Child Father To Man! The Shocking Truth!

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.



35 thoughts on “Child Father To Man! The Shocking Truth!

  1. Oh Dave – a post right up my street!!
    What use is education if it doesn’t expand the minds, enlarge the scope and turn on the incredulity?
    Educated right and you have a thirst for life, bright eyes and no limits.
    Schooled for tests and you have robots who can do tests.
    Work? Is that what we are for? Is that the purpose of education? Surely not?
    I need a cup of cocoa too!

  2. You’re right about the constant job applications. I’m in my late 50s and went for an interview the other day with Lancashire Police. It went pretty well then they stumped me with one last question: Give an example of an occasion when I had preserved someone’s dignity? I waffled on a bit about always respecting people but I must admit, that one had me pretty well stumped. -Didn’t get the job either!

    1. The question evidently said more about them than it did about you! And like you, Steve, I always try to preserve people’s dignity so would be hard-pressed to come up with a particular example.

  3. Thought provoking, we are all the sum of our experiences, if those experiences are stunted form the beginning what hope do we have to flourish?

    1. Absolutely! This puts me in mind of the following poem:

      On Children
      by Kahlil Gibran

      Your children are not your children.
      They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
      They come through you but not from you,
      And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

      You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
      For they have their own thoughts.
      You may house their bodies but not their souls,
      For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
      which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
      You may strive to be like them,
      but seek not to make them like you.
      For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

      You are the bows from which your children
      as living arrows are sent forth.
      The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
      and He bends you with His might
      that His arrows may go swift and far.
      Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
      For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
      so He loves also the bow that is stable.

      As an evolutionist, I would suggest that the archer is blind but the beauty of the metaphor still resonates for me.

  4. I was surprised to see myself mentioned there! And yes, my stance probably sounds exaggerated, and perhaps it is, and perhaps it isn’t. I definitely think that school has degenerated ( or maybe it was always the way) into a place of brainwashing rather than learning. For the most part, anyway. I remember in highschool, a certain teacher confided in us that his nickname for school was ‘baby jail” ! He’d become quite disenchanyed with the whole thing. I’m certain that there are other teachers out there who, like several i remember from my school days, sincerely wish to help children find their “calling” and bloom into their full potential. But the current education system makes it hard for this process to be carried out properly.

    There is a great quote somewhere relating to learning/eduation, but i must try to find it, as i can’t for the life of me remember the exact phrasing, let alone which philosopher to attribute it to! Anyway, it’s something along the lines of: a teacher’s ( and/or parent’s) job is to discover/determine the child’s natural talents and inclinations, then help equip the child for success in the pursuit of excellence in those fields. Really must find the quote, as it’s more succinct than anything i could say, but you get the gist.

    Looking forward to childhood stories. You’re right; it’s something universal, even if we were all raised quite differently. It’s always nice to see what we all have in common.

    1. Thanks for your lovely, generous response. Hope you don’t mind being quoted and didn’t think I was being disparaging. When I started teaching back in the day I was full of ideals but became disillusioned by increasing interference by politicians of all parties. The etymological roots of the word ‘education’ are ‘lead from’, implying an awakening of what’s already there. Children aren’t empty vessels to be filled up. The struggle is to retain our childlike side. Without it we are simply childish. Thanks again!

  5. i especially enjoyed your memories of the teacher who let you explore themed topics in the afternoons and then allowed you to think about what they are learning. she was a master teacher. i wonder why we let sadistic people design curriculum?

    1. They are not necessarily sadistic, it seems we allow business men and politicians design curriculum. The purpose of school is no longer to educate, we are creating a system that teaches compliance, those that cannot comply are ejected by the system.

    2. Insensitive rather than sadistic, perhaps. The planners are not practising teachers. The mania for testing has resulted in fragmentation of what is taught. The whole is always more than the sum of its parts but you need space and time to let it come together in an organic way.

  6. I asked my wife Peggy, who worked as a highly successful elementary school principal for years, what she feels the purpose of education is. Her reply, “It is to give young people the confidence and skills they need to discover who they are and to become who they want to be.” She didn’t say to become who society wants them to be. I have a lot more thoughts, but I think her answer is a good one. –Curt

    1. It’s an excellent answer, involving a much wider idea of human potential than most jobs expect, Perhaps if we turned out fully realised young people the world of work would have to change. Most employees are hugely underestimated.

      1. They are put into slots. Creativity is rarely encouraged. I’ve had fun watching my son-in-law move from Verizon to Google for work. It’s like night and day moving from a somewhat traditional job to one that is very open. –Curt

        1. I expect your son-in-law is pleased to have made the move, though the new job sounds more demanding and probably took some getting used to after a more limited role. I wonder if anyone has tried to calculate the lost potential when people’s skills remain undeveloped/unused …

          1. Actually Clay had a very challenging job with Verizon but his frustration was that implementing change was like pulling teeth. Amazing things happen when creativity is encouraged. It seems to me Dave, the challenges we are faced with today and in the not too distant future, will need all of the creativity we can muster. –Curt

  7. I agree with the basic concept that education is not “training”. It is absolutely vital for the good of us all – all 7 billion of us. But perhaps an educated electorate or population is not desirable in some quartets?

