The people in my program are nice people. I don’t think that they would purposefully hurt anyone. And yet I find them generally scared, anxious, avoidant, lonely, apathetic, cynical people. Why is this? What is the difference between how I was raised and how they were raised? They are only 5-10 years younger than me. I grew up in a mostly white suburban upper-class school. Yet, I came out of that environment compassionate, outgoing, empathetic and optimistic.
I think about what I was taught in school and it’s mainly the same as what kids are now taught. But that’s just it – the WHAT is the same. The HOW is what is different. There is a Charlotte Mason quote that says something along the lines of, we shouldn’t be asking “how much do our children know?” What we need to be asking is “how much do our children care?”
A child that goes to a school that her parents hand picked because it has a perfect amount of diversity and is ranked perfectly on its school report card may very well become a child who can rattle off facts and tell you about the abolition of slavery, for example, when it happened and who the important figures were. But a child who learned about African culture on the lap of her parents, reading beautiful books like Jambo Means Hello, has had a chance to “eavesdrop on the soul” of someone in another culture (Katherine Patterson).
This child doesn’t see African culture as far away, unimaginable, and unworthy of consideration. She sees it as an imagining of excitement – can I cook my meals by fire and can our family sit around a fireside and chat about stories of our family’s past? Can we hunt our own food, make our own pottery, build our own houses? She delights as she walks alongside the characters in books, seeing their drastically different world through their eyes and experiencing all the common humanity that she shares with these “friends”. She doesn’t think “Africa” and see it on a map or as a collection of memorized facts. She sees the joy between people of that culture, the things that bring a place or a belief system to life. She laughs with them, cries with them, wonders with them, and explores with them. She learns empathy by living for a moment in the thoughts of another.
I was at Barnes & Noble today with our daughter. There was a mom there with her child, likely a few years older than Ava. The mom was horribly frustrated because the child was excited about books that she deemed to be “not her level” and her attempts to redirect the child to the books she thought appropriate were futile. It was a little heart breaking for me. Here was a child, clearly in love with books, but with her own identity and relationship with them. Her mom, completely well-intentioned but pressured to make sure her daughter becomes a “good reader,” was missing the mark despite her best efforts.
A child who falls in love with books will learn more than you could imagine possible. It just may not be on the arbitrary timetable we feel pressured to follow. I think there is a C.S. Lewis quote where he says that a book that is “good” for one age but cannot be enjoyed by an adult, was never a good book in the first place. A good book is full of universal truth, and beauty in words and/or pictures. And a child who hears exquisite language will inevitably develop a taste for beautiful words and experiences and will learn to reject the ugly. Teaching children was accomplished through stories for many generations. The idea was to develop their character and prepare them for creating beautiful, meaningful lives of their own. Children learned from the most respected elders and longed to live lives that would make them as wise and experienced as the oldest among them.
Currently, education translates to downloading information to kids that they can consume and reproduce. This is a process they know very intimately. They wander somewhat aimlessly because they have no sense of belonging, only a want of belongings. They were never taught how to belong, how to develop integrity or meaningful relationship. Only how to keep driving for more. The unquenchable thirst they develop is no longer for the wisdom and stories of their ancestors. Their purpose no longer to grow their relationships and become a respectable elder in their culture. Why would they want to do that? Mom and dad are afraid of getting old. I used to complain that my parents were workaholics and were never around. But I now realize how blessed I was. I was lucky enough to have very involved grandparents, who I respected as elders. One of whom was a teacher and avid reader.
Our children still thirst for that initial joy of connection, which was replaced early on with a ladder to climb. Some get so high in the air, they see no connection to the earth below. How can we expect them to connect with what they cannot see? How can we expect them to enjoy togetherness if they’ve logged more time in front of a screen than in our close company? We have to move away from this idea of climbing higher and higher and getting ahead. It truly just creates a fear of falling. Instead, we can view growth as an inclusive outspreading of nesting circles. Life can’t be boiled down to surviving your past and driving a future (if you’re lucky enough to have not burned out already). We need to keep our connections and build out from them. Even if your kids are grown, you can reach out, you can share some beautiful words together.
Empathetic humans and good citizens are made on the laps of their parents, not behind touch screens or through rigorous testing. Something got left behind when our lives got uploaded. Something very important, I think.