Monday, March 12, 2018

Wants, Interests, And Needs

I spent ten years reading almost exclusively Dickens and Eliot and Bronte and Hardy. I consider Austen to be the greatest of them all; some say that Emma was the first truely Victorian novel. I find Trollope to be a bit thin and Stevenson to be underrated. I'll bet that I know more about these novels than any preschooler alive.

It's a boast that won't impress anyone, of course, because even the few preschoolers who are already reading are certainly not reading 150-year-old English fiction. In the same fashion, the typical American preschooler is far more expert than I on the works of Disney (at least since 1970). The same goes for things like Minecraft and Star Wars. Every human alive, including all the children, have areas of expertise in which their knowledge surpasses my own.

Of course, many, maybe even most, adults would assert that knowledge of the Victorian novel is of a superior sort, but they're not only wrong, they're missing the point. No one made me read those novels, I read them because I wanted to read them, because I was interested, because it was knowledge that I felt I needed (albeit for reasons I'm still not able to fully explain). Likewise, as a boy I was variously absorbed with baseball cards, Batman, and the Hardy Boys, none of which were considered "serious" pursuits, yet I made myself an expert nevertheless. Looking back from my perch as a middle aged man, I can see that those baseball cards were an important part of my lifelong fascination with statistics, Batman influenced my sense of humor, and the Hardy Boys inspired me in my quest to be an independent young man. When those Victorian novels were being written, many very serious critics considered them a complete waste of time, at best, while some labeled them a dangerous influence on young minds, much in the way that Disney, Minecraft, and Star Wars are critiqued today. Perhaps history will prove the critics right, but then again, any one or all of those subject areas may become the Victorian novel of our grandchildren's grandchildren's generation. In other words, we'll never know and to pretend to know is hubris.

When it comes to modern early years education there is a kind of unofficial hierarchy of knowledge at work, with mathematics and literacy at the top. Subjects like science, history, literature, and the humanities fill out the second tier, with physical education and the arts (dance and theater in particular) occupying the basement. Yes, there are schools that emphasize things differently, but the point is that Disney isn't on there at all, nor is popular music or baseball cards or Batman. Instead, we have prepackaged knowledge capsules of "learning objectives" for the kids to swallow. For many it's a bitter medicine, one they would rather hide under their tongues to be spit out the moment they are no longer under adult supervision. That's the way it usually is with "knowledge" for which we have neither want nor interest nor need. Oh sure, hard working teachers do their best to smooth that over by striving to persuade their proteges, and sometimes it works and the children come to embrace the adult approved want, interest, or need, but more often than not it's a struggle for everyone.

It's should be obvious to everyone that education would be a lot easier if we simply let the children pursue their own interests. Then there would be no need for "teaching" at all, at least when it came to the acquisition of specific bits of knowledge like the Victorian novel or Star Wars, because everyone would be self-motivated, and nothing beats self-motivation. The main role of the "teacher" would then be to merely keep up with the kids and help them find the information or tools they need. I suppose it would also be nice if that teacher could play the role of coach, confidant, and cheerleader as well.

So what of the math and literacy? Would kids grow up ignorant of those things? Would any of them ever read a Victorian novel? What kind of jobs will they get with their encyclopedic knowledge of, say, Beyonce, and little else? Good questions, all. I'll try to address them in order.

As things are now, math and literacy are treated as core subjects, yet in real life, for most of us, calculating and reading never stand at the center of our endeavors, but exist rather as tools that allow us to pursue those things for which we have want, interest, or need. My own experience with baseball cards is a case in point: I spent hundreds of hours ranking, ordering, and grouping my cards based on the lines and lines of statistics on the back. I came to an understanding of fractions and averages and percentages long before I came across them in a text book. But it was never about math. It was about baseball. The math was just a tool I used to pursue something for which I had want, interest, and need.

Reading works the same way. I didn't read all of the Hardy Boys mysteries because I was working on reading skills, it was because I was acutely interested in these two brothers, my elders, but still boys, who were free to roam the world, having adventures without some grown up telling them what they need to know and by when they need to know it. The only reason we believe that most humans must be "taught" to read (or do math or understand basic science) is that we've been using school to "teach" them to read for generations. It's a habit. Believe it or not, people learned to read long before we started teaching it in schools. The advent of the ability to mass produce printed material is what really boosted modern literacy. It was the internet of its day, full of information, ideas, and entertainment for which people had wants, interests, and needs. People were highly motivated to figure it out and so they did. In today's terms we would say that reading went viral. By the beginning of the American Revolution in 1776, literacy rates were about what they are today (even a bit higher) and they've pretty much stayed there ever since, whether we were teaching it in schools or not. Reading is just a tool we use to pursue something for which we have want, interest, or need and most of us learn it because of that.

So no, I don't think kids would grow up ignorant of math or literacy or science or history. Indeed, I expect they would grow up to view these things as useful tools rather than study chores, because they would have learned to use them in the context of something for which they had want, interest, or need.

As for the second question, most of them probably never would read a Victorian novel, but that's really no different than things are now. Sure, many of us have been forced to read one or two, but most of us will never in our lifetime voluntarily read another. This is true of much of what we "learn" in school because humans typically don't respond well to being told what to learn because, to capsulize the eternal complaint of the sixth grader, most of it is "irrelevant." Most of it is stuff for which we have no want, interest, or need so we forget it as quickly as we can, freeing our brains for more important stuff.

And to reply to the third question about how being an expert on Beyonce (or Disney or baseball card stats) helps you "get a job," my response is it that it might. Maybe the skills we acquire researching our pop idols will serve us economically. It's far less likely that the historical dates we were compelled to memorize will help fill the coffers. Maybe the knowledge we gain about how the entertainment business works will give us a leg up. Maybe our fan participation in Beyonce's social media marketing outreach will allow us to understand how marketing works. All of which might be useful when it comes to earning a greasy buck, but for me that's kind of beside the point. If the primary purpose of education is to train future employees, then I say let's give the whole project up and let the corporations train their own damn workers.

I hope we all, first and foremost, want our children to be educated in the art of self-governance, and while part of that may be vocational learning, that is far from the primary goal. That is the promise and demand of democracy. And there is nothing more fundamental than the freedom to pursue one's own wants, interests, and needs because that's how we find our own place amongst our fellow self-governing citizens. That is the pursuit of happiness and it runs through our own unique wants, interests, and needs.

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