Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

A paradoxical problem with school

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An interesting paradoxical effect of the current school system is that it simultaneously prevents children from being children and from developing into adults.

The resolution to this paradox is obviously that positive parts of “being children” are suppressed while the negative parts are enforced and prolonged. (Consider also the similar differentiation into child-like and child-ish human characteristics.)

Children in school are severely hindered in (sometimes even prevented from) just enjoying life, playing, walking around in nature, exercising the child’s curiosity, … At the same time, they are being taught just to do what they are told without thinking for themselves or to taking own initiatives, removed from any true responsibility, kept with other children instead of with adults*, … Play and similar activities, when they do occur, are often restricted and “organized fun”. The positive part of being a child is now curtailed around six or seven years of age; the negative is often prolonged into the “children’s” twenties, when they leave college** and get their first jobs—often even moving away from mother for the first time… In contrast, in other times, it was not at all unlikely for teenagers to already have formed families of their own, having children of their own, working at the same tasks as the rest of the adults, etc.***

*Cf. brief earlier discussions on what type of models and examples are presented to children.

**I stress that this is only partially due to the prolonging of studies per se: The more dangerous part is possibly the increasing treatment of college students as children. Cf. e.g. any number of online articles on the U.S. college system, or how Germany has increasingly switched to mandatory-presence lectures in the wake of the Bologna process. (The latter is doubly bad, because it not only reduces the need to take own responsibility, etc.—it also imposes an inefficient way of studying.)

***Indeed, I very, very strongly suspect that the explanation for many of the conflicts between teenagers and their parents are rooted in humans being built for this scenario, with the teenager having a biological drive to assume an adult role and the parent still seeing a little child. Similarly, that some teenagers (especially female ones) treat romantic failures as the end of the world is no wonder—once upon a time it could have been: Today, the boy-friend at age 15 will usually turn out to be a blip on the radar screen—in other times, he was quite likely to be the future (or even current…) father of her children. Similarly, starting over at 17 might have meant that “all the good ones are taken”.

If we compare two twenty-somethings that only* differ in that the one spent his whole life until now in school and the other went through some mix of home-schooling and early work-experience, not even going to college—who will be the more mature, have the better social skills, have more life experience, whatnot? Almost certainly the latter. Of course, the graduate will have other advantages, but it is not a given that they outweigh the disadvantages in the short** term. Why not try to combine the best of both worlds, with a mixture of studies (preferably more independent and stimulating studies) and work*** from an earlier age?

*This is a very important assumption, for the simple reason that if we just pick an average college graduate and an average non-graduate, there are likely to be systematic differences of other types, notably in I.Q. I am not suggesting that non-graduates are automatically superior to graduates.

**In the long term, the graduate will probably catch up—but would he be better off than someone who worked five years after high school and then went to college?

***Here we could run into trouble with child-labor laws. However, these should then possibly be re-evaluated: They are good in as far as they protect children from abuse, unwarranted exploitation, and health dangers; they are bad in as far as they hinder the child’s journey to an adult. I have also heard claimed (but have not investigated the correctness) that such laws had more to do with enabling schooling than they did with child-protection. To the degree that this holds true, they certainly become a part of the problem.

To boot, schooling often gives an incorrect impression of how the world works in terms of e.g. performance and reward. In school, do your work well and you get a reward (a gold star, an “A”, whatnot); in the work-force, things can be very, very different. Want to get a raise? Then ask for a raise—and give convincing arguments as to why you are worth it. The fact that you have done a good job is sometimes enough; however, most of the time, an employer will simply enjoy your work at the lowest salary he can get away with—why should he spend more money to get the same thing? Similarly, where a teacher will have access to test results and other semi-objective/semi-reliable explicit measures of accomplishment, such measures are rarely available to employers. For that matter, if your immediate superior knows that you do a good job, is he the one setting your pay? Chances are that the decision makers simply do not know whether you are doing a good job—unless you convince them.

