We have so much to learn

canstockphoto46498066What did you read over break?

As usual I plowed through a few fun books, like Ruth Ware’s The Lying Game, Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere, and Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine.

But I also set aside time for a few “good” books — you know, the ones that require a little more concentration and thought. The ones you know you should read but don’t always want to.

Here are the ones I made it through:

The Mystery of Capital by Hernando de Soto (which I borrowed from my son, Sam)

Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann (my book club’s January pick)

The End of Average by Todd Rose (recommended by friend Chris Parris)

A little econ, a little history, and a little psychology.

I confess, it was hard to put down the fun, vacation-y reads to dive into these serious books, but I learned a few things. Most importantly, all three reminded me that we educated adults don’t know half as much as we think we do — something we should keep in mind as teachers.

For example, we’re so sure that we know why the U.S. economy flourishes, while many other nations struggle. (Take your pick of the various explanations, from the self-serving “Americans are smarter” to the self-blaming “America’s imperialist behavior prevents other nations from thriving.”)

But de Soto makes a convincing argument that our biggest advantage — which we have failed to export along with other free market ideals to developing nations — is our flexible system of property rights.

Do you know how easy it is to start a business here? It took me one afternoon and $155 to register my business, NeverBore LLC, in the state of Minnesota. It’s harder to buy a house — given the credit checks and title searches required — but you can still do it in about 45-60 days.

In Haiti, buying a house with a legal sales contract would take you 111 bureaucratic steps and about 4000 days. Formalizing ownership of an urban property in the Philippines would take 168 steps — and at least 13 years!

So virtually no one bothers, and in many developing nations the majority of people live and work outside the official system. They can’t borrow against their homes or protect their innovations, and that’s what is stifling their economies.

OK, so we don’t really understand our own economy. But we know our history, right? Wrong again. De Soto and Grann both taught me a lot that I don’t remember learning in school.

For example: Most American settlers (our revered pioneers) were illegal squatters. Yes, there were laws like the Homestead Act, but those generally happened after the fact — legalizing what had been illegal. Not so different from DACA, really.

And Grann’s book reminded me how elusive justice has been for most Americans for most of our history. Dozens, maybe even hundreds, of Osage Indians were killed for their oil-money inheritances in the early 20th Century, and very few cases were ever even investigated.

A few of the cases were big headline news in the 1920 and 1930s, but even those don’t make our history books or stick in our collective understanding. Why is it that I know about flappers and Loeb and Leopold and Sacco and Vanzetti, but not about this?

Well, at least there’s one thing we do know — and that’s the importance of working hard, getting good grades and getting into the right college. Right?

Wrong again. According to The End of Average, Google researched 144 key indicators — including SAT scores, grades and prestigious colleges — to figure out the best way to identify talent. Guess what they found?

“We couldn’t find a single variable that mattered for most of the jobs at Google. None.”

The author also notes that 31% of college graduates can’t find a job in their field, and 35% of employers cannot fill good-paying jobs.

Why are we so confident in our system, when it isn’t doing what we want it to do? Or what we think it does?

There are a lot of good reasons not to stand in front of a classroom and lecture at kids, but perhaps the best is this: When we tell kids what we know (or think we know), they mistakenly think we’re telling them all there is to know.

The most important thing to know in any field, whether it’s economics, history, psychology or another discipline, is that our understanding barely scratches the surface of what there is to learn. A good lesson to remember as we head back to school.

Follow me on Twitter @MarthaSRush

Beat Boredom is available on Amazon or at Stenhouse.com.