It’s been a year since Oliver Sacks passed away. I’m grateful all the time for his work. Here’s a clip about his return to the piano.
As the beginning of a school year approaches, I hear from many families whose children are not as eager as those shown in back-to-school advertisements. So many young people are downright dreading it. When asked for a reason, they’ll say it’s stressful, or boring, or both.
A common response from adults is: “You can do it!”
We say this with the best of encouraging intentions. What we mean is “You’re great, and strong, and we believe in you.”
While that is likely true, it’s an answer to a question they may or may not be asking. (Not to mention that it neglects the question of at what cost.) If a young person says “I don’t know if I’m smart enough,” then some version of “you can do it” is appropriate and plenty.
But as a response to “I don’t want to go to school because it’s boring/stressful/ boring and stressful,” it misses the mark. Mostly, I think we use “You can do it” because we don’t really have time to address what these young people are actually expressing, and even if we did have time, it would be hard to know where to begin. (I say this not to suggest laziness on the part of adults but rather as a reflection of experience, after more than two decades at work on the problem!) But it’s also possible that we’re just mis-hearing what young people are actually saying; that we think this expression of satisfaction or unhappiness is actually a lack of confidence.
Either way, it’s a good idea to try to move beyond cheering kids on, to look more closely at what they’re saying and why they’re saying it. I think that in our role as caretakers and guides for young people we don’t like to get into this kind of territory unless we have solutions at the ready. And sure, they wouldn’t mind a solution, but to have their communications actually received can go a long way, even in the absence of solution. A longer way than we probably realize.
Especially if we want young people to keep talking to us, to keep telling us what’s not working for them, to keep honing the ability to express what they’re experiencing and use it to navigate what’s ahead.
“Educability, humanity’s species characteristic, is not simply a matter of learning the answers to old questions, but, more importantly, the increasing ability to ask new questions that may lead to new answers. There is always the danger that old answers will discourage the raising of new and appropriate questions, with the result that the error becomes institutionalized, often as a way of life.”
from Manish Jain’s plenary, Western-style Schooling, Unemployment, and Cultural Breakdown, at the 2015 Economics of Happiness conference:
“Spending so much time in the four walls of the classroom and extra tutoring classes does not leave much time to develop deep emotional and spiritual relationships with the fields, the trees, the rivers, and the animals. So these slowly shift from being family members to being commodities.”
From Dan Baum’s recent Harper’s piece about drug legalization: “After telling the BBC in December that ‘if you fight a war for forty years and don’t win, you have to sit down and think about other things to do that might be more effective,’ Columbian president Juan Manuel Santos legalized medical marijuana by decree.” (I recommend reading the whole piece and I will likely mention it again in the next few days; here I just have this small thing to say about the Santos quotation.)
This reminded me of an old story in The New Yorker about artificial leaf technology. Harvard professor Daniel Nocera is quoted: “For the past two hundred years, we’ve run this other experiment, with fossil fuels, and it’s not working out so well.”
We forget that the things we try are experiments. They become truths, or mandates, part of the fabric of life and society. So if and when they are not working, it can be hard to abandon them and try new ones. It feels like we have no choice but to keep trying variations on whatever approach we’ve grown accustomed to, without rethinking the basis of the experiment.
I cannot think of many realms in which this is more true than it is in education.
I asked a high-school aged friend if she’s thought about what she might want to study in college (she’d already told me she wants to go) or what she might want to do after college. She hesitated, and then said that she really likes science but she’s terrible at memorizing things, so probably she’ll do something with history instead. She said she’s especially interested in environmental science and issues related to climate change.
You could think of this as a teaching or curriculum problem, but I don’t think it really is. I think it’s a sorting problem. Or a problem with how we’ve taught ourselves to imagine we should be sorted when it comes to ability and suited-ness to particular tasks and professions. And also a problem with how we think about what our brains are best used for.
This young person thinks that her difficulty with memorizing will exclude her (or should exclude her) from a career in science. She has classmates who memorize easily, and they are the ones with high scores on tests and in courses. So on paper, on transcripts, if it’s good grades that tell us about someone’s aptitude for a particular area of study, we can see that her quick-memorizing classmates are the ones destined for careers in science. Yes, many a good teacher will tell you that if you don’t emphasize the memorization you can show something different with how you grade, but for most students in most schools, information recall is a big factor in grade determination and a teacher who makes it otherwise is swimming upstream and trying to pull her students along with her against a strong current.
