Critical Thinking, “Ethan Brand,” and the Holiday Spirit

We happen to be a family that celebrates Christmas, and we have tended to do it in a fairly traditional secular way: tree, stockings, presents, sit-down dinner. For a week or so before the actual day lights twinkle stereotypically in the living room and cats sip spruce-infused water from the tree-stand. Each of us maintains a hidey-hole for gifts and avoids the burden of wrapping until the last minute. There is egg nog.

At some point in my late adolescence I remember deciding that this kind of celebration, with more-or-less mandated giving, orchestrated good cheer, and choreographed gestures of comfort and joy stripped, in my home, of religious content, was indeed a humbug. Any day can be a fine day for giving or receiving a gift, and a little more spontaneity in the exchange can deepen its meaning. Why not find other days for random family gatherings or acts of kindness? Why Christmas? Didn’t the ritualization of pretty much everything about the day empty it of meaning and eviscerate “the true spirit of Christmas,” whatever that might be?

It wasn’t so much that I was Scrooge—I wasn’t trying to save a few bucks—but rather that I was taking my role as a self-styled cultural critic to a logical end. I still can’t say that I was wrong about anything, but I had missed something rather important. I could engage in my own personal boycott of Christmas, but if no one else was, what was my point except to add a bit of critical discomfort to the lives of family and friends? (Which may have been my point. But still.) I could reject the holiday spirit, but if everyone else had it—for whatever reason, because it was in the air, because they felt Christmas or the Solstice or something similar very deeply, or just because they were “s’posed to”—then my little boycott was not just a statement but an active turning away from community.

And in my personal spiritual construct, turning away from community was in fact the definition of the wrong thing to do. I had learnt this from the Nathaniel Hawthorne story “Ethan Brand,” where this rejection is in fact the Unpardonable Sin. So I made those around me suffer through one season, and then I decided that I could acknowledge and participate in the rituals of the holiday. To be sure, I have always found gift-giving hard, because I so want to quote-what-is-the-unpardonable-sin-asked-the-lime-burner-it-is-a-sin-that-grew-within-my-own-nathaniel-hawthorne-69-92-80find the perfect thing for each recipient and I remember all too keenly the disappointments of some of my own childhood Christmases. But I also know, as a parent now, that there is something very nice about sitting around with family and watching others be surprised and occasionally genuinely delighted by another’s gift. I like the smell of the tree, even if I don’t really love egg nog.

At some point I suspect many interested children will question the rituals and traditions with which they live, and I believe wholeheartedly that they should. Whatever the holiday or occasion—and it certainly doesn’t have to be Christmas—it will mean more when the young person comes to it on his or her own terms, having tested it, questioned it, thought it through. I suppose this risks full-on rejection, but that is an individual’s right, just as it is an individual’s responsibility to figure out what he or she owes to family and community and how to make good—or not—on that obligation. I may have taken my theology from “Ethan Brand” (others will find better, richer sources), but we must all decide for ourselves where the “spirit” and the rational self and our place in the world intersect.

I am sorry for having annoyed folks with my Christmas boycott many years ago, but in my own way I grew from it, and when I say “Happy Holidays!” to some one nowadays I mean it: I want them to be happy. And I hope that they have thought about why they might be happy, or even how they could be happier or be making others happier. Being in the holiday spirit, I think, entails thinking about what this might actually mean. And meaning, of course, is what matters.happy-holidays

#93. If there’s a sport you enjoy, consider going to a sports camp this summer to fine-tune skills and make new friends

IDEA #93. If there’s a sport you enjoy, consider going to a sports camp this summer to fine-tune skills and make new friends

Sports camps come in all sizes and in all degrees of seriousness, from a couple of hours a day for beginners to invitational residential camps at which college coaches scout scholarship prospects. Some are camps with varied programs built around a particular sport, while some are essentially pre-season training experiences for committed varsity-level athletes. Some are inexpensive, even free, while others cost hundreds of dollars a week.

