Thursday, March 16, 2023

We Hurry Children, But At What Cost?

Several years ago, I had an aisle seat on a flight from Perth to Sydney in Australia. To my right, in the center and window seats, sat two sisters, 7 and 9, whose parents were in the row in front of us. I'd offered to exchange seats with one of the adults, but they, to my delight, waved me off. I might be the only airline passenger who hopes to be seated next to kids, even fussy babies, and in this case the girls were electric with their excitement.

They told me they had never been to Sydney before. They were only staying for a day, then jetting on to a resort somewhere in the South Pacific. It was all exciting, but what had them quivering in their seats was simply the prospect of being on a plane. They clicked their seat belts, they flipped their tray tables open and shut, they dug through the seat back pockets, they fiddled with the overhead controls, they repeatedly retrieved their backpacks from under the seats in front of them, even offering me a choice from their selection of candy. They chattered about what they were seeing on the tarmac from the window, agreeing with one another that they would swap seats every "ten or twelve" minutes so that they had equal turns to see. Everything about the plane and the prospect of flying was exciting.

And I was along for their ride. There's nothing like children to make us old people see things afresh. 

Our excitement built as the plane began to taxi. We were rapt as the flight attendants went through their spiel. The girls' voices became higher pitched as they expressed every fleeting thought or feeling to one another. They clenched one another's hands as the engines roared, and giggled, wide-eyed, as we accelerated, then lifted into the sky. "I don't think we're on the ground any more!" "We're really flying!" "Eeee!" They leaned into the window to see the ground recede below us. "Look how far we can see!" "We're higher than everything!" "The cars look like ants!"

By this time on a normal flight I'm well into my book or crossword puzzle or sleeping. I'm often, these days, asleep before the plane takes off. A woman a few rows ahead of us began to fill in the voids in a coloring book. As soon as he was allowed, the man across the aisle lowered his tray table, broke out his computer and began fiddling with an Excel spreadsheet.

Slowly the girls' enthusiasm cooled. "There's nothing to see out there." Before long, they had their tablets out, and like the rest of us, settled in for the long haul.

"Early railroad travelers," writes Rebecca Solnit in her book Wanderlust, "characterized this new technology's effects as the elimination of time and space, and to transcend time and space is to begin to transcend the material world altogether -- to become disembodied . . . Speed didn't make travel more interesting . . . but duller; like the suburb it put its inhabitants in a kind of spatial limbo. People began to read on the train, to sleep, to knit, to complain of boredom."

It wasn't long ago that traveling from Perth to Sydney was an adventure of months if not years, a fully embodied experience that demanded strength and stamina, alertness, and a deep connection to the natural environment that required the use of all the senses. And time. It required time. Railway travel, followed by cars and then jets, has done away with the necessity to set aside big chunks of our lives to go from here to there, but it has come at the price of, as Solnit puts it, "atrophy as both a muscular and a sensory organism."

Of course, many of us have joined gyms as a way to mitigate the muscular atrophy, setting aside chunks of our lives in a factory-like setting, complete with shiny machines, to apply ourselves to the meaninglessness of squating, lifting, and stretching -- activities that once occurred as part of a normal, productive daily life. Even walking, which was for most of human history our primary mode of travel, has been reduced to a treadmill that goes literally no where. And none of this does much for the atrophy of our senses.

My travel companions were disappointed by the view from their window. Even what they could see -- clouds, the horizon, flat, ruddy earth -- was stripped of its essence, its scents, sounds, sensations, and flavor. Even the weather was made moot just as it is in a gym. No wonder we get bored.

It's hard not to compare this to the experience of schooling, which is, like flying in an airplane, objectively the swiftest way to get from Perth to Sydney, but at the price of everything that actually connects them to one another. Humans, like all living things, are connection-seekers. Knowing that two plus two equals four is one thing: understanding what it actually means is quite another. And that is what we lose when we compel children to disconnect from the world, as we were doing in that airplane, to spend hours and hours being told about Perth and Sydney without the opportunity to actually experience, in a fully embodied way. The result is that much of our learning is superficial, lacking the depth that results in a genuine understanding. It is the difference between spending an hour on a treadmill versus an hour ambling about the countryside. Solnit bemoans the "disappearance of . . . unstructured space in which so much thinking, courting, daydreaming, and seeing has transpired."

When the captain announced that we were to prepare for landing, the girls revived, turning once more to the windows. "There's the Sydney Opera House!" one of them squealed. "I see the Sydney Harbour Bridge!" shouted the other. "Mom! Dad! Can we go see them? Please!" They kicked the backs of their parents' seats in excitement. They knew, deep down, that they needed a fully embodied connection with these famous things that they only "knew" superficially from photos and screens.

"But, you can see them right now," their father began to object. "We've only got one day. Maybe it would be better if we . . ."

"Please! Please!" the girls plead together.

"Okay, okay," he answered, letting their enthusiasm to learn and connect sway him. "We'll go the harbor as soon as we've checked in." Then he paused, "But we'll have to take the train because I don't want to rent a car."



"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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