This week I went to a production at the Delacorte Theater in New York’s Central Park, where I had the pleasure of hearing political philosopher and professor Michael Sandel lead a town-hall discussion on Shakespeare, money, and morals. The event was organized by the Public Theater, the group that puts on Shakespeare in the Park.
Sandel has been teaching a course at Harvard titled Justice for two decades, and it’s easy to see why it has become one of the school’s best-attended classes: he is a clear and engaging—even riveting—speaker, and he encourages regular audience participation. At this event, he shared snippets of his popular course as well as topics he covers in his new book Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? For the hour that he was on stage, he wasn’t preaching answers, he was asking questions and pushing people’s intuition to see what the audience thought about the issues he raised. We were encouraged to defend our ideas by sharing them with the group, and hands went up all around me as people beckoned for the microphone.
One of the topics Sandel raised had to do the relationship of money to teaching and learning. He shared that a number of cities around the U.S. have implemented programs in their schools with cash incentives for students. And he asked the audience, “Do you think it’s a good idea to pay students $2 for every book they read?”
By a show of hands, the response, although not unanimous, was a resounding “no”. When asked to articulate why not, one audience member explained that adding a monetary exchange to learning would take away from its intrinsic value, and there were murmurs of agreement throughout the crowd.
In practice, recent research done by another Harvard professor Roland Fryer suggests that paying students for specific tasks like reading books does in fact lead to more books read and higher reading comprehension, in the short term.
But is that enough for it to be a good idea?
Like the audience, my instinct is that it’s not. Even if kids read more when they are paid, what will happen when their parents or their schools stop paying them? Would a child who reads books for the money ever understand, or ever enjoy, the pleasure of reading for its own sake? And do we want to foster a society where even reading a novel is monetized? I say no, and Sandel hinted that he agrees.
But I would add that this issue is not just about kids and learning. It’s also about adults and work.
We’ve already built our workforce around a model where we rely on the notion that as long as people are paid to do something, they will do it, and that nothing else matters but that paycheck. But if that concept doesn’t seem right to you in school, then you should also rethink whether it makes sense in the workplace.
What motivates you at work? Do you only work for the money? If you won Powerball tomorrow, would you quit your job?
If you wouldn’t quit your job, then money does not motivate you. There’s something deeper at play: something about the nature of your work that inspires you, that money has no part in.
If you would quit your job, what would you do with your time? Would you never lift a finger again? Or would you find different work to do that provided new meaning in your life? My intuition says that the vast majority of us would keep working, but in a new capacity. And that our reasons for quitting our jobs would have little to do with money, and far more to do with the fact that the nature of our work-life made us miserable.
In this capitalist world, money is a necessity. But it’s an extrinsic motivator, not an intrinsic one. Just as we want our kids to get more out of books than pocket change, we should also want for ourselves to get more out of work than a paycheck. As adults, we have no choice but to earn a living in order to survive. But the sooner we acknowledge that money is not in and of itself what makes us tick, the sooner we can reshape the workplace to inspire and motivate us through the work that we do, not the money that we make.