If a child is really interested in a particular sport and enjoys both the play and the camaraderie, a sports camp can be a way to support the interest while providing a positive personal experience. It’s important to be realistic when selecting a sports camp, however. Is the camp only for the super-talented, or is it intended for athletes of all levels? How committed is the child to the sport? Do you want your child to be pushed by drill-sergeant-like coaches for five days, or do you want the child to build on fundamental skills in order to take more satisfaction from recreational participation? Do you really believe that your child is a scholarship prospect, or would everyone be happier at some place a little less intense? How much is the child’s camp experience about fun and friend-making, and how much is it about developing killer moves in the sport? And then, of course, there’s the financial factor: Is the whole experience going to be worth the cost in dollars and time, including travel?

If the parents’ and child’s goals and assessment of needs and talent agree, then the choice of a camp should be relatively easy. Speak to the director to find out how serious the training regime might be. If you can contact other parents or guardians, get a sense of what the camp culture and atmosphere are like. Also check on health and safety: is there a trainer or a nurse on staff? What is the food like? Is there water always available for the campers?

The best part of a good sports camp is that the staff is able to break skills down so that young athletes actually understand what they are doing and how certain tactics and strategies work. Good athletes, after all, are able to envision and think about a game even as they play it, their mastery of basic skills so complete that their conscious minds are free to create new plays. Any experience that helps the truly interested young athlete approach this level of understanding might be well worth the time and effort.

As summer approaches, it’s probably a good time to start exploring camp options–locations, day-only or residential, overall programs, prices. It’s also good to have a couple of months’ lead time`for the child to look for ways–babysitting, odd jobs–to help defray the cost, thus raising his or her commitment level as stakeholders in their own experience.

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.

#86. Build a precise scale model of something.

IDEA #86. Build a precise scale model of something. Try making an exact model of your room, for example, complete with furniture and belongings, at an exact scale of one inch to one foot (1″:1′). And remember, a scale model can be larger that the original object.

When one considers that a full-scale battleship AND an exact one-foot model of the same vessel can be built from the same set of instructions, the power of the concept of scale becomes apparent.

The art of scale model design begins with the concepts of precise measurement and proportion. A model of an existing object for which plans are not available begins with measurement, and all models require an understanding of the mathematical coIMG_1221ncept that ALL relationships must be set in the same proportion.

Materials for a scale model project are not particularly important, although resources like stiff cardboard, foam-core board, and balsa wood can be exceptionally useful. For the ambitious, many art and craft supply stores sell materials for scale modeling, and some even sell architectural details—roof shingles, door hardware, and the like—set to particular scales. A proper job also includes tools for cutting to precise measurements, and some kind of adhesive for fastening; with sharp cutting tools and aromatic glues, caution should be observed.

In IDEA #60 we suggested the creation, as an art project, of a giant-scale model of a smaller object; such projects can have a certain whimsical charm. We referred there to a giant pencil as well as a giant lipstick, but any small object can be scaled up for the purpose of enjoying this activity.

More on the Interested Child Mindset: On Doing Things Badly and the Cult of Expertise

We live in an age that venerates expertise and success, when children specialize in a single sport by puberty and when family cars accumulate miles transporting kids to and from lessons and tutorials, workshops and competitions. Ten thousand repetitions and probably as many tears are rites of passage for children bred to ambition by ambitious families, and mediocrity is viewed as failure.

We occasionally worry that The Interested Child may in some way contribute to this exhausting program of accomplishing. This regimen frames too many American childhoods and adolescences, starting far too early and ending too often with a hollow emotional thud! barely audible beneath the applause as college acceptances roll in or similar external rewards pile up. I’m not sure what values this promotes in the end, but I have my suspicions.

My grandfather, a reflective educator whose own library was filled with how-to books on subjects that interested him through his life but on which he was no expert, used to cite G. K. Chesterton’s contrarian take on the adulation of expertise: “If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.” (We referred to this adage in a post a few months back.) I have tried to take these words to heart in my own life and parenting, and we are pleased to remind our readers here of their profound wisdom.

My interpretation of Chesterton’s maxim: If someone truly enjoys doing something, then let the pleasure of doing it take precedence over doing it perfectly or even particularly well. Enjoy the doing as an end in itself. It’s okay to let go of the mantra that failure is only a step on the road to success; enjoying something that we don’t do all that well is just fine—contrary to cultural messages that a thing is worth doing only if it yields an impressive line item on a c.v. or a profit.

