INTERESTS AND PASSIONS

In a great piece in the New York Times’s “Motherlode” blog Lisa Heffernan writes with, er, passion, on how the quest for Passion, with a capital P, is bad for kids. The essay comes uncomfortably close to what this blog is about, and, feeling a bit defensive, I want to clarify what I see as the difference between the effort to help a child find interests and the all-hands-on-deck crusade to make sure that Johnny or Susie has a developed Passion by the time he or she is ready to apply to college.

In the explanatory material in the column to your right I make no bones about the connection between interests, passion, and success in many things, including college admission. If this seems a little cynical, I guess that it is, but after forty years as a teacher and a college counselor in schools where admission to selective colleges is a goal, I know that there is a connection, and it would be fatuous to deny this.

But I’d like to get back to first principles. Everything we know about learning, and about intelligence for that matter, says that learning is greatly enhanced by some kind of sensory and emotional engagement with the work. Kids learn better, and do better work, when they can find something interesting in the work they are asked to do. Most schools, of course, work to bake the “interest factor” into their curricula, but countervailing trends like an emphasis on standardized testing can impede this effort. Kids’ families need, in my humble opinion, to take up the slack here when they can.

There’s almost nothing sadder than encountering a ten or twelve or fifteen year-old who claims not really to be interested in anything much. No, they don’t read about any one thing, or watch particular programs, or seek out particular activities. Among the overscheduled offspring of the college-aspiring bourgeoisie, this phenomenon is not rare; the kids are so busy being dragged around that they haven’t had a chance to just sit and smell the flowers and imagine themselves doing….

It’s also the case that some of these children do in fact have a deep interest about which they are afraid to talk. It might be the Red Sox, or a particular video game, or heavy metal music, or Michael Kors, or college basketball. And it’s true that school folk—pointing a finger here at myself—tend not always to acknowledge that such interests are “worthy,” and so kids keep their encyclopedic knowledge of National Hockey League scoring statistics, celebrity fashion, or their Level 80 achievements in World of Warcraft to themselves. Such interests may indeed become true passions, and as a counselor I learned years ago not to be surprised when kids expressed an interest in college programs in sports management, music production, fashion, or game design.

The “Passions” that dismay Lisa Heffernan and myself are those constructed out of whole cloth by someone other than the actual kids or based on a momentary interest that a parent or guardian—or possibly sometimes a counselor or even a teacher—then force feeds, like a Strasbourg goose, to plump a vague interest into a demonstrable, comes-with-credentials Passion. If there is anything that more likely to lead a kid to burn-out or even resistance to new ideas, it is having someone else falsify or force-feed an interest so that it looks like a passion.

So far there have been over ninety suggestions offered on this blog, and I want to emphasize that I hope these are more or less what Heffernan is calling for: things a kid might try or that a family member or teacher might suggest—not a “to-do list.” I’ve said this before.

Bill Rice, a school colleague from forty years ago, proposed, in the middle of a discussion about youth concerts for school groups put on by the local symphony, what I call the Candle Wax Theory of Learning. Another colleague had expressed frustration with these musical field trips—kids fidget, talk, fall asleep—but Bill had a more philosophical approach: “It’s like making candles. Every time you dip them in a new experience, a little bit of it sticks.”

I’m not sure the analogy is perfect, but every time a child is exposed to something new, whether an idea or an activity or a book or game or movie, some little thing may stick. My goal at The Interested Child is to help families and help kids figure out what it means to be interested in something and how to think about the world in a way that stimulates intellectual curiosity.

Passion will come, if and when it comes, all in good time.

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