Fall is coming, and a hush falls over the neighborhood playground as children trickle back to school. My oldest is old enough for kindergarten. These days I read a lot about education, shoring up my reasons for keeping her out of full-time school this year.
One author worth reading is Carol Black. Black is a writer, filmmaker, parent, and education activist. Her essays are thought-provoking and exhausting — exhausting because they challenge me to make drastic changes to the ways I think and act.
In August, The Washington Post ran one of her articles, “What the modern world has forgotten about children and learning.” In it, she notes,
“[W]e speak of our familiar school experience almost as though it were an integral part of nature itself, a natural and essential part of human childhood, rather than the vast and extremely recent experiment in social engineering that it actually is.”
In an April blog post she titles “On the Wildness of Children,” Black argues that the current educational system stymies a child’s ability to exercise free will. This has long-reaching consequences: anxiety and depression in individuals, political strife on the global level.
Like I said, I find Black’s arguments exhausting, but I think she’s on to something.
School as we know it is a modern experiment of “WEIRD” nations: Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic. We segregate children by age and hold each student to the same benchmarks; a child who reads at age 8 rather than 6 comes under scrutiny. We have children sit indoors during a day chopped into neat, often arbitrary periods; a child unable sit still and focus on a given task is a candidate for medication. We value individual performance; each child is measured, graded, compared, and documented. With some variation, this is the status quo.
Set aside our WEIRD cultural and social norms for a moment. It’s hard, so ingrained are the assumptions and expectations of school. To most, school is a necessary, traditional, benign part of growing up—a gateway to the land of functional adulthood. But this was not so for centuries, and it is not so for millions of people in the world today.
But part of me craves benchmarks, standards, and curricula. If I spare the educational rod, will I spoil my child’s future? If we end the experiment as we know it, what do we put in its place?
Consider a passage from Arcana Coelestia:
“In order that truth may be received by the good which is of the will, it is necessary that there be a free state. All that is of the will appears free; the very state of willing is liberty; for that which I will, that I choose, that I long for, because I love it and acknowledge it as good.” (3158.2)
If we wish children to take in truth, be it knowledge about math or the eternal truths of the Ten Commandments, they must receive it in a state of freedom. My reading suggests that this learning ought to be joyful too: “Who can wish to know something or understand something if he does not feel the pleasure of some affection?” (Divine Providence 76)
What if children spent a lot of time in nature? This gets a lot of lip-service, but I rarely see school recesses exceed half an hour. If “the universe is like a stage, upon which demonstrations of the existence of God and His oneness are continually being presented,” shouldn’t we be visiting the Divine theater more often (True Christian Religion 12)?
What if children had a chance to learn at their own pace? Learning happens at different times for different children, just as teething, talking, and puberty do. If a mother wouldn’t feed pieces of meat to an 11-month-old who has yet to sprout canines, perhaps an educator should wait to present concepts until a student has demonstrated readiness.
What if we trusted children to love learning enough to pursue it on their own? The Heavenly Doctrine notes that everyone naturally “takes great delight in knowing, so that it scarcely desires anything better, knowledge being its food by which it is sustained and renewed, as the external man is by earthly food” (Arcana Coelestia 1480). I don’t wish to do away with all structure and curricula. I do wish for sensitive educators attuned to the interests and readiness of each student, who lead and listen.
Black offers her solution, an ancient model we can still see in so-called primitive cultures:
“We see children intimately embedded in the natural world and free to move and use their bodies outdoors. We see children embedded in their communities and free to observe and participate in adult work, leisure, and celebration. We see complex social structures of mixed-age extended family and clan which provide child care and teach respect and hold anti-social behavior in check far more effectively and with less conflict than the institutions we now rely on.”
In New Christian terms, I think we can do more to honor children’s different states, the free souls within them, and the affections unique to each. We can give children more access to free play in the natural world the Lord gives us, to spiritual neighbors older and younger than themselves, to meaningful work, to natural rhythms rather than arbitrary schedules. We can keep academic success in perspective by remembering the Lord’s end goal: heaven. Most schools seem to have the rat race as the end in view. What if we focused more on the Lord’s end in view: a heaven from the human race?
I asked a lot of questions because I still wonder what to do. I’d like to start a conversation about what the New Christianity teaches about raising our children.