I had a conversation with Madeleine Cox a little while ago that kept wiggling around the back of my brain. At least I’m pretty sure I did. If she wasn’t there at the time, somehow she managed to squeeze wigglingly in there with it.
The conversation was about the idea of a place for economic literacy in high school curriculum. I believe (again, this could just be the wiggling), that she was asking me whether I thought there was one.
At the time, my answer was a direct and unjustified yes. Why not? It’s certainly something that we all have to interact with in our lives. Something with significant bearing on the parameters of our lives. I spent time learning that potash was a major export of Saskatchewan in high school… Maybe learning a little about the complex and sordid life of my money is at least as valid and relevant as that, isn’t it?
Anyways, the wiggling notion was given a boost today when I listened to a Freakonomics podcast entitled:
What Do Hand-Washing and Financial Illiteracy Have in Common?
By structuring a debate about causes and solutions for American financial illiteracy it kind of refreshed my internal dialogue around this discussion. The main combatants and their weapons of debate were (extracted from Freakonomics.com):
LUSARDI: In the same way we start people, you know, in school just reading and writing, you know, from the very beginning. We don’t teach literature so that people go on and write “War and Peace,” but we teach it so that people can appreciate a good book.
Next is Lauren Willis, a legal scholar who previously worked at the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission. She has argued against widespread financial education, recommending instead a new cadre of financial advisers and greater transparency and regulation in the financial industry:
WILLIS: It’s sort of like saying, well we should start teaching everybody to be their own doctor, teaching everyone to be their own mechanic, you know, something like that, terribly inefficient to do that. Not only is it inefficient, but it has this sort of culture of blaming the consumer. You know, you’re the one who didn’t figure this all out.
After listening to both of them though, I’m stuck wondering why we don’t do both. I’m not sure why making an effort to embed some financial literacy in high school would negate the need for better financial advisers and greater transparency and regulation of the financial industry. It might even give people a more educated means of demanding just that. Certainly, the likely correct assumption that it wouldn’t be done particularly well at first seems like an awfully defeatist reason not to get the ball rolling.
Willis suggests that the level of expertise required to successfully navigate the modern financial world is equivalent to the expertise of a Formula 1 driver, and rightfully perhaps points out how unfair this expectation is. But if we’re all inevitably going to be put in that speeding car anyways, we may as well take a driving lesson when we turn sixteen.
At the very least, could someone stop making all Canadian teenagers memorize facts about the mineral wealth of Saskatchewan?
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