Wednesday, July 28, 2021

The Only Way Anyone Has Ever Come Alive

The "safest" plan is to grow up to become something like a computer programmer or accountant, preferably with a degree from a prestigious university. The only path to get there is to spend your high school years collecting extracurriculars, kudos, and, of course, excellent grades. Prior to that, naturally, you will have prepared yourself by applying yourself through middle school, but the real foundation is the elementary school years where you learn how to determine what your teachers want from you, then delivering, be it behavior or test scores. And everyone knows that this requires adapting to "seat work" and learning to read before kindergarten. This means that we have little choice but to get their noses to the grindstone as early as possible. It breaks our hearts sometimes, but one day, when they are safely ensconced in their solid, reputable careers, they will thank us.

This is what people mean when they say they want to "reverse engineer" education. If we can only determine the desired outcomes up front and work back from there, then we can fill our world with computer programmers and accountants. This may or may not be what any of the children want. How could they possibly know what they want? They're preschoolers, right? They're elementary school children; they're only adolescents; they're just teenagers. But, the reasoning goes, it would be irresponsible for us adults to allow them to waste their time on things we know they are going to abandon anyway, like art or dance or digging holes in the sand. Let's get them ensconced in their careers, then, from there, from a perch of safety, they can, perhaps as early as their late 30's, begin to dabble in art or dance or digging holes in the sand.

"Reverse engineering" is a concept that comes from engineering, of course, but more directly from the most dismal science, economics. It assumes that the adults will control the children, as one might a mechanism or calculation, and if done properly, with just the right inputs, the child will emerge as a computer programmer or accountant, which is the desired result.

Americans, including American children, have never been unhappier, a trend that pre-dates the pandemic by decades. The analysis in this link tries to lay the blame at the feet of digital media, but it seems much more likely that increased digital media use is a symptom more than a cause. Humans turn to distractions when our lives do not fulfill us, when it all seems gray, when we've played it too safe, when the future looks too much like the present. 

The world doesn't need more people who play it safe; it needs more people who've come alive. As important adults in the lives of children, it is a tragic cruelty when we view anyone, but children in particular, as what economists label "human resources." When we take charge of who they are for the first two decades of their lives, manipulating and steering them toward predetermined outcomes, when we rob them of the breadth and depth of life in order to properly manufacture them, we might make them "safe," but at what cost?

Our responsibility to young children is to help them discover what makes them come alive. The most important thing I've learned in the decades since I left school is that the real project is becoming who we are. Coming alive is a lifelong process, akin to being born again and again, but if we've not learned how to do it when we are young, it becomes, like learning a new language, increasingly difficult. This is what play is for: it is the only way anyone has ever come alive. And this is the only valid goal of education.


"Teacher Tom, our caped hero of all things righteous in the early childhood world, inspires us to be heroic in our own work with young children, and reminds us that it is the children who are the heroes of the story as they embark on adventures of discovery, wonder, democracy, and play." ~Rusty Keeler
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