Friday, November 24, 2023

What if That's What We Did in School?

"(T)o be quite oneself," writes Irish novelist Elizabeth Bowen, "one must first waste a little time."

Lately, I've been wondering what schools or education would look like if our goal was not good little workers or master test-takers, but rather to support each child in becoming quite themselves. What if we understood education, not as empty vessels to be filled with the trivia that past generations have deemed essential, but rather to support each fully formed human being, be they two or 92, to know themselves, to discover what makes them come alive, and then to have the skills, aptitudes, and experience go and do it?

As Howard Thurman said, "What the world needs is people who have come alive."

Abraham Maslow, in his famous hierarchy of needs, called it self-actualization, placing it right at the tip-top, our highest calling. What if we, as important adults in the lives of young children, saw our role, not as children's teachers or shapers or guides, but rather as being responsible for ensuring that every child's physiological, safety and security, love and belonging, and self-esteem needs were met so that they could, within the context of a community, focus on their highest calling, which is to find and pursue purpose in their lives.

There would, obviously, be no canned and packaged curriculum for that. 

For our two-year-olds that might mean being free to pursue a series of self-selected purposes for a minute or an hour before moving on to the next. As the renowned mythologist Joseph Campbell wrote, "What I think is a good life is one hero journey after another." For older children those journeys would become longer and deeper as they develop the habit of coming alive through the process of pursuing their quest or question, overcoming difficulties, learning intimately relevant lessons about the world, the other people, and themselves, then returning "home" once more, transformed by the experience. 

And then, once home, before setting out on the next hero journey, it is essential to waste a little time.

"We are so governed by our minds," writes philosopher and publisher Antonia Case, "that we can fool ourselves into believing the self-change comes from thinking about it . . . We fool ourselves into thinking that we just need a little time, some space, and then, once all the receptors are open, the voice within us will tell us the way . . . But this is not how self-change happens. Your footsteps are the road and nothing more." In other words, self-change comes from doing, which is something every young child is born knowing. What if our system of education was built around ensuring that our children don't unlearn this?

In some ways, it's the "wasting a little time" that worries us adults. Most of us, when encountering a clearly purpose-driven child can manage to step back and let them go, even if we have some other curriculum we are meant to march them through. Self-motivation tends to delight us and we tend to give it freer reign. But far fewer of us can step back when a child appears to be purposeless. 

It's interesting in this context to consider that the Greek word for leisure, skhole, is the root for the English word "school." The ancient Greeks felt that it is while in a state of leisure, wasting time, that we most readily encounter, as Case puts it, "unexpected opportunities, unforeseen changes, serendipitous encounters -- these are the moments that can radically alter the trajectory of your life. It's an appealing thought: that you have not yet met the person you will become."

Novelist Kurt Vonnegut asserted, "We're here on this earth to fart around." Cognitive psychologists and others who study this elusive thing called the mind, tell us that much of our thinking takes place in the background, not when we're actively concentrating on the challenges at hand, but rather while goofing off, wasting time, or otherwise engaged in unrelated pursuits. The theory of mind that supposes that knowledge is consciously built from the ground up, like a building, starting with the foundation, then slowly, methodically constructing it an orderly fashion, is in the ashcan of history. Yet our standard schools continue to operate as if everything is merely a foundation for what comes next as we educate the next generation of workers. What we now know is that when humans are learning at full capacity, it is a chaotic, unpredictable process, one that darts and dashes from this to that. At times it seems to grind to a complete halt, before suddenly lurching forward again. Indeed, conscious thought appears to, at times, be more hinderance than not to learning. 

It's while wasting time and farting around that our brains have the leisure to do the real work, the life work, of discovering our purpose, our hero's journey, that thing that makes us come alive for a day, a week, or a lifetime. The world needs more people who have discovered that. What if that's what we did in school?


If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! 
"Ready for a book that makes you want to underline and highlight? One that makes you draw arrows and write 'THIS!!!!!' in the margin? Then you are in for a treat." ~Lisa Murphy, M.Ed., author and Early Childhood Specialist, Ooey Gooey, Inc.

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