Both, and; Milo

Two either-or traditions in education – that one must identify with one discipline over another, and must choose between learning for practical reasons and learning for its “own sake” – can really undermine progress toward the secure livelihood and fulfilled life most people want for their children.  

In Adam Gopnik’s recent New Yorker piece about the 50th anniversary of The Phantom Tollbooth, Gopnik writes that author Norton Juster’s story of young Milo’s journey was an argument “for the love of knowledge, against narrow specialization… for learning, against usefulness.”

I enjoyed Gopnik’s piece, and I loved the book, when I read it as a child and later when I read it with young students (many of whom loved it too).  But the way we tend to use dichotomies like these – that one couldn’t both love knowledge and make a choice to specialize, couldn’t learn for its own sake and learn for usefulness – is part of the reason we’re all so mixed up about what kids do and don’t need to know, what they should and shouldn’t be spending their time on, and whether or not a college degree is really worth the time and money it costs anymore.

Indeed, as Milo’s experience with both Digitopolis and Dictionopolis suggest, the study of one thing to the exclusion of another can narrow one’s view and enjoyment of the realm of learning.  I get infuriated that so many of us are happy to walk around indicating which of us are “math people,” for example, and which of us are not. (The math is obviously the most common, but it has spurned other such designations.)  We start saying this sort of thing to and about kids very early, probably to make them feel better if they’re struggling with one thing or another.  But what also happens as a result is that they think they’re only allowed or have to choose one area of academic strength (or survival); that they have to pick a side.  We make it seem as though they shouldn’t expect to find any intrigue or enjoyment over there on the other side.  So I’m absolutely in agreement that we could do more to celebrate diversity of interest and study.  (There’s a favorite watercolor of mine by Phillipe Lechien of a quill pen and a compass going for a twirl across the dance floor, a delightful reminder that of course it’s possible to love and use words and numbers both, and in fact there may be something in their pairing that’s more than the sum of their parts.)

But to insist on a prescribed diversity of studies can have as demoralizing and deflating an effect on a potential student as an insistence upon specialization might.  A child who is permitted to delve wholeheartedly and wholemindedly into those things that appeal to her will become a child who is more available to notice and delight in the tributaries of that exploration that will inevitably lead to other realms.  The journey into other disciplines and bodies of knowledge that begins with inspired study is far richer than the one that begins with a mandate.

And then there’s the popular idea that if we get too practical with our education – if we pay too much attention to what young people will need for the job market, to get by in the world as it’s now emerging and evolving and how they can use their particular strengths to that end – that the classical tradition will be lost. That the richness of content and interaction between and among the likes of humanities and the sciences will go missing.  We must, it seems to many, enforce the classical tradition.  For its own sake and the sake, I suppose, of Being Educated, even if enforcing it to the exclusion of practical skill and application makes it harder for kids to earn a living (which we’re still not convinced it won’t, even though we can see that the college graduates with liberal arts degrees and not much in the way of life skills – those expecting their academic success to sell them on its own – are the ones who are struggling to find work).  We’re quite attached to classical tradition, and so we enforce it as hard as we can because we’re afraid that if we don’t, we’ll lose the beauty of these realms of study.

But as I watch children make their way through the various channels of learning and education now available (those who attend school, those who don’t, those whose schools are traditionally structured, those whose schools aren’t), what I see happening in reality is that children who are offered a range of opportunities, exposed to a range of experiences, whether in the tradition of classical education or otherwise, are actually more inspired to explore those realms than those who are forced to do so.  It isn’t, actually, that young people will only venture into the likes of math and literature if we make them do it.  It’s just the opposite.

Adults are no different.  If you get an email that reads “thought you might be interested in this” aren’t you more likely to be inspired to investigate than if someone sends you something that says “this is important, so you have to read it”?  We’re in such a panic about keeping kids connected to sophisticated things that we don’t see that the force-feeding actually turns them off to the inherent possibilities.  In contrast, when we trust the quality of the content and just offer things up, not taking it personally or as lack of interest or laziness or brain rot if kids don’t jump up and down with joy at learning Latin for its own sake, there remains the possibility that they’ll really take to it (or to other equivalent pursuits) on their own.

If we want kids to resist learning and venturing into unknown realms, we’ll keep trying to make them learn a list of things for their own good.  But if what we really want is for them to be readers, learners, explorers, investigators, knowledge gatherers, we’ll show them what it’s like to enjoy those things, and offer them fodder for their own forays into the exploration.  We’ll let them see these realms as they exist in the context of our everyday lives, our jobs and our ambitions, for their own sake and also for the sake of getting things done.