At the same time, we must not forget that “being children” is also potentially valuable to the children’s development—it is not just a question of having fun and being lazy. On the one hand, we have to consider the benefit of keeping e.g. curiosity alive and not killing it (as too often is the case in school); on the other, there is much for children to learn on their own (at least for those so inclined). As a child, I probably learned more from private reading and TV documentaries than I did in school even as it were—what if I had less school and more spare time? Chances are that I would have seen a net gain in my learning… I am not necessarily representative for children in general, but there are many others like me, and at a minimum this points to the problems with a “one size fits all” approach to school.

Or look specifically at play: An interesting aspect of play is that it is a preparation for adult life, and in some sense “play” equals “training”. It is true that the adult life of today is very different from in, say, the neolithic, but there are many aspects of this training that can still be relevant, including team work, cooperation, leadership, conflict resolution, …—not to mention the benefits of being in better shape through more exercise. These are all things that schools like to claim that they train, but either do not or do so while failing miserably. Chances are that play would do a better job—and even if it does not, it would approach the job differently and thereby still give a benefit. As an additional twist, I strongly suspect that the more active and physical “boy’s play” has suffered more than “girl’s play” in terms of availability, which could contribute to the problems boys and young men of today have. I have definitely read several independent articles claiming that the ADHD epidemic is better cured with more play and an understanding of boys’ needs than with Ritalin (and find the claim reasonable, seeing that ADHD, or an unnamed equivalent, was only a marginal phenomenon in the past).

Excursion on myself:
While I (born in 1975) pre-date the normal border for the “millennial” generation, I have seen a number of problems in my own upbringing and early personality that match common complaints* about millenials or even post-millenials—and for very similar reasons. For instance, I left high school without a clue about adult behavior, responsibilities, skills, …, having never been forced to confront these areas and having never been given much relevant instruction**, be it in school or at home. Once in college, this started to change, notably with regard to own responsibility, but not in every regard. Had I not left the country as an exchange student, thereby being forced to fend for myself in a number of new ways, I would almost certainly have entered the work-force in the state of preparation associated with the millenials. What I know about being an adult, I have mostly learned on my own with only marginal help from school and family***/****—and almost all of it since moving away from home at age nineteen… My sister, length of education excepted, followed an even more millennial path, with even less responsibility at home, a far longer time living with her mother, whatnot, and, as far as I can judge, still has not managed to shake the millennial way—at age forty. Making own decisions and living with the consequences, taking responsibility for oneself or others, not relying on parents to help, understanding from own experience that the world and its population is not perfect, …, these are all things that truly matter to personal development and ability to be an adult—and it is far better to gradually learn to cope from an early age than to be thrown out into the cold as a twenty-something.

*I stress that these complaints can be too generalizing and/or fail to consider the effects of being younger, in general, as opposed to specifically millennial; further, that the problems that do exist are not necessarily equally large everywhere.

**We did have variations on the “home economics” theme, but there was little or no content that I have found to be of relevance to my adult life. To boot, these classes came much too early, with many years going by between the point where (what little there were of) skills were taught and when they would have become relevant to my life—so early that I would still have had to re-learn the contents to gain a benefit. That home-economics teachers are pretty much the bottom of the barrel even among teachers certainly did not help.

***In all fairness, it is not a given that I, personally and specifically, would have been receptive had e.g. my mother tried to give me more advice than she did. This should not serve as an excuse for other parents, however. Other aspects, like having to fend more for myself at an earlier date would have been easily doable—even had I not enjoyed it at the time.

****Sadly, much of what I did pick up from my mother were things that I, in light of later own experiences, ended up disagreeing with, either because of different preferences or because it was not a good idea to begin with.

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Written by michaeleriksson

December 22, 2017 at 7:38 pm

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  1. […] from children? (Cf. [1] for this and some other issues around school and education; also e.g. [2] and [3] for more on the general […]


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