Lessons from the First Thanksgiving

25 Nov

In yesterday’s post I spoke of the things i was thankful for on this Day of Thanksgiving and said i would leave other issues for another day.  Today is that day.  I just read (and am borrowing heavily) from an op-ed piece written by reporter John Stoessel.  His piece was completely about the lead up to what we refer to as the “First Thanksgiving” by the pilgrims in the Plymouth Colony.  But I think it contains a major lesson not just for us in a political-economic sense but also for our approach to education most especially in the California Community College System.

So what did he say?  Well, Stoessel writes that, “… had today’s political class and its ideologies been in power in 1623, tomorrow’s holiday would have been called “Starvation Day” instead of “Thanksgiving.” Every year around this time, schoolchildren are taught about that wonderful day when Pilgrims and Native Americans shared the fruits of the harvest.  But the first Thanksgiving in 1623 almost didn’t happen.

“Long before the failure of modern socialism, the earliest European settlers gave us a dramatic demonstration of the fatal flaws of collectivism. Unfortunately, few Americans today know it. The Pilgrims at Plymouth Colony organized their farm economy along communal lines. The goal was to share the work and produce equally. That’s why they nearly all starved.

“When people can get the same return with less effort, most people make less effort. According to letters, journals, and public records of the day, Plymouth settlers faked illness rather than working the common property. Some even stole, despite their Puritan convictions. Total production was too meager to support the population, and famine resulted. This went on for two years.”

In his diary, Governor William Bradford, who had instituted the communal policies, finally wrote, “So as it well appeared that famine must still ensue the next year also, if not some way prevented.  (The colonists) began to think how they might raise as much corn as they could, and obtain a better crop than they had done, that they might not still thus languish in misery.  At length after much debate of things, I, with the advice of the chiefest among them, gave way that they should set corn every man for his own particular, and in that regard trust to themselves. And so assigned to every family a parcel of land.”

To put that in modern economic system terms, the good colonists of Plymouth moved from socialism to capitalism; in their case specifically, from collective to private farming.  The results were dramatic. “This had very good success,” Bradford admitted, “for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been. By this time harvest was come, and instead of famine, now God gave them plenty, and the face of things was changed, to the rejoicing of the hearts of many.”

Because of the change, the first Thanksgiving could be held in November 1623.  But that was not the last attempt at creating communal grounds.  The famous Boston Commons, later the scene for public oratory and discourse, was first set aside as communal grazing land, free to all.  But it was quickly over-used, over grazed and fell into land failure as people rushed to feed (or in this case let their cattle feed) at the public trough.

What Plymouth suffered under communalism was an example of what Garret Hardin, in 1968 in the Journal “Science” called the tragedy of the commons.  The problem has been known since ancient Greece.

Thucydides (ca. 460 B.C.-ca. 395 B.C.) stated: “[T]hey devote a very small fraction of time to the consideration of any public object, most of it to the prosecution of their own objects. Meanwhile each fancies that no harm will come to his neglect, that it is the business of somebody else to look after this or that for him; and so, by the same notion being entertained by all separately, the common cause imperceptibly decays.”

And Aristotle (384 B.C.-322 B.C.) similarly argued against common goods of the polis of Athens: “That all persons call the same thing mine in the sense in which each does so may be a fine thing, but it is impracticable; or if the words are taken in the other sense, such a unity in no way conduces to harmony. And there is another objection to the proposal. For that which is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it. Every one thinks chiefly of his own, hardly at all of the common interest; and only when he is himself concerned as an individual. For besides other considerations, everybody is more inclined to neglect the duty which he expects another to fulfill; as in families many attendants are often less useful than a few.”

In the 16th century School of Salamanca, Luis de Molina observed that individual owners take better care of their own goods than they do of common property.  And as history clearly points out, not a single utopian socialist/communalist experiment on any scale from small group to nation has ever succeeded and survived unless it was propped up from some outside source who had a vested interest in their success.  Those that on the surface seemed to succeed did so because the system was a sham: not truly socialist but violently autocratic with an imposed socialist or communist disguise (e.g. Soviet Russia and Maoist China)

If individuals can freely take from a common pot regardless of how much they put in it, each person has an incentive to be a free-rider, to do as little as possible and take as much as possible because what one fails to take will be taken by someone else.  And soon, the pot is empty.  When that “pot” is the public treasury then as Margaret Thatcher famously observed about socialistic policies, pretty soon the government  “…runs out of other people’s money.”  Jefferson wrote that our downfall as a country was virtually assured when the people discovered they could sustain themselves from the public treasury.

