pocket. The knife and slingshot both saw use at recess - the knife in games of mumbly peg and the sling shot at any point possible. (Chewing tobacco on the playground was frowned upon, but having it in your back pocket was not the Felony offense it is today.)

If any of the three were misused, the wrath of principal, teacher and some device of physical punishment was a painful certainty.

If two boys got in a fight, principal and teacher tried to figure out justice, but generally just separated the two, knowing that boys will sometimes fight. Real problems could be settled in the gym, with gloves, under the tender instruction of the “gym” teacher - a man I’m sure the Marines kicked out for being too harsh.

There was no Alternative Education for bad kids - just beatings that seemed to have a remarkable effect on their attitude and behavior.

Occasionally, some moron actually got held back a grade.

As a society, we have “fixed” all of this now.

Most of my daily actions as a fourth grader would land me in jail today.

Today, recess has been effectively eliminated. A fourth-grader carrying a pen knife is treated as a felon. We have metal detectors in most urban schools, and cops too. Getting caught with a can of snuff is nearly as bad as getting caught with pen knife.

On the other hand, drugs on campus are as common as Big Chief tablets, and children are encouraged to bring a handful of condoms. School violence is a regular problem across this nation, and school shootings no longer surprise us.

So, just what have we accomplished with our educational system in the past 50 years? Just as important, what have these “accomplishments” cost us?

Looking at the actual results, rather than what we wanted to happen, a rational person would conclude that nearly every so-called improvement has lead to disastrous consequences.

As grandma used to say, “The proof is in the pudding.” It does not matter what you wanted to happen. What matters is what really did happen.

That really frustrates a lot of people.

Grandma had another saying that fits right here: “The road to hell is paved with the bones of those with good intentions.”

Remember that phrase. I’m pretty sure it’s on a test later this semester in Unintended Consequences 101.

And failing that class, as a society, really hurts. If you doubt me, ask the Romans.

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