I can think of only one area where Americans seem to allow themselves wide latitude in performance: golf. Duffers may strive for years to be better, but shooting par remains a distant goal for all but near-professionals. Most golfers are surprisingly philosophical about being average, or a bit worse, but for most golfers (at least the ones I have known) the camaraderie and perhaps the scenery seem to be adequate recompense for “a good walk spoiled” around 18 holes.

Our task is gently to urge our children to try new things and then support them in engaging more deeply with the ones they seem to like. But we must not, in our parental exuberance and our own embrace of the Cult of the Expert, push them where our hearts and hopes, and not theirs, are leading. If they enjoy something, take something away from an experience, then that might be as far as it goes. We can dangle carrots to entice and encourage, but we must not resort to even the most metaphorical of coercive sticks in our quest to help kids learn to identify, follow, and build upon their own interests.

I’ll offer myself as an example here. I have played the guitar for going on fifty years, but I’m not very good and unlikely to get much better. I own a nice instrument and early on I really did practice for the requisite hours to achieve “expertise,” but about thirty years ago I hit a plateau, and now I mostly play when no one else is home. But my limitations as a musician don’t limit the pleasure I take in making music.

We like to think of The Interested Child as a mindset, not a checklist or a roadmap—as a compendium of ideas that might intrigue, not an enumeration of imperatives.

New Year’s Resolutions and the Interested Child Mindset

It’s the time of year when earnest folk around the world solemnly resolve to do something special in the new year: read more books, lose more weight, spend more time with friends and family. Bonne année

We are all in favor of earnest resolutions to accomplish particular goals, but we keep reading articles about why it is so hard for people to keep New Year’s resolutions beyond a few days or weeks. Life, as they say, tends to intervene. The poet laureate of New Year’s Eve, Robert Burns (who wrote “Auld Lang Syne”) put it best in his otherwise pretty much forgotten poem, “To a Mouse, on Turning Her Up in Her Nest with the Plough”:

“The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!”

While we might be pleased if the Interested Child wanted to spend some time with Burns’s 18th-century Scots dialect, we’d rather take a moment to reflect on resolutions, Big Plans, and themes related to the intent behind this blog.

We set out on the adventure that is The Interested Child based on our passionate belief that exposing kids to new ideas and experiences is by definition a good thing. We also believe firmly that nurturing any sparks of interest shown by young people–in just about anything that isn’t downright criminal or antisocial–is a way to coax such sparks into flame. We don’t, however, believe that there is any single magic formula for sparking interest or that an interest that burns bright in the moment flame need be or can be fanned into lifelong passion. We further don’t believe that the reason to help kids find their interests is first and foremost about building a portfolio or résumé for purposes of personal advancement; there is a relationship here, to be sure, (as a long-time college counselor I’m well aware of this) but sincere interest must be its own reward.

Thus, rather than “Try ten new Interested Child ideas” or “Read twenty more works of ‘classic’ literature,” we hope that parents, guardians, and friends will spare children (and themselves) prescriptive “resolutions” and focus instead on creating lives marked by open-mindedness, curiosity, and above all a willingness to try new experiences and ponder life’s questions from multiple points of view.

We number the “Ideas” put forth on The Interested Child largely for our own account-keeping and as points of reference; we don’t mean them to be seen as items on a checklist, any more than we keep lists of “New Year’s Resolutions.” We like to think of the ethos behind this blog as a set of broad principles and mindsets, to be drawn on as Interested Children and those around them take life and its challenges and opportunities as they come, with open minds and open hearts.

And in the meantime, we wish everyone a joyous and exciting (in good ways!) 2015!

Holiday Gift Ideas from the Professoriate

In a year-end fraught with anxieties about issues of justice, equity, and peace, The Interested Child believes that the greatest gifts that one can give anyone in 2014 are 1) a humble, considered, and empathetic perspective–the old advice about not judging a person until you have walked a mile in their shoes is an aphorism worth repeating to the young–and 2), above all, a sense of optimism and agency in the world. But these aren’t gifts that are easily wrapped to be opened at a holiday table or under a tree, and holidays for the young tend to include at least some more material and festal gift-giving.

