The Bottom Line

As a follow up to this post, you might check out “Clueless in America”, Bob Herbert Op-Ed piece in the April 22, 2008 issue of The New York Times.


If someone were to ask me what my favorite television shows were, I would have to list “The Rogues” and “Banacek”. But number one on this list is and will always be “M*A*S*H”.

From its debut as a movie, it was something that I somehow identified with, even to the point that my dorm room that year became known as “The Swamp” (but that was after someone flooded the laundry room and that’s an entirely different story).

Through the wonders of cable TV and re-runs, I have probably seen ever episode of the television series, from the pilot to the series ending show, at least four times. I can watch a particular episode for a few moments and generally remember what that episode central story or stories are. This does have its disadvantages however.

I do not know the names of each episode or when they were originally aired. And sometimes what I think was in one episode was actually in another. Such is the case with one thought in my mind. There is one episode in which either Father Mulcahy tells Hawkeye that it is one thing for doctors to lose their patients but when he loses one, he loses their soul or Sidney Freedman (the psychiatrist) says that he loses their mind. As one who works with both the mind and the soul, I can find much in either of those two comments.

As an educator, my profession is the development of the mind and finding ways to encourage the creativity of our children and young adults. As a lay speaker and lay minister, I have to focus on the souls of those with whom I converse or speak with and who read what I write on Sunday mornings.

The problem with both American education and the American church today is that we have either forgotten what it is that we are supposed to be doing or we have decided to change the definition of what we are supposed to do. It seems that the church and school today are driven not by the outcome that the church and school offers but rather by “the bottom line.”

For too many denominations today, it is not the number of souls that are saved (as if that was something that could be easily measured and verified here on earth) but how many warm bodies are in the pews each weekend.

It is one thing to measure the success of a church by the number of people who attend but is that the best measure? We quite willing use demographics to reach out to find people and plant churches where the people are or will be but we also quite willingly seem to use demographics to determine when to abandon a church. A church may be losing people but we need to know why and a simple demographic analysis may not tell you what you need to know. I sometimes think that we abandon churches in regions when the church can be a positive symbol of hope and where hope is most needed because of the change in population. Sometimes we cannot help it if a whole region is losing people (portions of the upper Midwest come to mind) but if it is a pocket within a region (say an inner city), then shouldn’t the church be staying and helping to bring life back?

I will address the issue of the bottom line as it applies to the church today later. For the moment, I want to look at the application of the bottom line as it applies to education.

It seems to me that we, as a society, have turned our educational process has something driven by the “bottom line”. No longer are we interested in what students will become; we are interested in how many students we graduate. (For an interesting take on this, see Tom Chapin – Not on the Test.)

Every child, no matter how old they might be, can always tell you what they want to be when they grow up. And as they grow up, their focus on that goal becomes clearer and more defined. As educators, parents, and interested parties be encouraging that process. It is important that students have a sense of what they will do in and with their lives. We should not be talking students out of a career choice because we do not feel that it is a good fit for them; rather we need to be providing opportunities for the student to make a decision about a career.

But if their decision on a career is made because they think that career will bring the riches, fame, or glory and they have no idea of what is involved in the process, then their path to that career will be strewn with potholes and many, many detours.

I have had students who have an expressed a desire to become pharmacists, not because it is a valuable part of society but rather because they were promised a job bringing $30,000 as a starting salary when they completed their undergraduate degree. I can understand why students would jump at this opportunity. But I also have to wonder what those same students will do when they find out how much science and math they must have in order to get that degree? And what will they do when they find out the salary for this job after five or ten years is still essentially $30,000?

Similarly, I have meet and taught students who wish to be doctors and nurses for a variety of reasons. But their background and preparation, especially in the areas of science and mathematics, often limits their advancement. I have seen students who have expressed a desire to become elementary teachers because they like working with children. Again, this is a good job choice and the reason for doing so is a valid one. But becoming an elementary school teacher is a very demanding task because you must be conversant in all of the academic subjects (science, mathematics, reading, social studies, English, etc.). Most elementary majors are well-versed in social studies, reading, and English but not so in science and mathematics. The lack of skills does not prevent one from becoming an elementary education major but it does not help in the preparation of the students for further studies.

But when these students run into problems during their academic career, what do they do? Do they seek help and determine if their career choices were correct? Some do but most argue that it was the teacher’s fault and they do what our society has taught them to do; they sue (See “Avogadro Goes To Court” for one example; see “Transformation Sunday” for my thoughts and their implications for the church).

The argument posted in that particular court case was the student was a consumer and thus should be able to decide the value of their education. This argument would work if the students understand what it is that education is supposed to do. Education is supposed to give you the skills so that you can make better decisions; it is not a consumer-oriented activity in which the student decides what it is that he or she will learn.

In the movie “A Man for All Seasons”, there is the following interchange between Thomas More and Richard Rich.

Sir Thomas More: Why not be a teacher? You’d be a fine teacher; perhaps a great one.

Richard Rich: If I was, who would know it?

Sir Thomas More: You; your pupils; your friends; God. Not a bad public, that.

The definition of a teacher should be in terms of what their students become and they will know it when the time comes.

But when are we going to realize this? Last week I posted “Where Have All the Flowers gone?” In this post I pointed out some of the more intellectually challenging aspects of television advertising. Now I find that there are at least two studies dealing with incompetence and the inability of people to determine their own incompetence (see Social scientists alert: Gather that data!).

For right now, I think that the bottom line, at least as it applies to education today, was first expressed by Robert Frenay in the book Pulse, page 440 (from the April Mini-AIR), “That we are smarter than algae is a given. Whether we are wiser remains an open question.”

At some point, our desire to “give the customer what they want” is going to conflict with “give the customer what they need”. Then what are we going to do?

4 thoughts on “The Bottom Line

  1. Pingback: The Church’s Bottom Line « Thoughts From The Heart On The Left

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  3. Pingback: The Grinch In The Classroom « Thoughts From The Heart On The Left

  4. Pingback: “Growing the Faith” | Thoughts From The Heart On The Left

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