Years ago television options were few and there was no easy way to skip through commercials. As a result we watched them; many were tiny pieces of visual art, sometimes shocking us, sometimes pulling at heartstrings.
One in particular has always resonated for me. It was an ad for Cracker Jack, that caramelized popcorn-and-peanut treat (“Candy-coated popcorn, peanuts, and a prize! That’s what you get with Cracker Jack!) starring the talented character actor Jack Gilford and a small gap-toothed boy. The spot shows Gilford sitting in a living-room chair reading the newspaper and eating Cracker Jack. As he hears the boy, playing son to Gilford’s father, return home from school, Gilford quickly tucks the candied treat inside the paper and forces a noncommittal expression onto his face. The boy walks up to his father and leans slightly forward. When Gilford asks the boy what he learned in school that day, the boy, with a subtle grin, replies, “Sharing….” Gilford puts on the awkwardly guilty expression he was so famous for, and tries to shift the topic, asking instead if the boy played any games in school that day. The boy nods and says “Yep.” Gifford asks what kind of games, to which the boy again replies, “Sharing….” At this point Gilford reluctantly pulls out the large box of Cracker Jack and hands it to the boy, who starts to walk away before Gilford himself asks the boy, “Sharing?” The boy turns and pours some into Gilford’s open hand.
The reason the ad (which won the Gold Lion award at Cannes’ Festival for Creativity) resonates so strongly is not only because of its warm familial approach. It resonates also for pointing out something we all knew as children but somehow seem have forgotten as adults: the power in sharing.
And how badly have we forgotten about sharing? As of this moment, the United States has an income inequality gap that is wider than any time since 1928. That’s 87 years! There are currently only three other countries with income gaps worse than ours: Turkey, Mexico, and Chile.
We just don’t like, apparently, to share money. And why don’t we like to share? Blame it on our educational system, which spends years training us not to share.
And how has that happened? Well, funny you should ask….
One of the things you were taught quite early on was that it wasn’t right to hog the toys you loved most. If other kids also wanted to play with those same items, you either had to take turns or learn to play together, sharing both the toys and the experience. This sharing wasn’t just a nicety but an imperative, part of our quickly developing moral compass.
Well before you reached kindergarten, it’s likely that you had some exposure to the “rightness” of sharing. Perhaps you had a sibling or a cousin close in age that you played with frequently. If so, your parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles probably all told you more than a few times that you needed to “play nice” with someone or to let “your little sister take a turn.” Sharing is what we were told to do, what we were expected to do, and what we needed to do. Sharing, we were told in many different ways, is a cultural norm.
Combined with that cultural norm was another, equally powerful, norm that we were all taught: the norm for being independent, for “standing on your own two feet,” for “being responsible for your actions.” If we drew with crayons on the wall, or left a muddy palm print on the kitchen cabinets, or found ourselves standing next to a younger brother crying and holding his arm in pain, we always heard the same thing: “Did you do that?”
On the surface, these two imperatives—sharing and independence—don’t seem in conflict. Sharing with others doesn’t in any way mean that we are not being responsible; one could argue, perhaps, that the opposite is true, that sharing is a way of being responsible by helping others to learn, play, work, etc.
But then we graduated from kindergarten into the mainstream environment of our elementary grades, and slowly the ideas of sharing and independence slip into competition, as if you can’t really do one and be the other. And it’s this dichotomy that continues into our adult lives.
It begins very early, during the time we transition from a sharing-based play/learn environment to a more learning-centric environment in school. As we move through the grades, each progressive world we are led to relies more on individual measurement, usually in the form of grades. We are tested on what we know.
In elementary school there is still a fair amount of sharing—working on various projects together in art or history or music, for example—but we also experience our first tests. We learn about “A” through “F.” We understand—and very quickly—that we are expected to learn as individuals and to report what we’ve learned, also as individuals. We understand—and very quickly—that what is required of us is independence, and that this has somehow become the opposite of sharing, of working together, of jointly succeeding. No longer is there value in three or four of us constructing something interesting out of a pile of block; we may still engage in those kinds of activities, but the real value is within us, alone, and measured in red pencil marks.
As we move through the latter half of elementary school and on into middle school and high school, we become less and less connected with classmates. We are reminded that our work is our work and, slowly, what used to be sharing is given a new name: cheating. And cheating overrides everything. Cheating comes with a penalties. Worst of all, cheating becomes, in this artificial environment, synonymous with sharing. If you share with others or have others share with you, you're a cheater. Period.
For the years and years spent in K-12 environments, this lesson endlessly repeats: you can only “share” so much before it’s considered too much, before it’s considered cheating. It’s the way we were trained, and the way we still (for the most part) train others within our educational systems.
For those of us who go on to college, that training becomes even more intense. Now you’re not just going to be graded on what you know, you’re also going to be graded on what other people don’t know.
It’s called the curve, and it means, simply, this: Too score well, to get a good grade, you must be better than the average within your class. Inherently that means that you must know more than other people around you in order to truly succeed, and so for these four years of baccalaureate pursuit, you will be further trained to hold on to what knowledge you acquire, to resist the urge to share anything you’ve learned from all but you’re very closest companions—and even to those you share what you know with some reluctance (and generally in exchange for what they know that can help you).
This experience, for many, is the point at which we become conditioned to believe that not sharing is the preferred cultural norm.
And so we go off to live our lives. To marry, raise kids, join churches, have careers. And we look around at our country and we see the greatest income inequality since 1928. But those who have the most don’t do anything about it. No surprise. Those that have so much and don’t want to share? Well, they’re just doing what we taught them to.