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Harold's Ten Thousand Hours -- Some Thoughts on Education

For today, some thoughts on education and life stimulated by Alison Gopnik, professor of psychology at UC Berkeley and frequent booster of the nation’s collective understanding of the human condition (go here if anyone doubts this).

In a recent essay in The New Yorker Gopnik described an afternoon with her four-year-old grandson, Augie. She was doing her very best grandmotherly thing, giving Augie insights into the world about them as they watched a bee working over a lavender patch. “Bees make honey, you know,” she said in her best raise-my-grandson’s-knowledge-of-life tone, thinking that that was the end of that. Augie would now know something he didn’t know before and think wonderful things about gramma.


Short pause and Augie, smarter than the average bear, looks at her and says, “How do they make honey?”

And Gopnik is stuck for, as she readily admits (she a scientist, we’re all used to not knowing things) that, in fact, she does not know.

“Well,” chimes in Augie, “don’t you have your phone?”

And of course, she does and the two of them proceed to pull up dozens of videos and web pages on just exactly how bees make honey.  

But that’s not the point of this little essay. The point is that Augie isn’t Harold. You won’t understand that unless I tell you Harold was/is.

Some forty plus years ago the City University of New York (CUNY) began a magnificent but only partly successful experiment called “open admissions.” Any student who graduated from high school would be admitted into one of the many campuses of CUNY (the largest public urban university in the world). It quickly became apparent that, noble as this move was, it created some very difficult problems. The one that was most problematical was that tens of thousands of poorly prepared students were suddenly thrust into rather high-level, intellectually challenging courses where they were competing (in a sense) with other students who had better academic records and better academic backgrounds. And the worst part of this division was that the better prepared students were mostly White and the poorly prepared were mostly Black and Hispanic.

One effort to accommodate the divisions was the creation of a program called SEEK which stood for Search for Excellence, Elevation and Knowledge with classes limited to SEEK students drawn from that pool of students with inadequate academic backgrounds. Being the kind of guy I am, I volunteered to teach a SEEK class of Intro Psych — and this is where Harold comes in.

Harold was a twenty-something Black man who never missed a class. Not only was he always there, he was attentive, focused and routinely asked trenchant and probing questions. He flunked the first exam. I couldn’t grasp how this could be because he seemed to have a sharp mind and an active curiosity.

Two weeks later he flunked the second exam.

I couldn’t handle this so I asked to join me for lunch because I really wanted to talk to him. I wanted to know what the hell was going on. You just couldn’t ask the kinds of questions he was asking and not “get” the material in the course.

Lunch was a revelation — for me, maybe for him too. I don’t know. The more we talked the more I realized that he just didn’t know “stuff.” He didn’t seem know standard things, he lacked knowledge about the world, how it worked, how societies functioned, how educational programs operated, how economic programs worked (or didn’t), how political decisions were made, how power was distributed in the culture, how bees made honey, etc. etc. etc….

He was smart and had sometime remarkable insights into material but he suffered from a poor vocabulary, poor grasp of grammar, a lack of understanding about basic things like probabilities and statistical inference — all the things that are needed in an Intro Psych course. He was married, out of work, had two kids and worried about where or how he would end up. The SEEK program was his life line but he was having trouble grasping the rope.

Finally, I had that revelatory moment. I asked Harold to try to recreate a typical week in his life while growing up. I wanted to see how much time, loosely calculated, he spent in matters that could be called “intellectual” or “stimulating” or “educational” while growing up.  I was willing to count almost anything just so long as it occurred outside of a formal school setting. Helping an uncle garden counted. Spending time with his mom while she cooked counted — so long as she gave even rudimentary instructions about cooking, about what she was doing. Sitting at home while his mom or dad read to him from a book. Reading a book himself that was not a school assignment. Watching a TV show that was on science or history or a documentary — anything that could be tucked under an umbrella marked “educational” counted. Learning a musical instrument. Going fishing with his dad was okay — provided they had some discussions about how to fish and why one way worked but another didn’t. I included playing games with family and friends, sports with other kids and/or coaches. I was casting the widest possible net.

Then we started counting hours, hours that were spent in ways that would contribute to the great network of knowledge and understanding that makes us all effective humans. I wanted the number of hours that were spent this way up to age 18, the point where the typical kid goes to college.

We got 4,000, which I thought was pretty good.

It wasn’t. I went home and carried out the same rough calculations for my kids. I got 15,000! And it hit me. They stole over 10,000 hours of education from Harold. Robbed the poor bastard of the equivalent of five years of full-time work on his brain, his mind, his knowledge base, his exposure to the real world into which he’d been hurled.

He didn’t have Alison Gopnik as his grandmother who casually starts up a conversation about bees. He didn’t have me as his dad who sat up nights reading the Narnia series, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, a mom who visited museums, brought home puzzles and games and bought a computer the day the first home PC’s were available.

There are a lot of reasons why the kids of successful parents have a better life ahead of them compared with kids from poor families. It’s tough to give a kid back the ten thousand hours that were snatched away.

I spent the next day making sure Harold had a tutor (SEEK provided them when needed). He passed. He’s gone on, I know not where but he left behind a mark in me that won’t ever be erased. He also left me ever-concerned about the gaps between groups in our society. Maybe he’ll stumble across this and get in touch. That would be nice. I’ll pay for lunch again.

There’s an awful lot of talent out there. I can imagine a dozen different wildly successful lives for the millions of Harolds in the land. I worry about this issue all the time — go here for more.

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