Beauty, utility, and the 3Rs

One of the tragedies of being forced into academic study (particularly when you’re very young, and particularly if you happen to be initially drawn to pursuits that don’t occur on paper like building, climbing, or singing) is that it bypasses and undermines your opportunity to discover these things in the context of your own experience and exploration of the world.  If someone has already decided what you need to know about something, you don’t get to notice and endeavor to investigate the beauty or utility of it.  While that may be a helpful arrangement for, say, an apprentice who has sought out the tutelage of a master, it’s not usually a helpful arrangement for young children, who are busy with the work of looking around and figuring out what to participate in and pursue.

It’s odd that we think that kids won’t encounter on their own, for example, a reason or desire to read or calculate.  Children are fully surrounded by such needs and opportunities, just as they are surrounded early on by needs and opportunities to move about and communicate.  (Which is not to say they all can or will do these things without support or assistance; only that the motivation is usually there.) We have come to believe that it is necessary to motivate children to learn, though we watch them, for the first years of their lives, going about learning to do what they need to do without need for our motivational assistance.

When we apply ourselves this way to the motivation of children, we not only rob them of the joy and reward of discovery, we pass up an opportunity for our own expansion – our own conception of what’s possible and what humans are capable of.  (An expansion we could pass on to our children.)  No matter how we try to motivate them (promise of reward, threat of punishment, “making” learning fun), we miss out on participating in the unfolding in a person of an entirely new confluence and interaction of interests, leanings, and potential contributions.

The irony is that we tend to do this out of fear that our children won’t learn the basic tools for navigating a culture heavy in words and numbers.  When we set about bending children toward these areas before they’ve had a chance to come to them on their own, we do it out of the very best intentions.  We do it out of our love for them, our concern for their futures.  But we actually undermine their ability to own these things fully, to master them deeply. We set them up to engage with these areas only to the degree required for whatever course we’ve prescribed.  We also push them to look elsewhere for any depth of experience.

We can trust young people to find motivation to learn to read, write, calculate, etc.  We can trust them to do these things voluntarily in the context of actual life, as long as they are surrounded by people who do them authentically in the context of their own lives.  But instead we often try to tell kids they have to do things that we aren’t doing.  If they never see us do a bit of writing away from the keyboard, never see us balance a checkbook by hand, never see us deriving pleasure from reading, never see us fascinated by a pattern or phenomenon we notice in nature, then we indeed must go looking for ways to motivate them.  And if we really aren’t doing these things ourselves, then we’d better check our reasons for insisting that kids learn them in the first place.