My Real Issue is Human Development

Human DevelopmentI write from the point of view of a parent, a “lefty parent” as I call myself, which is intended to have a double meaning of sorts. I grew up in the context and values of a liberal Midwestern university town (Ann Arbor MI), but also being left-handed, I tend to think outside the box of a mostly right-handed world, including the liberal or progressive “left” conventional wisdom of that world. My mom and dad were more left-libertarians than actual liberals and I have come to find that I share that subtle but significantly different orientation.

I really feel more like an ex-parent now, because our kids are grown up (now 22 and 25) and they have been basically running their own lives (for at least the past four years) since they learned to drive and figured out how to make their own living. That said we are still a close family, and their mom and I love seeing them whenever they are available and sharing our now mostly separate lives. We are proud of them and they reciprocate by acknowledging the positive role we have played in their lives, but otherwise the relationships between us look more like peers (though from different generations) than mentors and mentored.

Today at age 56, I have now had a full quarter century of both the perspective of growing up while being parented, and the flip side of being a parent myself (maybe now more ex-parent) and watching our two kids through their own growing up process. And you can squeeze about eight years in the middle there when I was a young adult pretty much on my own, neither parented or parent. All three periods have had their ups and downs, successes and failures, triumphs and tragedies, the whole range. But all in all, things have worked out for the better and I count my blessings (including my own health and my partner’s, plus our two kids surviving their youth and now fully functional as adults).

All that life experience, combined with a midlife crisis of sorts, inspired me to start writing this blog, and as of November 25 it will be three years since I posted my first piece, “Welcome to Lefty Parent”. Looking at the over 300 pieces I’ve written and posted since then, though many of them are about education and schooling, there are really two other more fundamental topics that are of the most interest to me. The first is human development in all its aspects. The second is what I have come to see as a key part of that development, which is the historical transition of human society, at least in the most recent 5000 years of history, from hierarchies of control to circles of equals.

Obviously formal education in school is tied up in those two topics. But from the perspective of my life’s experiences (either as actor or witness), I would say that formal schooling has less to do with individual human development than many of us conventionally think, while at the same time more to do with the development of societal governance than most people think.

I anticipate that many of you reading that last sentence will disagree with my assessment, and maybe you should, because I am of course biased by my own experience. But my reasoning is that though we can learn things by witnessing others and listening to what they tell us, we truly develop as individual human beings when we freely take action ourselves, experiencing the success or failure of those freely chosen actions, and the range of consequences in the wake of those actions. When we are merely complying with what people who claim authority over us tell us to do, we are not engaged at the same level and have less “skin in the game” as they say. Our compliance, or perhaps our decision to passively or actively resist compliance, speaks more to our learning about the ground rules for how we relate in community with others.

Recalling my youth, I had an inkling who I was but had very little clarity, and woke up every morning longing to someday be comfortable in my own skin. Growing up in the 1960s, swimming in the retribalizing ocean of electronic media to a soundtrack of life-affirming popular music, at least I had the thoughtful voices of the Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, the Supremes and so many others acknowledging my struggle somehow, reassuring me, and giving me encouragement to keep on keeping on. So with this Greek chorus of popular music accompanying the comedy of my life (definitely more comedy than tragedy in my case), I stumbled through my youth.

Despite some popular song lyrics to the contrary, I accepted to a large degree the conventional wisdom that we pre-adults were incapable of much more than thrashing around and developing ourselves in fits and starts unless we took the direction and followed the scripts that parents, teachers and other adult authority figures in our life were supposed to give us. We older youth were just “teenagers” after all, a term I still hear many adults use with each other disparagingly (while rolling their eyes). But that did not feel right to me or make enough sense.

They say we need to learn the lessons of history. But as I studied history (among other subjects) in school as an older youth and young adult, the whole developmental narrative of the human race seemed similarly to lack sense and clarity and not feel right. How could it be that in a more enlightened age of science and government for and by the people, the 20th century seemed filled with as much war, hate and genocide as the ancient history of tyrannical empires thousands of years earlier? Was human history doomed to repeat itself and human society still just a metaphorical “teenager” thrashing around and needing external authority from God or whoever to guide its course forward?

But three decades later, with the benefit of wisdom gained from reading Riane Eisler’s alternative reframing of human history in The Chalice and the Blade, I saw the thread of developmental transition from a hierarchy of control toward larger and larger circles of equals. Definitely a three steps forward two steps back progression, but one that gave our history some clarity and gave me the sense of a developmental narrative that I could take some ownership of my small part in.

And a decade later I was introduced to alternative educational thinkers like Grace Llewellyn, John Holt and John Taylor Gatto who called out that young people were much more capable than conventionally believed, if they were not held back by assumptions and institutions based on the need for external control of their development. This was seconded by my own experiences as a youth and later as a parent, as I looked back at those experiences with this new frame. Our human development does not need to proceed in such fits and starts and we don’t need to feel so uncomfortable in our own skins as young people. The trick is to keep ourselves within an enriched environment including a circle of people that actively respect our inherent worth and dignity and expect and allow us to develop our own agency, share our voice, and use that agency to be the directors of our own development. That also means staying away from people and institutions that frame us as dysfunctional unformed beings requiring control and instruction before we are worthy of that respect. Easier said than done for most of us of course, and particularly so before we reach the age of majority.

Looking back with this alternative educational framing, I realized that I mostly was taught about things in school. But it was outside school in my “own life” where I encountered my most profound “curriculum”; it was in having to chart my own course that I really developed as a human being (applying perhaps at least some of the stuff I was taught in school).

Being taught about things was the content of my schooling, but it was the process and governance of school that was the real learning experience. I was learning how to function in a formal bureaucratic environment where I had little or no authority and was expected to do what my identified superiors expected me to do “for my own good”. Teachers I have talked to over the years acknowledge this paradigm when they observe that learning to do homework that seems boring and pointless is good preparation for adult life.

The conventional telling of history as I originally was taught it was that the human story is all about acquisition – of power, knowledge, new frontiers, etc. The conventional framing of education around the institution of schooling as I experienced it was also about acquisition – of knowledge, of grades, and ultimately the institutional blessing of credentials to move on and acquire the best possible place in adult society. But from the reframing of history and comparable reframing of education I have been privy to, I have come to the conclusion that life is all about development instead. Besides our development as evolving consciousnesses, everything else seems to me to be boring and pointless.

3 replies on “My Real Issue is Human Development”

  1. James… thanks for your comment! Making your day with my thoughts makes mine as well! *grin*

    We view education and human development way too much as something that that should be “programmed for success” by someone else rather than directed by ourselves with all the requisite missteps.

  2. Kids learn from their families, circle of older peers, important events and school.

    Since school is such an abnormal learning experience, the flame of learning is usually extinguished by January of second grade.
    When students can’t learn how they were wired to learn, and when the rewards of grades don’t motivate, they children learn to play the system.

    I have always looked for kids who could not hide the “this is bullshit expression” ..they will survive and go on to be successful and satisfied in their lives.

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