Marcel Pelgrom

Marcel Pelgrom consults on analog IC design.

8 June 2021

We stopped teaching our children that not everything in life is fun – and that’s a big problem, argues a grumpy old engineer.

Peter is the shop assistant in my local grocery store and over time, we’ve built up some sort of relation. Although he’s certainly smart, he moves slowly, like a turtle. Even the shop manager mocks him: “One day, you’ll be late for your own funeral.” As you might expect, Peter is an easygoing and relaxed person. He works at the store to have some money for his weekend parties and his hobby, water skiing. I should mention that his parents are doing really well.

Peter finished high school just before the pandemic, but he never told me whether he graduated or just left. He did tell me, however, that he forgot to return his school books and was confronted with a bill of over 1,000 euros. I recommended raising an objection and asking his former school to help out. A few weeks later, when I inquired what happened, it turned out he just paid the bill.

Last autumn, I was curious whether he would sign up for some professional education. He evaded the answer, but my guess is that it’s not going to happen. Peter has taken a job as an order picker for some webshop. “Production manager,” he calls it. My statement that one day, he’ll face a boss who’s younger, better educated, makes more money and is probably not Dutch-born was met with disbelief. “I’ll take some evening classes, that’s more my style. I dislike studying, anyway.”

And so my weekly meetings with Peter come to an end.

Earlier this year, the IEEE organized a webinar for young professionals from all over the world. They could ask questions about their careers. I was amazed at how often I heard Peter talking. Questions like: “How do I deal with tasks I dislike?” The idea that some hardship is part of life and that avoiding it isn’t the best way to deal with that is difficult to explain to the present generation.

Already in primary school, the notion that school should be fun trumps striving for performance. Let alone aiming at some level of excellence. Over the last decades, the fun factor has gradually eroded the acquisition of basic skills such as language proficiency and arithmetic. The last report of the Program for International Student Assessment (Pisa) showed that the mathematics, language and science skills of 15-year-old children in OESO countries are dropping. The Netherlands even performs below the OESO average. A quarter of the children are considered (very) weak on the aspect of reading.

High school has been reduced to a continuation of the kindergarten idea. Again, the amusement of children is dominant, neglecting the basic function of a school: learning. The closing musical, the school ball, the far-away school trip – all of that is far more important than a smashing performance on math, physics and chemistry. Last year, the secretary of education couldn’t think of a better solution than basically just letting everybody graduate, and this year, it’s not much harder either. It’s a disaster for post-high school educational institutions, which face freshmen with one or two years of backlog.

In their first two decades or so, we forget to teach our children that things aren’t always pleasant in life. Consequently, they’re unaware of how to handle misfortune. The idea that you can’t go on holiday at least twice a year is already unbearable.

During last winter’s cold spell, some Dutch EE students e-mailed me that they wouldn’t submit their homework because they wanted to go ice skating. Sometimes, they simply let me know that they can’t find the motivation to get started on their assignments. My generation was also lazy on occasion, but at least we came up with some lousy excuse.

No doubt I’m a grumpy old engineer. But some things don’t change over generations: progress, be it in technology, society or sense of well-being, isn’t achieved by leaning back and avoiding unpleasant tasks. If we continue smoothing any setback, our society will come to a standstill. And others will come, work harder, overcome the hardships and gladly pick up our prosperity. And it will be well-deserved.