Financial literacy? It’s elementary

Burwell Stark Freelance Writer
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Whenever the president or members of Congress do things that people don’t like, they’re accused of acting like children. As a former child, I am offended by this statement. In kindergarten, if my teacher had ever accused our class of acting like a bunch of members of Congress, we would have burst out in tears.

I would have been on the receiving end of my dad’s belt when I got home, too. “No child of mine should ever get caught acting like an elected official,” he would have said.

Apparently, though, views of children and childhood have changed since I was a kid. For example, last week Education Secretary Arne Duncan said that schools should start incorporating personal finance lessons as early as kindergarten.

It seems that someone, I’m not saying who, has watched one too many commercials featuring the E*Trade baby.

While Duncan has many reasons for proposing this idea, it is primarily to “combat widespread financial illiteracy.” Widespread financial illiteracy in elementary school? That’s hardly a disqualification under No Child Left Behind.

Forget financial illiteracy, I don’t know of many kindergarteners who are literate, period. Isn’t that the age where they start learning the letters and how words are formed?

When I was in kindergarten, A was for apple, B was for ball and C was for cat. Apparently now A is for amortization, B is for bond fund and C is for capital gain.

Can you say cost-benefit analysis, boys and girls?

Incorporating financial literacy into school curriculums would add yet another “core” to the already overloaded education mandates. With every passing year, teaching is less about student learning and more about meeting the objectives of bureaucrats.

Actually, the more I think about it, the more I believe financial literacy is already being taught in elementary school. Where, you may ask? In a little subject I like to call “math.”

What are the basics of math? One plus one equals two. When you subtract a number greater than your original number, you get a negative. You can’t make numbers mean something other than what they are. It’s not particle physics, but then, it doesn’t have to be. The “real world” applications of basic math are enormous. They are also ignored all too often.

When I was in school, we were taught basic financial principles. Actually, I only remember spending an entire class in ninth grade learning how to write a check. We would practice and practice, perfecting how to spell out the dollar amount in long form.

Twenty-five years later, how often do I use that all-important skill? How about — wait for it — never. Now I use my check card whenever I need to purchase something and I can instantly check my bank balance on my phone. I may have learned other things in that class, but if I did, they are long forgotten.

Furthermore, since I went to a government-run school, I am sure none of those financial lessons were anchored in reality. I was taught that my take-home pay is the money the government allows me to keep. I was also led to believe that Social Security would be available for me when it was time for me to retire, which back then was probably at the age of 62½ years.

Therein lies the problem with government-sponsored financial education — it cannot keep up with the pace of life. The world, the economy and the market change too fast for any department of education, state or federal, to keep up. By the time a new textbook is printed or a new lesson plan is developed, the old way of doing things will have been replaced by something newer, faster and more efficient. Thus the state-run school will be left with nothing to teach but an outdated way of doing things.

How else can you explain the continued proliferation of Keynesian economic education?

Clearly, I disagree with Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s proposal to teach personal finance to kindergarteners. The government, which has a budget deficit of $1.3 trillion, has no business teaching any student how to manage money.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go. I received a hot stock tip from a toddler with a Blackberry and have to act before it’s too late.

Burwell Stark is a columnist and freelance writer. A former teacher, he also has worked in the areas of legislative research, budget analysis and communications. He lives outside Wake Forest, N.C. with his wife and daughter. For more of Burwell’s columns, visit burwellstark.com.