Normally I don’t reblog other people’s content or extol the virtues of things as gifts, but the other day The Chronicle of Higher Educations “Profhacker” blog ran its compilation of gift ideas. Most of the suggestions were for grown-up items, but several contributors included ideas for gifts to engage the Interested Child (often in a family or collaborative context). Here are excerpts containing the suggestions that we liked best. (The complete post can be found here.)

From Jason B. Jones (follow him on Twitter), Director of Educational Technology at Trinity College (bulleted items are quoted directly from The Chronicle):

  • Groovy Lab in a Box. Groovy Lab in a Box offers you everything you need to do a whole slew of science experiments on a given topic each month. There’s also online support for further experiments and research. I will say I tried this with the 11yo, a 7th-grader who loves science, and he thought he was about 3 years too old for it. Good for incipiently nerdy elementary school kids.
  • Makey Makey. Dubbed “an invention kit for anyone,” Makey Makey turns anything that conducts electricity into an interface for a computer. (Canonical examples include using fruit to play instruments, drawing interfaces with pencils, and so forth.) Makey Makey is great for all ages, but probably most ideal for elementary and middle school students. (That said, you can hook it up with a Pi or an Arduino and do super-cool stuff, too.)
  • Kano. Speaking of a Raspberry Pi, the Kano is an awesome implementation: it’s a snap-together computer, more or less, that even a kid can build. (The aforementioned 11yo was running programs on it in about 7 minutes, and he had to wait for a firmware update.) It includes everything but a monitor. I backed this on Kickstarter, and although it was s-l-o-w to finish, has turned out a real treat.
  • If your gift recipient is patient and likes robots, they might be interested in the Edison. Edison is a LEGO-compatible robot that can sense aspects of its environment. It seems like it will be fun. They are taking pre-orders now, and assert that they’ll ship in mid-December, but I backed this as a Kickstarter, and it shipped yesterday … and the estimated delivery is December 31! (Fortunately, the 11yo has gotten used to waiting for things after the Kano … I’m a terrible dad.)
  • For people who come at making and creative projects via crafts, one of the Sew Electric kits is just the ticket. You can either get the book or kits that include needles, batteries, LEDs, and even an Arduino. It’s awesome.

Board games recommended by Brian Croxall (follow him on Twitter), Digital Humanities Strategist at Emory University’s Digital Scholarship Commons  and Lecturer of English (bulleted items are quoted directly from The Chronicle):

  • The one that we have played more than any else in my house is Terror in Meeple City, which was called Rampage until recently. In this game you construct a cityscape with buildings supported by meeples and use your big, blocky wooden monster to jump on or blow down buildings. You’ll be flicking ice cream trucks at the other monsters trying to knock them down. It’s tremendous fun and laugh-out-loud silly, and my kids can’t get enough of it.
  • Our other favorite this year is Mascarade. Everyone at the table is given a role card (king, queen, judge, inquisitor, and so on). The game starts when the cards are flipped over and the first person takes someone else’s card, puts it under the table and switches it—or doesn’t—with their own card. When people try to take the power of their card, they might find out that they’re not who they thought they were. It plays 2—13 players, although it shines at 6 or more, and it’s hilarious.

And a couple more games, from Ryan Cordell (follow him on Twitter), Assistant Professor of English at Northeastern University (bulleted items are quoted directly from The Chronicle):

  • Do you remember the first time you saw someone playing Minecraft and thought: it’s like an endless Lego set… Well Lego has brought Minecraft into the physical world this year, and the sets are sure to blow the minds of any 6-to-12-year-olds in your life (and, let’s face it, you too). The sets are The Farm, The First Night, The Cave, The Ender Dragon, The Mine, and the one I’m perhaps most excited to dig into with my kids, The Crafting Box.
  • We’ve probably listed it here before, but The Settlers of Catan is the board game for those who like board games, assuming that any gamers on your list somehow missed this one. If you’re buying for someone already addicted to the game (like my family), perhaps a board frame to keep those pesky hexes in place while playing. For younger kids, No Stress Chess is a great way to learn the moves of a chess game without, as the title promises, getting stressed about all the different options. Our twin 6-year-olds love this game.

