Both experiments

I read an article last weekend about a scientist at MIT and his work on a new energy technology.  The man’s name is David Nocera.  The technology is what he calls an artificial leaf, which is designed to generate energy the way plants do, but more efficiently.  “For the past two hundred years,” he says, “we’ve been working on this other experiment, with fossil fuels, and it’s not working out so well.”

Scientists are expected to experiment.  But even in science I think it’s unusual to hear someone acknowledge that whatever is already being done, no matter how well it is or isn’t working, is also an experiment.  It would be fair to say, I think, that everything we do as humans is experimental.  We try something, and then we see how it goes.

It would make sense for my next sentence to be something like this: “If what we try goes well, we keep doing it.  If it doesn’t, we try something else.”  But it’s rarely that simple.  Because, of course, our opinions about what constitutes “going well” are very different.  And maybe more to the point, we get attached to what we get used to, and it often blinds us to unworkability, makes us skeptical or fearful of trying new experiments. In one breath we vilify the notion of experiment, if it threatens what we’re used to.  In another we defend the one we’ve grown accustomed to, forgetting that it’s an experiment too.

Anyone who has ever suggested to a parent that they try something other than a traditional educational route for their child has likely been met with an objection born of this anti-experiment sentiment.  We don’t want to think that we’re experimenting on kids.  We don’t want to think of them as guinea pigs.

We forget to acknowledge that what we’re already doing is also an experiment, and that we get to decide whether or not we think it’s working well enough to entrust children to it.  Whether or not it’s likely to offer them what we mean to offer.

When we stick to experiments out of loyalty and comfort, we’re not protecting kids from guinea pig status.  We’re letting habit and tradition replace judgment and consideration.  We’re crossing our fingers that the current (old) experiment will work out for our kids if we’re careful enough with it and navigate it skillfully enough.  We have seen (or just believe) that it does work out OK for some people, and so it feels safer to hope that it will go that way again for our kids than it does to venture into less familiar territory.  Even if we suspect the results could be better in a new frontier.

For so many children the old experiment isn’t working.  Many fail to meet the marks held up by traditional schooling, even when their parents are supportive and they show up every day, working hard the way they’re told to.  And even for those who win at the schooling game – successfully collecting degrees and winning white collar jobs – life in the current experiment is often characterized by lethargy, apathy, anxiety, depression, and much unrealized potential.

Sticking to our age-old experiment is an awfully high-stakes wager, and one we could replace at any time, the way a scientist might, with an inquiry into the kind of learning trajectories that could offer actual specific present-day human children what we want for them now and what we want for them in the future.

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