Almanzo’s tangible reward for working hard

by Mr. Sheehy

“What do I have to go to school for?  I can read and write and spell, and I don’t want to be a school-teacher or a storekeeper.”

“You can read and write and spell,” Father said slowly. “But can you figure?”

“Yes, Father,” Almanzo said. “Yes, I can figure–some.”

“A farmer must know more figuring than that, son. You better go to school.”

Almanzo did not say any more; he knew it would be no use. Next morning he took his dinner-pail and went to school.

This year his seat was farther back in the room, so he had a desk for his books and slate. And he studied hard to learn the whole arithmetic, because the sooner he knew it all, the sooner he would not have to go to school any more. (342-343)

From Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Farmer Boy. I find the scene compelling in lots of ways, most primarily in that if a family was satisfied with the education their child had acquired, they stopped going to school. Just like chores, Almanzo’s reward for hard and diligent work was finishing early. I wonder if this is part of why we have trouble with students’ work ethic in our contemporary culture (hard work is certainly a trait I hear many parents and teachers bemoan the loss of): we don’t reward hard work. Kids work hard in school and what reward do they get? A better grade? But as long as a student has a diploma, who looks at a kid’s grades after high school? The reward for hard work is almost entirely intrinsic, and the reward for sloughing off assignments and tasks is more tangibly beneficial: it opens up more time for him to do the things he want to do, like playing video games or hanging out with friends. The students who work hard in school have to stay just as long as the students who don’t work hard. In fact, the ones who work hard are usually told they have to stay in even longer, attending college.