Hanging in my office are two artifacts which juxtapose a feeling and a belief that I suppose frames me and my thinking. The first is my doctoral diploma from the University of Texas at El Paso; it is inspiring and it is beautiful, and it says volumes which I shall not bore you with here. Second, directly beneath it, is a photograph of me as a 20-year old with a group of Mormon missionaries planting rice seedlings in the spring in a field in northern Japan, on the island of Hokkaido, near the town of Iwamizawa. In the photograph, I am staring past the camera, and have a contemplative look on my face, almost as if I am thinking “what the hell am I doing in this patch of mud and gunk up to my shins?”
What I derive from the first is merely the culmination of the advice of Calvin Coolidge: nothing substitutes for perseverance. What I derive from the second is, not all education occurs in a book or in a classroom.
I know people, perhaps in the thousands, who are wonderful, energetic, honorable people, who have never spent a split second inside a college or university. They do not devalue education, but it was not their calling. They have lives that are satisfying, they pay their bills, they pay their taxes, they contribute to the Social Contract, and they obey the law and they probably do not commit violence upon each other. And though they might not read the New York Times as often as do I, they know what’s up. They run or own or work in the businesses that support my habits, and I am glad to give them my money from time to time. Two of the smartest people I know, my brothers Fred and Bob, far outshine me in the just plain smart department, and have not wasted their lives in academia.
I know other people, and usually avoid them, who have a disdain for higher education, who brag about not being educated. I wish to gently remind all and sundry, that life, in the end, is balanced, and that which you do not anticipate might just kill you.
I wonder at the state of our schools today. I have heard more times than I wish to count, the pledge of teachers and administrators to teach kids how to become problem solvers. I need to confess to you that I think our kids today, the current generation of school-age kids, probably have already acquired problem-solving skills at a street level, at least, and certainly have greater problem solving skills than we give them credit.
What we do need to teach them, and quickly, is problem recognition skills. Many times, humans do not recognize when they are in the middle of the swamp and are surrounded by alligators, and cannot figure out how they got there in the first place. Like the mess on Wall Street at the end of 2008: this is a serious problem, and we need to figure out fast how we got ourselves there.
We also need to teach problem anticipation skills. In another venue, we can call this marketing, but it is the simple act of looking down the road and asking “I wonder what would happen if, (fill in the blank here)”. We rarely look ahead and wonder what if a certain thing occurs and then what. That is problem anticipation, and it is one of the three smartest things you can teach yourself. Sarah Palin’s pregnant daughter probably could have used that skill. It covers many aspects of life, not just mathematics. I have used it in business and I have used it in interpersonal relationships. I have used it in raising seven of the greatest people I know: my kids. It is always a good question to ask yourself before ordering another drink.
It turns out, the patch of mud and gunk up to my shins taught me at least as much as the University of Texas in El Paso, with due respect and admiration to my dissertation faculty. It taught me balance, it taught me goal-setting, it taught me how to value things appropriately, and it taught me appreciation for the things handed to me in life. And it taught me the cost of rice.