What is the goal of education? Or, for that matter, what is the goal of parenthood? Is our aim to shape the children in our care into a certain type of person, to give them specific skills, to qualify them for certain careers, to prepare them for expected circumstances? Do we envision their future selves as the complete products toward which we are currently laboring, and the ends which justify all the unpleasant activities we must force upon them in their childhoods?
Or do we see our role as parents and educators to be one of providing opportunities to explore and grow, while allowing our children to choose the direction, rate, and nature of that growth? Are they like plants which we tend with loving care – providing soil, water, and space to flourish – but over which, ultimately, we have no true control? I remember one year planting peas, all in a row in a single garden bed; I watered them and fertilized them synchronously, and yet some sprouted days before their neighbors, and some grew to twice the height of others, lanky stems reaching up to the sky much farther in between each set of leaves and tiny tendrils. Nothing I did caused or could have eliminated the differences between those plants (though I certainly could have affected their development negatively by forgetting to water them, in which case the height difference may not have been so noticeable…).
Perhaps it is the same way with children. Some will shoot out intellectually, reaching with insatiable desire towards the skies of knowledge and academic learning, constant thirst for the sunlight of information driving them onward. We could stunt that growth by neglect or empower it by attention, but we cannot create (and can only with great difficulty destroy) the passion that motivates it. Others may grow in more embodied ways, developing craftsmanship and skill in professions such as music, art, or manual trades, and pursuing the creation of tangible beauty rather than the acquisition of knowledge. While we can offer the opportunity to learn those skills to all children, not all will desire to hone them to mastery, and it is most likely counterproductive to attempt to force it.
The knowledge and skills that align with a child’s natural talents and inclinations will be the easiest for them to develop, as well as the ones most likely to bring them joy and success throughout their lives – regardless of how “one-sided” it may make them appear now.
We may fear that, if children are allowed to choose the direction of their learning, they may choose incorrectly.
Does a tree choose the wrong place to grow a branch?
Does the blackberry bush extend its vines the wrong way?
To paraphrase C. S. Lewis (I believe from Mere Christianity), the tree and the bush are following the rules of their nature and are not wrong or incorrect in doing so, although they may be quite inconvenient indeed for us!
And while it is quite fine to trim back a plant for the sake of our comfort and convenience, it is not at all fine to trim back the growth of another person for the sake of our own convenience. Providing a trellis to support their growth is one thing; stunting or restricting that growth simply because it doesn’t fit our idea of what their growth should look like is quite another.
Children are human too, after all. And humans, we believe, in fundamental democratic terms, are entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (always being aware of how our actions infringe upon the rights of others, of course).
Coercive education – forcing a child to learn something in which he has no interest, for no purpose at all except the nebulous expectations of adult society, at the expense of time and energy that could have been devoted to the unique and explorative learning that his heart desires – seems to me to be quite far from those exalted human rights.
We can attempt to control, and set ourselves and our children up for disappointment, failure, and bitterness – or we can let our children provide the directing and motivating force while we provide the rich and nourishing environment in which they can flourish in beauty and individuality. We can give them the gifts of freedom, acceptance, and support, and marvel at the different ways they blossom before our wondering eyes.