What’s more controversial than teaching kids about sex? Apparently, teaching them about money.
All 50 states require sex-ed classes in high school, and some even offer it in elementary school. It’s certainly a touchy topic (no pun intended). Earlier this year, a Kansas middle school got in trouble for a racy sex-ed poster that mentioned oral and anal sex. And a Hawaii lawmaker is trying to revise a sex-ed class that involved his 11-year-old son.
But because research continually shows that nearly half of all high-schoolers are sexually active, no one seriously considers scrapping the entire concept. Yet every high-schooler spends money, and hardly anyone is teaching them financial ed.
Why Financial Literacy Month is not enough
Next week kicks off Financial Literacy Month, a mostly ignored but well-intentioned holiday “for organizations to promote good savings behavior and a chance for individuals to assess their own savings status.”
Problem is, it’s hard to teach adults anything. Our brains are full and our habits are set. Americans have rung up $857 billion in credit card debt and $1 trillion in college loan debt. So we need a Financial Literacy Year, sort of like 2014 is the Chinese Year of the Horse.
But we also need to start providing financial education for kids.
A FOX News report in January posed the question, Can Schools Really Teach Personal Finance? The answer was unclear: “Trouble is, there’s not much evidence that formal education in financial concepts works for children as young as five – or even for teens.”
Here’s my answer to that headline, which is very clear: Hell yeah.
For the past 15 years, I’ve volunteered at my local public university, where I advise college students. Very few have any idea how money really works. And they aren’t stupid people. When they attended elementary, middle, and high school, many excelled at math. But that was arithmetic, geometry, and calculus – not compound interest, savings rates, and debt-to-income ratios.
So what are the arguments against offering a class in basic finances to elementary and high school students? They fall into two categories. I find both offensive.
The “won’t remember” argument
Harvard professor Brigitte Madrian told FOX News, “There’s only so much we could expect of any initiative to increase financial literacy in the public schools…you’re going to have a hard time teaching successfully because the decisions aren’t relevant.”
In other words, students won’t learn about money because it doesn’t matter to them yet.
Using that logic, why do we teach children American history? To a teenager, what happened two centuries ago isn’t “relevant.” And what about geometry? When’s the last time you had to guess the height of a flagpole by measuring its shadow?
I’m certainly not suggesting we stop teaching these two courses. I am suggesting we stop measuring financial education by standards we don’t use for the rest of the curriculum. I fear this bias comes from a bad place: That wisely managing money is somehow considered a greedy, linear skill with no socially redeeming value.
I fear some academics think of money management like they do auto repair – a rote blue-collar “skill” instead of a higher-level intellectual pursuit. I’d remind those folks that auto mechanics today are de facto computer programmers, they earn decent entry-level wages (an average of more than $35,000 per year, according to Salary.com), and they’re not laden with college loan debt.
Teaching about money can be as complex and as intellectual as comparing communism to capitalism in social studies or defining symbolism in English class.
The “it’s unethical” argument
The most offensive argument I’ve heard against financial education for children came from that same FOX article. Economist Lewis Mandell told FOX it’s unethical to teach financial management to children because those who’ll get an A-plus are from already-wealthy families.
“To waste very scarce educational resources on something that we know is just going to be of interest and advantage to those who are already holding all the marbles, just strikes me as very pathetic and very, very unfair,” Mandell told FOX.
I’m fairly disgusted by that statement. This is exactly why we should teach money skills to children of poor families. Don’t we want them to do better than their parents? Don’t their parents want them to do better?
If these children have disadvantages that keep them from getting high marks in financial education, I could argue those same disadvantages hurt them in all their other classes. Yet we still teach them. And besides, even if they don’t score as high as their wealthier peers on a test, they’ve learned that money management is important – even if they retain very little from the actual class.
Just by virtue of teaching the class, we’re telegraphing to a new generation that money is an important concept to master. And to a nation that’s drowning in debt, isn’t it worth the risk of a few hours a week? If it is for sex ed, it should be for fin ed.