An Education

What with it being back-to-school season, I’ve been reading a lot of articles lately about education. There are the exposés on how terribly adjunct professors are compensated and treated. There’s the guy who did the same amount of homework as his middle-school daughter every night and felt buried underneath it all. There’s the third grade teacher pleading to be allowed to have some control over his classroom instead of having to teach to timed and choreographed corporate “modules” imposed by the Testing Lobby. It’s gotten me thinking about my own education and what I think is important in bringing up children so they become intelligent and curious and conscientious (and happy) adults.

Honestly, a lot of what I’m reading gives me the knee-jerk reaction to home- or un-school my children. Regional and national test-taking was a big enough focus in my childhood, and it seems to have grown even more lauded (by the people pulling the strings) and omnipresent today. Homework loads seem larger, sooner. They weren’t exactly light in my day. I know it’s a bit ridiculous for a 26-year-old to be talking about “the old days,” but if that’s jarring to you, it’s just a sign of how quickly the education arms race is escalating.

Recently my brother asked me, “When you were in school, did you feel like you were motivated mostly intrinsically, because you were really interested in what you were doing, or extrinsically, because you wanted to get good grades or felt pressure to perform well?” It took me a few minutes to answer. I’m an academic at heart, and I’ve gotten a lot of joy out of learning in my life. I’ve honestly delighted in making just the right argument or discovering a transcendent author or seeing the perfect symmetry of a good proof. Even so, I had to answer that mostly, when I worked really hard and put so much pressure on myself to excel, I was extrinsically motivated. I didn’t want to risk doing poorly, because I didn’t want to miss any opportunities.

This was a development over time, of course. In second grade, I was reading because I loved to read and was excited when I spelled a word right because it was so cool to have gotten it right. It’s around the time that grades come into the picture that the thinking starts to change. Even kindergartners know the difference between a “straight-A student” and someone scraping by on the edge of “failure.” Most know who they would rather be.

What I remember most of all from my school years, at least from high school through college, is the feeling of something constantly hanging over my head. The knowledge that I was on the hook for something, I was going to be judged on something I had not yet done, and after that I would be judged on another thing, and another and another and another. For all that I enjoyed myself (immensely) throughout those eight years, the one thing I rarely had a chance to do was to truly relax.

It’s probably at least partly my own anxiety that helped me to do as well as I did in school. The feeling of “there’s still something to be done” motivated me to do my homework as soon as I’d received it, to read assignments as I walked, on the elliptical machine, during meals, during downtime at rehearsals, on bus rides. I got it done, by gum. At the same time, though, that feeling kept me from being fully present in what I was doing when I wasn’t in school–or even when I was. During one class, if the teacher wasn’t saying something of direct relevance for the entire 50 minutes, you’d often find me starting homework for another class. At rehearsals for plays, as much as I wanted to just lay around and watch the other scenes perform, or joke with my friends (and to be clear I did do this), I just as often felt like I was wasting my time if I wasn’t doing work when I wasn’t on stage. It wasn’t a “zen” period of my life. There wasn’t much time to just be happy doing exactly what I was doing.

Part of this is that I prioritized sleep very highly. I’m not the all-nighter type. When I’ve pulled them, I don’t think it’s ever been for work reasons. I need a solid eight hours of sleep or else I’m pretty much no good to anyone, and I don’t have time during the day to nap and make it up. If you can’t work til midnight every night and get up at six every morning, you’d better figure out a way to get your work done in whatever spare moments you have.

Let me be clear: I had a great time in high school and college. I have a lot of wonderful memories, I learned extraordinary things, and what’s more, I learned how to be inquisitive and how to explore my interests. But in the final analysis, do I think that I couldn’t have learned those things and still have felt like I could relax completely every once in a while? I do.

There have been studies conducted about “Eureka!” moments–the moments when things click into place for you, when ideas that have been marinating in your mind finally combine into the perfect dish (that’s a weird verb to use if you complete the metaphor). They overwhelmingly happen when you have a chance for some down time. That’s why everyone has such great ideas in the shower, and why Thoreau was such a huge proponent of long walks. I worry that we’re setting young people up to not have enough time for these fallow periods where they are able to process what they’ve learned.

If we value creativity, that’s another thing you can’t rush or fit into fifteen-minute time slots during the day. You know what’s the best way to get a creative person to do something creative? Put them in a room with the instruments of their art and an idea to bounce around and walk away for two hours. When you get back, you’re not going to have a masterpiece, but you may find the beginnings of a really cool idea. Just the beginnings, mind you. Just the seed.

I feel, truly, as though I have learned more about being a thinking person and about being an artist in the last four years than I did in college. Now, let me qualify that. I think that it’s very likely that the work I put into my college experience set me up to become someone who could get so much out of the world outside. I know my liberal arts education gave me the tools to continue to teach myself once I’d learned what it was like to have great teachers. If we’re speaking about seeds, my education up until age 22 was the potting and cultivation of one healthy seed–the choosing of the pot, the pH testing of the soil, the selection of the spot in which to put the plant, the determination of how much to water it, and the beginning of the watering and gardening process. My little shoot had peeked its head out of the ground by the time I graduated. Now, because of all the work before, I have the room to blossom. And it’s fortunate that that is happening now, because like I say, now I have room.

I can spend a year working on a musical and not have to cram it into three months.

I can read Stephen King and then Machiavelli and then Jonathan Safran Foer and then Herman Hesse and then Carl Jung and then John Grisham.

I can come home after work, sit at my desk without turning on my computer, and decide to write thirty monologues. Then I can write them.

I can work at my own pace, learning things I want to learn, and almost physically feel my neurons create new connections.

Or I can sit in chair and look at the wall and let my thoughts wander for as long as I want, and breathe in and out, and feel that I am completely here right now, and that that is a wonderful and worthwhile thing in itself without any so-called accomplishment.

My formal education was a happy apprenticeship, a jolly indentured servitude. My adulthood so far has been liberation.

I guess I wonder how much sooner I could have felt education to be liberating. I guess I wonder if I could have gotten the foundation that I did without feeling trapped or squeezed. I guess I wonder if I could bring up my children in an environment that would prepare them for peace as well as wisdom. That gave structure but that somehow encouraged them to do what they did for the satisfaction of completing something and doing it well rather than the fear that they would ruin their future if they didn’t.

A few years after I graduated high school, a girl in my town killed herself during a free period. There were train tracks behind the school, and she stepped in front of a train. She was an honors student and she felt like she was drowning in all of the pressure to get only As, to keep her GPA and class placement high, to get a high score on her SATs and to get into an Ivy League school. She didn’t feel like there was anything she could do about it, and she didn’t see it changing at any point in the foreseeable future.

More than anything, I want to make sure my kids don’t end up ever, ever feeling like that.

I don’t want any kids to.


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