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Nobody else is going to floss your teeth for you
On building capacity versus instilling motivation and meaning
Aside from a semiannual checkup at the dentist's office, almost no one ever has the experience of someone else flossing their teeth. The incentives to floss are almost entirely personal, and so is the effort required. It all comes from you: Nobody else is going to floss your teeth for you.
■ That being said, we aren't born knowing how to floss, either. Everyone has to learn somewhere. Mostly, we expect this to be the kind of life skill learned from conscientious parents and other caregivers. If not there, perhaps we learn it from the dentist or dental hygienist. And if all of those fail, then perhaps the skill will be transmitted at school, during a health class. (If you count on learning from a YouTube video, there's a risk you'll accidentally learn to dance instead.)
■ But in the end, once the skill is learned, it's up to the individual to do it. It's a pure case of capacity-building: Once a person develops the skill, it's up to them to execute. Capacity-building is almost categorically under-appreciated.
■ Debates over the "true purpose" of education -- from elementary through post-secondary -- are perpetual and practically infinite. Some say the purpose is to create good citizens. Some say the purpose is to equip students to become lifelong learners. Some say it is to create a population ready for gainful employment.
■ Isn't the "true purpose" all three? In essence, isn't the educational system in which we invest so much really a giant, complex project in capacity development? No single solution fixes all problems. No one test measures all success. No isolated outcome determines the return on the investment. But taken all together, isn't formal education really a process of maximizing the capacity of each individual to, in the words made famous by Theodore Roosevelt, "Do what you can, with what you've got, where you are"?
■ Education can't make a person "Do what you can", nor does it decide "Where you are", but it can certainly make a difference about "What you've got". We can't and shouldn't expect formal education to do all things -- but we should have a rather expansive understanding of what capacities it ought to develop. In the end, once capacity has been developed, it's up to the individual to find the motivation and the initiative to act. Those are powerful internal forces, and they are impressed upon us by families, friends, and the institutions we use to seek higher meaning in life -- religious communities, service organizations, civic groups, and the like.
■ The pandemic experience has forced a global reckoning with meaning and illustrated how fragile mental wellness can be, especially when people are distanced from social support. But it has also revealed unexpected reservoirs of resilience. That is the stuff of meaning -- the "Do what you can". When we combine it with capacity -- the "With what you've got" -- it turns out that there remains plenty of room to be optimistic about the human future.
■ We ought to think hard about how the things we can do in structured and formal ways to build capacity enable people to make the most of the meaning and motivation they find within. They are different things, and we ought to be comfortable looking to different sources for them. Our most vicious political disputes over matters like education often reflect habits of misinterpreting how those roles differ, as some combatants bring their most uncharitable assumptions about meaning and others institutionally resist reforms and evolving performance expectations.
■ Some good faith is needed all around. We ask educational systems to do many things -- and it's not unreasonable for that list to grow. Almost everyone in every sector has to do more than their predecessors did, because the world invariably grows more complex. But as the list grows, we're well-advised to respect the appropriate lanes: Capacity-building, yes; personal motivation and meaning, no. Failing to know the difference and assigning the wrong expectations only results in a sort of trench warfare of policy that leaves no one satisfied. It's no good for us to surrender to a self-perpetuating cycle of motivated acrimony.
■ Schools can teach people how to read the Constitution, but they can't make people decide to vote. They can train students to understand and use the scientific method, but not motivate them to become impassioned climate activists. They can teach personal wellness, but they can't floss your teeth for you.