I was struck by this comment from siddiebowtie in response to my previous post:
It’s as if the powers that be are determined to suck the souls out of children as early as possible so they’re nice and pliable – devoid of will or hope – by the time they reach adulthood so that they can be more efficient slaves.
That might sound a little extreme but what if you could only reply True or False? Which would you plump for? With a heavy heart, I’d say True. And how about this for an educational philosophy?
Our aim is to prepare young people for the workplace by developing the habits, skills and knowledge they will need to secure employment.
At first sight, that may look OK. But then the questions begin. Do we live to work or work to live? Can it be right that our children spend over two-thirds of their precious and irreplaceable development years on little more than job applications?
And even if you think we humans have no value beyond our economic function, it doesn’t stack up. Who knows what the world of work will be like in 2035? And when these kids step on the first rung, what then? What use will they be if they only have starter skills?
Starter skills – aka ‘the basics’ – are popular with politicians because they can be tested on the cheap. Don’t worry that they narrow the curriculum to the point of dumbing down and take all the fun out of learning. Schools don’t need real books when they’ve got reading schemes, nor computers when learning is by rote and the teacher holds the key to knowledge. And don’t get me started on original sin and the need to curb enthusiasm in the very young!
You don’t make something heavier by weighing it. That is to confuse cause and effect. Similarly, I’m good at grammar but I learned to read and write fluently without it because my interest was fully aroused. I just got it. I didn’t learn to talk by mastering phonetics and I didn’t learn to ride a bike by naming its parts. Time enough to become technicians when we’re up and pedalling.
We need a Plan B. How about this for a starter skill?
“Every child is an artist. The challenge is to remain an artist after you grow up.” – Pablo Picasso
Let’s go beyond it. Every child is an artist, poet, philosopher, dancer, nature-lover, explorer, comedian, scientist, sceptic, teacher, boundary pusher, truth speaker. This morning I heard about an experiment where they gave unschooled slum kids computers and asked them to find and understand advanced concepts. The results astounded the scientists. No instructions were needed. The key was to have a group of nine year olds round a single computer.
The best teacher I ever had gave us afternoons to do themed projects guided by her questions which asked for much more than research. We had to share our findings with classmates and then – working in groups to organise and adapt our material – present it to other classes and groups of adults. Helped by our watchful primary school teacher we did displays, lectures, readings, performances, interviews, recordings and more. She expected us to aim high and trusted us to take risks. We struggled to interest others. We gave up our free time. We didn’t need to be tested on what we’d learned. And we learned loads.
Nietzsche said, ‘Become what you are’. This is rather like the Buddhist notion of waking to our innate nature. Learning, meditation and compassion are the ways in – or perhaps, the way back, because what we discover was there all along. TS Eliot (Little Gidding, Four Quartets) puts it as well as anyone:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
I want to write about childhood because it is the common ground we all share beneath the cultural divides that come later. Every child is a natural rebel and together they are the archetypal cross-border tribe. The indigenous Australians had the right idea giving their kids mentors in neighbouring tribes. Ah well, our kids go walkabout online …
I’m getting silly. Time for my cocoa. When you’re my age the past looms large, so be warned … there may be self-indulgent writing about my childhood to follow! In the meantime, here’s Don DeLillo talking to The Guardian’s Xan Brooks about his regular reunion dinners with long-lost childhood friends:
‘And when we meet, we talk about growing up. And all of us remember absolutely everything the same way. I mean that there’s no argument, it’s very strange. It’s as though the last 50 years have been …’
A happy dream? A hallucination? ‘A waste of time,’ he says and laughs.