What would we have to do to make it otherwise? First we’d have to decide whether we believe that a scientist must be able to keep on hand a multitude of data. Must one? I’d guess not, at a time when it’s possible to put a handheld device with endless data in the hand of any professional anything. Wouldn’t it make sense for the first qualifying characteristic for a career in science (or any participation in science) be an interest in participating, and then perhaps the second an interest in and capacity for problem solving and analytical thought? Science once required extensive memorization, but it doesn’t any more, and we’ve got big enough problems, and many enough problems, that the more solvers we can get on them the better, it seems to me. To exclude the ones who can’t memorize stuff as well as some others can memorize stuff seems unwise. Not to mention that the good memorizers might be put to better use elsewhere especially if they’re not interested in the careers and occupations that their memorizing might qualify them for and point them in the direction of.
When I was in first grade I spent an afternoon in the school office, just chatting with the secretary. I wasn’t there for a rule infraction. I was there because it was the day my class was learning about the dangers of talking to strangers, and my mom knew that she didn’t need to worry about me talking to strangers. What she needed to worry about was me getting so scared by stories of what could happen at the hand of a stranger that I’d have trouble sleeping, and have nightmares. So she sent me to school with a note requesting that I be excused from the classroom talk.
I thought of this the other day when I was out for a walk in my neighborhood. One of the rental houses on the next street over is usually occupied by short-term visitors, and usually it’s a couple. The house is tiny, has just one bedroom. So I was surprised to see a young child out on a scooter in the driveway. “Hi,” I was about to say when I saw her. I made a note to mention to my young neighbors (who also have scooters) that she was there. If I’d spoken to her I might have mentioned it to her too.
But you aren’t really supposed to talk to kids you don’t know. It’s not a rule for adults the way Don’t talk to strangers is a rule for kids, but it’s sort of understood. Because you know that kids are taught not to talk to strangers, it’s sort of a courtesy to not put them in a position to have to do the not talking to. It’s weird, and seems unfriendly, but in the context of the talking to strangers rule, it’s kinder to not talk to kids if you are, to them, a stranger.
For me this is such a bummer. I like talking to kids. I find them more open and aware and awake than many adults (including me). But I don’t want to make them uncomfortable, or worry them, or worry their parents if their parents are nearby. I could have said hi to the kid with the scooter in the driveway, because that’s about as much as it’s OK to say to a kid you don’t know, but I didn’t. I was too busy regretting that it has to be this way. And wondering about the impact it has on a person’s experience of the world.
The intent of the Don’t talk to strangers bit is obvious and good. We put it in place in hopes of preventing strangers with ill intentions from bonding with children such that they can then more easily victimize them in some way. The problem is that as a result, many children get the message that strangers are dangerous, which mostly, we aren’t. Some strangers are dangerous. Some are in fact extremely dangerous. Most strangers, though, are not dangerous at all. Don’t talk to strangers makes no allowance for this, and kids are left thinking that it’s the strangerness that’s dangerous. It’s not the strangerness that’s dangerous. It’s just that some people are dangerous. And of course we know that it doesn’t take being a stranger to be dangerous.
It seems so much harder to try to communicate with kids about the nuances of things than to just make a decision for them and then try not to worry about the side effects. It’s much harder to say something like “There are some people who could hurt you, and so we need to talk about how to decide whether or not it’s OK to talk with someone you don’t know or to do something that an adult tells you is OK even if you do know them” than to say “Don’t talk to strangers.” Like many things we do with and ostensibly for kids, I think it’s born mostly of tiredness and overextension. We don’t have time or energy to get into all that nuance and the questions that kids will have.
When I was a child, I was very good about giving the silent treatment to anyone I didn’t know. Now I’m an adult, and I pretty much still don’t talk to people I don’t know. I know intellectually that most of the people I pass on the street are not harboring ill intentions toward me or anyone, young or old, nearby. But I still relate to them, as a group, as though they probably are. Not everyone grows up feeling this way, and I don’t lay the blame for this condition in myself solely on the admonition that I not speak with strangers. But I know it had an impact. I know it set a tone for the way I experience the people who are new to me. If that’s true for me, I bet it’s true for others too. And if it is, if many of us are scooting around shaping our worlds around even the remnants of a belief that mostly people are dangerous, I think it might be worth rethinking the stranger rhetoric.