Stoessel concluded that, “What private property does — as the Pilgrims discovered — is connect effort to reward, creating an incentive for people to produce far more. Then, if there’s a free market, people will trade their surpluses to others for the things they lack. Mutual exchange for mutual benefit makes the community richer.

“Secure property rights are the key. When producers know their future products are safe from confiscation, they take risks and invest. But when they fear they will be deprived of the fruits of their labor, they will do as little as possible. … And that’s the lost lesson of Thanksgiving.”

FDR spoke eloquently about freedoms Americans all had but given his own ideology he left out the most basic one of all that had motivated our country’s historically unprecedented growth:  The Freedom to Fail — and then suffer the consequences.

But what does all of this have to do with education here in California and specifically here at City College in San Diego?  A lot actually.  The community college system is, by law, open to anyone.  And I mean anyone:  so open that illegal aliens can get in-state tuition while legal but out-of-state citizens of the U.S. pay additional fees.  Many in the system including many faculty members are open in their desire to make the community college system tuition free.  They argue that education is a “right” and therefore ought to be free.  In actuality, given the incredible ease in our district of getting financial aid that has led a significant number of students to use the school as their revenue source with their “work” being the taking of classes and carefully avoiding completion, we already have a large portion of the student body attending not just free but in effect being paid to be there.  And of course education is not free to provide.

Our photography program is a vocational program where we are charged to prepare students for employment in the field.  In order to do that, we must make available to them the latest state of the art equipment.  And in doing so, with money, lots of money supplied by the State or from bond measures (i.e. money taken from or offered by the citizens) an interesting statistic starts to emerge.  The students most likely to damage, lose, or misplace that equipment are those that have paid nothing to be there.  We had a student who used financial aid money to by a new DSLR, then pawned it and came to us to check out, for free, a camera to use to complete his assignments… few of which he actually did.  Stupidly we allowed it until, according to his report, he carelessly put it down somewhere and it was “stolen.”  And he wanted another one!

And it gets worse, those are the same demographics that too often encompass students who put less effort and less passion into their course work when in fact, in the real world, it is that missing passion alone that will carry them through the cut-throat competition to where they will have any chance of success.

Of course there are exceptions: there is virtually no statistical group that has 100% adherence to anything.  But the correlation is so pervasive as to be generally predictive.  Without some buy-in, without some “skin in the game” there is a very high probability that the student will never succeed because they have nothing to risk.  And they know, intuitively and based on their street smarts (which they have in abundance), when something is offered for free that price bespeaks its worth.

For those of you reading this from States other than California it may come as an enormous shock to hear that our Community College in-state tuition is $26.00 per credit.  Out-of-State tuition is under $150.00 per credit.  Basically it is subsidized education.  It is obvious the lesson of that first Thanksgiving has been lost on our education system.  Alas it has also been lost not just on our state of entitled victim who have now technically bankrupted it, but it has been lost utterly on our benighted administration who seems to sincerely believe, all evidence to the contrary, that creating and providing those “commons” for the public to use, from health care to stimulus packages, relying on their brilliant good natures and enlightened self interest to use them wisely and to increase the public good is what we not only should do but under his command, will do.

The Plymouth Colonists faced famine should another harvest fail.  We as a nation, a culture, a state, and as educators and students, are facing a famine of another sort.  And if we fail to learn the lessons of that first day of thanksgiving, our impending famine will be of far greater impact than a few squatters on Indian land in 1623.

1 Comment

Posted by on November 25, 2010 in Uncategorized


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One response to “Lessons from the First Thanksgiving

  1. ndking

    November 29, 2010 at 8:39 am

    For those who are ready to pounce on a “historical innacuracy” to degrade the thesis of this post, let me hasten to add that I do know that the very first celebration referred to as a “Thanksgiving” actually happened in 1621. But what you may not know is that this was a carry over of a custom of this branch of Calvinist believers that started in the old country and was an annual religious event set aside to give thanks to God for his blessings and support. Furthermore having then fallen into the indolence noted above, they survived the winter of 1621-22 not by benefiting from communal practices but by the largess of the native Americans. It was not until Bradford changed his collective approach and the results were in by Fall of 1623 however that the major Thanksgiving Feast we normal picture in our minds took place.


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