When the Student is Ready…

There is a Buddhist proverb that “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear”. Yet many of us seem to be ignoring this wisdom and pushing our kids to fixate on mastering academic subjects in their high school years (that they may or may not have an aptitude for) and then plunging into an increasingly expensive college education immediately out of high school before they really have a sense of what they “want to be when they grow up”. I fear we are devaluing both educational experiences in the process.

When you see the value in something and your potential role in studying it or making it manifest, then you can clearly and appreciate (as not before) the people who can assist you on that path. Lacking that readiness, the student is likely to dishonor the teacher by not valuing the wisdom imparted and not honoring the imparter.

Mutual respect is one of our great egalitarian humanist principles, but it is profoundly violated by both sides in this situation. Trying to teach somebody something they have not asked to learn on the one side and not appreciating another’s gift on the other. The reality is that when you’re not ready to learn something you’re mind is closed off and doesn’t accept the truth of it and so you don’t correctly perceive it and probably will soon forget it.

In spite of this, we have an education system that attempts to mandate from age five or six what the student will learn each year of their youth, whether the student is ready or not. Most of our youth have little say over what they will be taught until they can graduate from high school or otherwise bail out of the process. When it comes to public school this is a huge societal investment of money, human effort and community focus that yields far less reward and far more frustration than it should.

Add to this the conventional wisdom that once youth have completed high school they should immediately enroll in college, increasingly a very expensive investment for the student, their family, and/or the greater community that subsidizes public colleges and universities. Aren’t we a society that has been guilty of over-consumption, buying first and then judging the value of our purchase later? Didn’t this kind of thinking (and its exploitation by the financial industry) contribute significantly to our Great Recession?

Playing my own devil’s advocate, three questions emerge…

1. Isn’t all education worth any money we spend on it?

2. In our increasingly complex society, shouldn’t every young person spend twelve or more years (1st through 12th grade, plus required college general studies classes) spending 90% of their formal education learning required skills and subject matter whether they personally see a benefit to it or not?

3. And if you “fall off the wagon” and don’t transition immediately from high school to college, aren’t you in significant danger of never going to college and having a minimum wage job for the rest of your life?

To the first question, there is nothing better than being exposed to an enriched environment that presents you with possibilities that you might not otherwise know or opportunities you might not otherwise have.

That said, I think the State of Michigan wasted many thousands of dollars trying to teach me an array of academic subjects that I was at most semi-interested in when I probably would have been better served spending most of my time from age fifteen to twenty-three instead plunging into every creative aspect of playwriting and theater. I have a whole creative side that I have struggled all my adult life to fully express and leverage.

And I know too many of my son and daughter’s friends, now post high school, that don’t have a thoughtful path forward and are attending college because their parents are pushing them to or because any other path would involve more thoughtful consideration on their part. This being the case while other kids, particularly minority kids and their families, crave the experience but are denied it because the spot is taken by and ambivalent student.

To the second question, isn’t much of this mandated instruction in danger of being imparted, in the reverse of the Buddhist proverb, when the student is unready? Paul Simon’s lyric in his song “Kodachrome” comes to mind…

When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school, it’s a wonder I can think at all.

Actually, I bet in many cases it only seems like crap because we are not ready to appreciate the context and value of that knowledge.

And to the third, what hubris for people who have never met you to attempt to script thirteen years of your childhood and youth. When I was going through that schooling experience myself I never thought of it that way, it was simply what you and every other kid did. But later as a parent watching how difficult it was for our own kids, particularly our son Eric, and feeling we were caught in a vicious circle of mandatory participation in an institution that was debilitating him.

What a blessing the end of school each year and ten weeks of summer vacation was. I can remember as a kid anticipating the end of school each year as a day of liberation, a lifting of a tremendous weight, which then I would sadly heft again in September. Again we are all different, and I know plenty of other kids who are now (or were then) excited about returning to that educational institution with all its opportunities to learn, interact and explore.

As an aside… our son Eric transitioned from childhood to youth, we tried not to script his summer too much with camps, lessons and programmed activities. His development, his self-esteem depended so much on his having the freedom to chart his own course, for better of worse. The two activities we did suggest he participate in were two week-long summer camps, a drama camp called Bravo and the Unitarian-Universalist high school youth camp (see my post, “Camps, Cons & Compasses”).

But back to the hubris thing… would you let anybody script thirteen years of your adult life not taking into account your unique situation, your thoughts on the matter and not seeking your assent? That’s what we are talking about here. The train leaves the station in kindergarten and you are expected to put your kids on it and keep them on it for those thirteen straight years until they all reach the same destination of graduation, which better be age 17 or 18, or something is really wrong.

And now so much of what you are taught during those 13 years is content mandated by educational bureaucrats again who have never met you or have any understanding of your own developmental path. A burgeoning set of required curriculum just seems to encourage the increased scripting of each year of mandatory education, which leads to increased scripting of a kid’s entire young life.

If you are going to have the conventional high school degree, wouldn’t it at least make more sense not to script each of those thirteen years and instead identify a body of knowledge and skills that needed to be acquired to graduate and then let every kid and their family take as much time as they deemed best to reach that goal?

And can’t we somehow move away from that dulling sameness of knowing that more so every year most every kid in the country is learning the same damn things at the same damn age. It’s like a country where the only restaurant anywhere is say Denny’s. Yeah you can probably find something to eat for every diet, but would this really promote a world of culinary interest?

Instead, couldn’t it all be set up completely differently? Couldn’t it be set up on the Buddhist principle that we are all seekers and should have an educational infrastructure that facilitates that, where we can find as much of what we seek as possible?

As my mom shared with me about her parenting philosophy… kids will tell you what they need.

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