If we facilitate more of a balance between academic work and other exploration/pursuit of mastery, will it cost our kids a successful future? It can seem that way. It can seem as though a choice to support existing capacities is a choice to support kids in the present, but not necessarily a choice to prepare them for the reality of adult life. If we let them do what they want, we think it’ll make them happy now, but later they won’t have the skills they need to earn a living.

We’ve held this as true for so long – academic study as the path to a successful adult life – that we forget to check to be sure that academic study is in fact offering all that we believe it is. We forget to look to see whether anything essential is missing, or whether a particular child might need more (or less, or just other) than the usual fare.

We make many declarations about “the real world,” and “the reality of life.” But reality is not fixed. Sometimes we forget to distinguish between longstanding clichés about reality and what’s really happening. It’s more comfortable to just keep saying things are a particular way, because they’ve always been that way (or we’ve always thought they were). It takes courage to watch what’s happening and figure out how to adapt to it. Stuart Brown (in his book Play) tells this story of what’s actually happening in one arena:

“Cal Tech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) has been the United States’ premier aerospace research facility for more than seven decades… [In] the late nineties, the lab’s management was saying, ‘JPL, we have a problem.’ As the lab neared the new century, the group of engineers and scientists who had come on board in the 1960s, those who put men on the moon and built robotic probes to explore the solar system, were retiring in large numbers. And JPL was having a hard time replacing them. Even though JPL hired the top graduates from top engineering schools like MIT, Stanford, and even Cal Tech itself, the new hires were often missing something. They were not very good at certain types of problem solving that are critical to the job. The experienced managers found that the newly minted engineers might excel at grappling with theoretical, mathematical problems at the frontiers of engineering, but they didn’t do well with the practical difficulties of taking a complex project from theory to practice…. They found that in their youth, their older, problem-solving employees had taken apart clocks to see how they worked, or made soapbox derby racers, or built hi-fi stereos, or fixed appliances. The young engineering school graduates who had also done these things, who had played with their hands, were adept at the kinds of problem solving that management sought. Those who hadn’t, generally were not. From that point on JPL made questions about applicants youthful projects and play a standard part of job interviews.”

A purely academic course of study might get a young person a job in this kind of engineering, but it may not render the person optimally effective in that job. (And, probably soon, it may even mean that the person is passed over for the job, as we begin to acknowledge what the kind of thing Brown suggests here – what it really takes to make a contribution in a professional setting.) The very pursuits that children are drawn to on their own could be the ones that actually make their careers, not break their chances of having a career.

We hear phrases like “kids need to learn how to learn,” and “we have to find ways to motivate students,” and “college starts in kindergarten.” When we get too focused on the academic kind of learning we know how to measure – and we don’t leave room for children to interact with the actual world – the quality of their futures can suffer, as can the work and contributions we’ll need from them. We carry on about how technology and its two-dimensional screens are ruining young minds, but we’ve been confining kids to limited dimensions since long before we had portable electronic devices to blame. And if we really want to compete with those devices for kids’ attention, not to mention prepare them for and inspire them with the kind of stimulating satisfying work that’s still out there, we’d do well to loosen the grip of the 3Rs on our own psyches.