    In 1986 I heard this comment about education and the problems inherent in “parent power”. I give you the YouTube link. The views are remarkably pertinent today:

    Thanks for this theme Dave. There is almost too much to discuss!!

        1. You got there! Thanks for the link, most amusing and as you say still has much to say today. Once upon a time politicians would leave it to teachers to decide what and how they taught.

  8. To play a little bit of devils advocate, I want to ask if the problem is with the effects of work and education or their natures? An effect of anything can hardly be an actual property of the real thing. (Taxes effect tax evasion in persons but I do not see taxes as such as having that property.) That leaves the nature of work/education to be the problem. Here’s a view: It is not just to have mandated, universal education and have it widen the disparity in children by virtue of the luck associated with having good teachers who develop adequate curricula and who can foster an enjoyment for learning or what have you. Additionally, Kids, like adults, want things, so they have to participate in the system by getting an education in the normative sense, which justifies the time spent working.

      1. Sorry; that was a misplaced phrase. I meant that my statement (about work is justified by kids wanting and getting things) is normative, which is to say that that’s how the system, if you will, operates normally.

        1. I think I’m trying to challenge the idea of ‘normal’ – ie. business as usual – towards a more enlightened education and work system that doesn’t lead to overproduction and overconsumption which threatens the ecosystem as well as making our lives miserable. Idealistic, perhaps, but I want a good future for my grandchildren.

  9. I have just trawled through a few websites where adults have listed the things they would have liked to have been educated about at school but were not. The vast majority talk of inter-personal relationships, respect for individuals, the ability to think and discuss, critical analysis, the ability to hold conversations, personal financial control.
    My wife was a teacher – a chemist – but she thinks the most valuable part of her teaching was personal, social and health education (PSHE). This covers the things that allow you to function as a positive member of society. The “academic” subjects are important but living together in society is vital.
    Education about how to interact with other people and how to give respect for their beliefs or lack of belief is important for a just and humane society.
    This sounds a bit heavy – but it can be incorporated into the natural enthusiasm children have about their surroundings, its that enthusiasm to learn which is great to nurture and encourage.
    Great teachers help, but a well organised non-repetitive curriculum can also assist in maintaining interest and curiosity.

    1. My online buddy Opher – – would agree with your wife 100% on PSHE! His book on his Headship experiences – – is worth reading. I think your analysis of where education needs to go is spot-on. As you suggest, it should be experience-based and child-centred. Never mind tinkering with assessment (cheap) … we need to develop new teaching approaches which raise standards by giving children a passion for learning and sharing their knowledge (deep and better value in the long term)! Thanks for your findings, Mike!

  10. Many many years ago, in a mystical golden land called California, a young student enrolled in courses to learn how to teach. Then then gods of the great mountain Berkeley, having discovered that students under eighteen years of age, all have an attention span of only twelve minutes, went to work, to change forever the face of teaching.
    So for a limited time, this young student lived by the twelve minute clock.
    the classroom was divided into “work areas” ie a bathtub with pillows for reading, a couch corner for speaking in the foreign language with others, a fish tank area for meditation before learning vocabulary, a hard desk area for writing, and an area of yoga mats and headphones hung from the wall for listening.
    Oh, and the walls had to be pink.
    A bell rang every twelve minutes,
    then the work areas were switched.
    Yes, I am serious.
    the student nearly went crazy,
    but finished the course, along with statistics, bell-shaped curves, and “non-verbal interpersonal interaction.”
    What the student learned was: 1. if you drop chalk pick it up or your students will ignore everything else until you do. 2. it was time to go to grad school instead, and then find a job working with older students.
    When I met my husband, a brilliant mathematician and very very dedicated teacher,
    trained in the,
    up to the present where Germans are now training in twelve minute and bathtub,
    very very formal German system, we had many long discussions, usually with other teachers, about what is wrong in the profession and how to fix it.
    my favorite suggestion is my husband’s: everyone with the title “teacher” has to show up at a park or playground every day, for a seven hour shift of walking around, interacting with kids, just being there,
    in order to teach any child with a question, like why is there air, as much as they can on the topic, and then hand them on to a wandering science, chem, religion, lit, or whatever teacher for further info. their only job is to answer questions in their specialization area,
    while keeping curiosity and the learning flame going, and combining the kids with adults who know, and children who also want to learn.
    At the moment he writes occasionally for monoid, a magazine about the love of math, supports with his time various youth math contests, and recreational math magazines, and the friends of math.
    while still staying up with, and researching on, the newest in his field.
    we also have a program here called children’s university, during which a professor gives a two hour lecture, for children, on his area.
    It’s well organized, and like a giant birthday party.
    Anything to make kids see the joy of having the flame.

    1. Thank you for contributing this wonderful personal account and making it so entertaining to read. Your description of the Berkeley teaching experiment is a tragi-comedy … so many enlightened ideas about learning undermined by a crazy behaviourist way of organising it. Sounds like a method devised by a committee, just like the formulaic movies they make over there! Your anecdotes about a more child-centred discovery approach are revealing and I love the idea of communicating to students what you know and love the best – a team approach which needs reviving. Thanks again!

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