If you have been reading our monthly newsletters you know that we lead a monthly book group discussion focused on education. I am a member of another book group, and this month that group reviewed The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes. It was an enjoyable read that became more interesting and much more insightful toward the end of the book. A historical fiction novel based on Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich’s life, the book has received praise for begging one to consider who art belongs to. However, the book also challenges one to consider the value of an individual’s life, the tradeoffs between cowardice and courage, and the external factors that shape those questions. As one reader pointed out, and I agree with, place and time were critical considerations in evaluating these themes, particularly against the backdrop of a totalitarian regime.
Shostakovich (the character in the novel as opposed to the real-life composer) was tortured by the choices he made in life. Having to constantly appeal to and bow down before power, he was prohibited from expressing himself as an artist (or as a human being), but his self-admitted cowardice and self-interested maneuvering ultimately allowed him to become a powerful member of the apparatus that almost purged him, providing him relative security but leaving him a shell of the person he could have been. Had he been true to his art, and himself, he would have been killed. That did not matter though, as he became dead in the soul long before his life expired.
Place and Time
It was hard for me to consider these issues without applying them to the situations we face in today’s world. We are fortunate not to experience the type of tyranny that Shostakovich lived under, yet I would argue that many people end up in the same situation that he ended up — broken; having felt that his life was a disappointment and without meaning. Why is it that in spite of the relative freedoms that we have that so many fail to seize the opportunities that come with historically liberal personal freedoms as well as being a part of the largest economy in the world? Why is it that in spite of the relative freedoms that we have that so few leverage that freedom to find meaning within their lives?
The place and time we are born into are out of our control. One of my personal frustrations with the human race is that it often ascribes so much value, or so little value, based on the place from where someone comes. Two people born five miles apart on separate sides of the Rio Grande or the DMZ are sentenced to very different rights and life experiences through no fault of their own. Based on place, people are led to believe that others are enemies, or that others are coming to take something that is theirs by virtue of where they were born.
The time at which someone is born also impacts the course of one’s life. Most vividly, being black in 2018 is very different than being black would have been in 1963 or 1836. The disparities in rights and privileges conferred upon white men versus women, Jewish, Hispanic, Japanese, non-heterosexual, or members of other historically marginalized or oppressed groups have fluctuated over time, with the present day being better than times past for most non-dominant groups. Aside from basic human and civil rights, time can dictate if a generation gets sent off to war, graduates into a recession, or is able to participate in a transformative shift in the economy. 
Time and Place
While place and time are largely out of our control, I consider time and place to be more easily brought under our control, at least within the context of the place and time we are subjected to (e.g., the United States in 2018). When I speak of time and place I speak of how we choose to spend our time to include our voluntary participation in organizations. Shostakovich could have made time and place decisions that would have prevented him from being untrue to his art, and that would have defied the communist party. Although that would have led to a premature death. Bill Gates could have made time and place decisions that would have allowed him to graduate from Harvard and take a job with IBM, perhaps allowing him to someday rise to a senior executive position that would have also left him anonymous and scores of billions of dollars less wealthy. As you can see, time and place decisions cannot easily displace the place and time we are born into, but they can substantially alter the course of our lives.
Place and time includes into which family one is born. The resources of the family one is born into has a bigger impact on long-term academic and economic outcomes than the grades one gets in school. And for most people, time and place decisions are mostly out of their control until their late teens or early twenties. Time and place decisions for young people are made primarily by their parents or the state. Perhaps the most significant of the time and place decisions made for young people is where they will be educated for over 15,000 hours of their youth (not including time spent on commuting, homework, studying, and extracurricular activities). It is this decision that is often so tragic, as it can have such an outsized impact on the quality and direction of one’s life both present and future.
Time and place decisions for children become time and place restrictions. Those restrictions then define to a large degree what a young person’s relationship with their education becomes, as well as the degree to which they feel that they have control over their lives. When a young person is told that they are to attend a traditional school for seven hours a day, 180 days a year, for 13 years of their life, they are told that they are unable to pursue their own learning interests. They are told that their life is to be put on hold because someone else decided that school was a better use of their time. Which would not necessarily be a bad thing (from a utilitarian perspective) if schooling helped children more than it hurts them. Unfortunately, not only does schooling take them away from their interests, it also takes them away from their community, it undermines an inborne love of learning, it misleads them into believing that what is learned at school is more important than what is learned outside of school, it conditions them to focus more on test scores than learning, and it conditions them to appeal to authority.
Traditional schooling is not the cause of unfulfilled lives short on meaning, but it often a primary contributing factor. When one is told that their worth is tied to grades within a standardized system that everyone else is subjected to, and thereby their worth is tied to a comparison to peers along a very narrow set of measures, they are unlikely to recognize how their unique interests, skills, and life experiences can allow them to lead a remarkable life irrespective of the game everyone else is playing. When one is told that they must conform to an institution that treats them as ignorant and withholds basic rights from them, for their own good, of course, they become much less likely to challenge unjust institutions in the future. It is not hard to imagine that the person who suffers under a dictatorial boss, or a society that suffers under a tyrannical regime, is much less likely to opt out if they were forced to accept their place in school when they were young.
Choices that matter
It is unfortunate that we are born into a place and time that dictates to such a large degree the circumstances and quality of our lives. It is fortunate that for those of us in the United States that this place and time is a lot more forgiving than a lot of other places and times, although not by any means perfect. It is unfortunate that time and place decisions that hold a disproportionate influence over our adult lives are made for us when we are young. It is fortunate that for those of us who are parents that we have the opportunity to make time and place decisions about education that leave young people in control of their lives, that honor their individuality, and that preserve their inborne love of learning. In decades past, the notion of trusting young people to engage in self-directed learning through a space like Abrome, or through unschooling was illegal or seen as irresponsible. Fortunately, although it is still not the social norm, self-directed learning is understood by a growing segment of the population to be more humane and lead to better outcomes than traditional schooling.
1. Through his bestselling book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell popularized the understanding that timing is important when considering the successes of the wealthiest business people of all time. He focused on the opportunities available in the post-Civil War industrial age, and in the personal computer and internet age starting in the mid-1970s. He drove this point home by highlighting that Bill Gates, Paul Allen, Steve Ballmer, Steve Jobs, Eric Schmidt, Bill Joy, Scott McNealy, Vinod Khosla, and Andy Bechtolsheim were all born in a three year span of one another.
2. Some examples: Parental Income Has Outsized Influence on Children’s Economic Future, Poor kids who do everything right don’t do better than rich kids who do everything wrong, A college degree is worth less if you are raised poor
3. The ranking of human beings in school, at work, and by economic measures not only guides people’s conception of their self-worth, but also the worth of others. This can lead to an elevation of people who may have done nothing more than to be born into privilege, and it can lead to a lack of empathy for those who are classified as less than according to narrow measures.