As I was sitting at my desk this morning applying the latest in one of my favorite nail polish lines (Essie) to my nails, ‘Go overboard’ — a rich, dark sea green, to coordinate with the five new outfits I have already lined up on the bench next to my bed for the week ahead, I was musing to myself that I give myself permission to be reinvented regularly. Otherwise, even five years ago, when I was simply wearing something every single day that Milani called ‘Angel pink’, or ten years ago when only Chanel would line my fingertips, I would never conceive of wearing every color of the rainbow on toes and fingers the way I do now. That made me think about what teachable trait enables people to evolve and progress rather than harden and atrophy in various aspects of their lives, irrespective of age, socioeconomic category, gender or IQ, an ongoing topic of interest to me.
Does teaching kids to get ‘gritty’ help them get ahead?
And what exactly defines progressing, what is the goal toward which we should be evolving as individuals and as social animals? My suggestion is that we promote happiness and health of the greatest number of people and do so by espousing (to invoke Aesop): slow and steady wins the race. To do this, of course, we have to understand what it means to be human as a species: a civilized social and cooperative hominid.
It is trendy now to accuse parents and schools of being too soft, and easy instead of militarizing child rearing, and to put undue emphasis on individual achievement to the exclusion of group considerations. One reason this is now in vogue is because our schools seem to be lagging behind the rest of the advanced nations of the world and failing to properly prepare children to get the jobs that a new economy offers. Some people are now calling the key to producing the desired corporate automaton (my characterization of the being this approach would create) the trait they refer to as grit. Seriously? A term, one of the meanings of which is a sandy or stone-like irritant with sharp edges?
I like to think instead along the lines of persistence and intellectual courage, a well trained and optimistic mind. And yes, it can be taught. But how best to do that? Not the way it is being done in the educational trends of the 2010’s. I talked a bit about this in a recent post. Do we really need to harden minds and toughen children in order for them to succeed in the post-modern job market? Is the answer to our school failures introducing children earlier and earlier to what some are fond of referring to as the so-called harshness of life? There is a movement afoot to push children to the limits of their ability in such a way that failure is emphasized, so they can be inured to it. This is so ignorant and frankly, appalling.
One thing you learn by sitting in a courtroom for a month — yes, week five starts Monday– is the meticulous and painstaking manner in which attorneys have learned to present evidentiary or factual material, ideally to enable a jury to render a just decision. Every single scholar and writer should be taught this method.
Instead, for those of us who have had the privilege of higher education, we are left to figure out a method for doing this largely on our own. And the result is, for example, that we have a lot of educators stabbing around and concocting theories out of their own heads with no empirical foundation whatsoever. One unintended consequence, in the US at least, is an educational system that is a hodgepodge of ideas that grab the public’s imagination and become enacted in the classrooms of countless schools unquestioningly (and certainly without reference to any form of investigational proof) — especially the charter schools whose performance across the board has been shown to be mixed at best and subpar on average and the point of which is to justify a new version of segregation and to take down the public school system.
Personally, I would not send a child I cared about to a school where the teachers are allowed to come up with any curriculum they want. I would only trust a lesson plan system founded on a true understanding of child development. I would start by using the principles of probably the greatest child development scientist of all time, Jean Piaget who studied children properly and constructed a theory of cognitive development that stands to this day. Piaget was the Einstein of the field.
This gets to the core of the topic that I believe to be at the center of every challenge human beings face as we mature: what makes a successful adult and what type of social system contributes best to the desired outcome.
A couple of weeks ago or so, I read these two articles and reacted to them strongly:
In a nutshell, every parent and every teacher want a child to succeed. What does success mean? Getting out into the world and standing on one’s own, getting a job, keeping oneself afloat through adulthood and secure retirement. When you define success largely in those terms, then, Tiger-momism and Gritty-kidism make sense to you. No wonder people have grabbed onto these faddish and false notions. They are easy! The striped bullet. Yay! Just do these things and voila, done and done: a perfect human being.
Uh, not so much.
Who was it that said, ‘nothing is as powerful as an idea whose time has come’? That is really the key principle behind success in human development. And let me also say, no one of us can predict what that success will look like for any individual. At birth, no parent or pediatrician or psychologist, much less attorney, politician or even educator can tell you who that child should be. It will unfold from that individual naturally and be realized in full, some time around the age of 21 and it will look different for each person, especially if you equip each child with basic, muscular and flexible traits such as a love of life, trust in the world around them, the ability to make wise decisions, and most of all the freedom of mind to recognize goodness and the courage to act on it as circumstances change. That is not likely to happen if you teach them to believe, too early, that the world is a difficult place in which to live and that they must fight their way through it to survive. Keeping a child on edge will produce a neurotic or psychotic adult.
The miseducation of the tiger mom
How do you then herd people together and teach them if everyone’s development is so varied in each individual person? How can you teach a group of children sitting together in lit boxes for eighteen or more years? By the way, I say 18 years because children as young as six months now are abandoned to day care, which is their second group environment — the first being their family — and since it is a separation from their mother, that environment creates an experience for a baby that is akin to being on their own. Something that ideally would not happen until they are 7 years old, as shocking as that may sound to 21st century sophisticates.
I once saw an ad for an astrology class that read, ‘There is a plan for your life, astrology can help you find it’. Well, I would phrase this a little differently, saying ‘there is a plan for our lives, human science can help us find it’. There are places where the correct and empirically verified principles of human development are employed to form the basis on which a curriculum is designed and where every teacher is rigorously trained in these principles and expected to teach accordingly, at every grade level through the end of secondary school. Two countries that come to mind are Switzerland and, famously now, Finland. If anyone is interested in the Finnish success story (top in the world in the STEM subjects, for example), they can get hold of a copy of Finnish Lessons, from Amazon.
The fact that our school system is failing children has led to all kinds of wacky theories and initiatives that are sure to make for some miserable adults down the road. It started with the feckless and failed “No child left behind” program, meant mostly to exclude public schools from Federal funding and divert taxpayer dollars to private companies that greedily snapped up money, with promises of better educational outcomes. These were based on test scores, skewed to favor advantaged families. Largely discredited, people like Michelle Rhee, early advocates of the corporate approach to education, have at last been booted to the side (not that she is penitent for the damage she caused in D.C. schools and nationally by her misguided and ignorant philosophies and practices).
I could go into great and tedious detail of why and how a child development approach, based on proven research, should be the basis for the curricula in every school from nursery through 12th grade, but that information is easily found elsewhere. The point is, as the article above on the infamous “tiger-mom” points out, that if we want to produce a nattering, driven, self-absorbed, materialistic, neurotic adult, emphasize competition and economic rewards, and a hostile world. Drop that baby off with strangers earlier and earlier. Heck, just park them with a service right after birth and merely come back to check that their progress matches the unrealistic universal benchmarks that people like those cited in the articles above promote. Make sure you or your surrogates teach him or her that the key to success in life is jumping ahead of your neighbor, sneering at anyone who isn’t driven and ambitious, stoically enduring any amount of suffering as early as possible, to teach him to toughen up and pilot through the jungle (the ‘real world’ as these people are so fond of saying) like a nervous prowling cat.
I think the Jack Lemmon character tells us all we need to know about that outcome. Better Tigger than tiger; better A.A. Milne than Disney. Better a properly raised, slowly simmered human being than one rushed through childhood simply to aggrandize an ignorant ideal of financial advantage that is not founded on science or what is best for a cooperative, joyful society, but merely ego, bigotry and selfishness. Is it any wonder that we are spawning more and more fiercely competitive school-age bullies with ideas like these?
Images: imdb.com, amazon.com