I’ll add that “Settlers of Catan” has been a big hit among the game-players in our household for some years, along with an odd little mindbender called “Kill Dr. Lucky.”

Happy Holidays!

#79. Get some friends or relatives together and camp out for a night (or more)

IDEA #79. Get some friends or relatives together and camp out for a night—or more. Make sure you get permission and observe good camping practice—leave no trace!

Camping out is about as fun as an activity can be, but successful overnights in the out-of-doors are the result of some careful thought and planning. Much of this planning has to do with the campers’ understanding of their own capacities as well as practical knowledge.

The first order of business in planning a camp-out is to determine who the participants will be. Good campers are old enough to be independent of the need for comforting adults or frequent trips to the bathroom; fear of the dark is also something of a limiting factor, although sometimes an overnight in a tent with trusted friends or family members can be enough to help dispel this phobia.

Destination and equipment are equally important, as the object is to minimize the risk of having inclement weather or other environmental factors intrude on the participants’ good time. Perhaps a back yard or some public space very close to home seems like a good place to begin (and of course, make sure that anywhere you plan to camp allows such activity). Unless there is absolutely no risk of rain or animal visitation, some kind of tent is required, but this need not be an expensive model from an outdoor-equipment store—hundreds of thousands of pioneers and soldiers have made it through the night under the equivalent of a blanket or tarpaulin tented over a rope strung between two trees or other objects, with the corners somehow fastened down. Sleeping bags or blanket rolls (made by pinning a blanket together into an envelope) keep out the chill. Some sort of small flashlight—to be used for serious business only!—completes the absolute basics.

Of course, if the hike is to distant place, there will also be the need for food and other necessities, including perhaps even recommended tools for dealing with human waste. Camping equipment and camping regulations can be quite elaborate in many locations, and prospective campers who are combining their overnight or nights with some hiking on trails or on public land should check with local authorities before setting out. In some parts of the country there are very strong prohibitions on camping or very serious regulations to be followed.

The need for camping safety cannot be overstated. Camping seems to involve knives and fire more than other activities, and the young camper needs to be instructed in proper use of sharp tools and in the basics of campfire safety. On the whole, fire management and cooking are best done under the supervision of someone wise in the ways of Smokey the Bear and of the specific equipment being used, and local regulations must be strictly observed not only to protect the participants but to protect the environment. A campfire, incidentally, can never be put out thoroughly enough.

Perhaps the most important goal of the thinking child’s camp out is to begin to instill a sense of environmental stewardship into the young camper. For many decades the Leave No Trace movement among outdoorspersons has emphasized the idea that a good camper literally leaves behind no evidence of his or her having been present in an environment. Whether the site of the camp out is a family backyard or a designated campsite in a national park, when the group leaves in the morning there should be no sign at all that they have been there.

School and the Interested Child

Another school year begins, and for some children this means a period of dissonance in the transition between the relative freedom of summer break and the regimentation of the school year. Even for home-schooled or un-schooled students, life in the months that comprise for others the academic year is probably more scheduled and more circumscribed than vacation time.

We are a family of schoolteachers, and so for us it is not an article of faith that school is a place of oppression and stultification where rote learning and dreary routine either squelch intellectual curiosity or kill the young soul. As independent school folks we aren’t bound by the kinds of state testing regimes that do truly impinge on the freedom of most public school teachers and students, but we do answer to our superiors and our marketplace. Nonetheless, we believe in school.

Some years back I was contacted by the parent of one of our kids’ classmates. She was concerned—upset, even—that her daughter was completing her assigned work with time to spare each evening. What did I think of this, and what did we do about it at our house, where the same situation, she was sure, obtained? (And it did.) Among independent school parents in Boston(ish), as in most ambitious urban(ish) communities, a nearly unendurable homework load is the sign of a righteous—that is, rigorous—and worthy education, the marker of a “good” school.

I’m afraid I gave the wrong answer, which was that we were delighted that our son had extra time in the evening to be a part of our family and to pursue his own interests. How great that he could be a kid, sitting in the living room and chatting as we watched television, and that he could consume the books he was taking out of the library by the bagful. The conversation soon ended.

We are not fans of extreme homework ordeals, although we were not entirely unhappy when they have occurred for our children from time to time (sometimes as the well deserved result of some inattention to assignment sheets), and we are especially not fans of homework that is repetitive or assigned simply to be homework. We sincerely hope that your child doesn’t have much of this, and we urge families to be assertive with teachers when homework loads are oppressive and destructive to family values and student confidence and happiness. Research is beginning to suggest that excessive homework, or even homework at all, is a poor learning tool, but this notion is so counter to prevailing cultural beliefs that it’s a tough position to defend. Few schools have the courage to embrace the principle of diminished homework.

We are fans of the idea that children should be allowed the space and resources to be interested even amidst the exigencies of a busy school year. It can be difficult, but we urge families and children alike to make a priority of carving out time, a few minutes a day even, to pursue personal interests, hobbies, and areas of curiosity even against a backdrop of homework and schedule of classes and extracurriculars. (And let me add, as a former college counselor, that the “extracurriculars” that matter are those about which a student can speak and write with honest passion. The “best” extracurricular is the one that most engages and inspires the student; for the child with real interest, there isn’t any hierarchy of activities, most-impressive-to-least. Don’t believe your neighbors or the cocktail party “experts” when they try to tell you there is.)

We also offer this tidbit, based on sixty-plus years of observation in our own classrooms: That the most successful students are actually those who are able to look at the material they are studying and find in it—in each topic, and even in each assignment—something that piques their interest, that allows them to bring their own personal curiosity to bear. This can be a stretch (“Do problems 1– 17, odd” may not exactly set a child’s mind on fire), but somewhere in every topic and every task many students are able to find some tiny (or larger) nugget of interest, something to spur engagement and even original thought, and this engagement and originality are the hallmarks of a successful student.

It may be axiomatic in some quarters that school is a drag, a damper on the spirit, but it doesn’t have to be this. Just as we urge the Interested Child to engage with new activities and new ideas, so do we urge him or her to engage with school—at the same time as he or she continues to engage with his or her own continuing exploration of the world and all that it offers.

A Serious Interlude: Issues of Security and Privilege for Interested Children

The Interested Child proceeds from a number of assumptions, but then so does the way we speak of childhood in our society. “We believe that children are our future,” we sing, and we like to believe that this belief is common across the spectrum of humanity, especially in the industrial democracies that have defined the world we live in and shaped the way in which we envision childhood. Children are special, are learners, are to be protected and nurtured and looked after as they make their way through an educational system designed to prepare them for the world they will inherit as adults.

But the fact is that not every child in our society is on this path. Millions live in poverty and attend schools that are underfunded and underappreciated in every way. Segregation has returned to the American public school system, holding hands with an over-reliance on standardized testing and an under-reliance on the good will and dedication of teachers. We are gripped by reports of events in which young people, in particular young men of color, are gunned down by forces allegedly representing law and order while going about their business, unarmed and unprepared for the swift violence that escalates in the blink of an eye to end their lives.

Some of my friends on Facebook tell the story: How as parents of color they feel increasingly insecure allowing their children out in the world, how every parent of an African American male must have “the talk” with their son about how to comport himself when confronted by official suspicion, how to channel, nearly 60 years after Number 42 took the field for the Dodgers, the patience and resilience of Jackie Robinson when stalked or harassed or accused. While self-deluded reactionaries congratulate themselves on living in a “post-racial” society (whatever that even means), people on the front lines of building a multi-racial society—parents, teachers, children—know that the struggle for equal opportunity and equal rights continues undiminished.

At the heart of this struggle lies the matter of privilege—call it race privilege, skin privilege, whatever. It may be distressing to have this brought up on a blog site devoted to developing the curiosity and intellectual and creative passion of children, but events this week in Missouri, whatever the “facts,” are a reminder that interested children, even if they may be created equal and endowed by their creator with inalienable rights, are not always treated equally. It’s far too complex a topic to address here in great detail, but parents of the economically and socially dominant races and classes owe it to themselves and their interested children to take up the question of the unearned privilege that comes with race and class, privilege that some us of gain only by accident of birth and lineage.

Part of the recognition of what this unearned privilege means is an acknowledgment that not everyone has it, and that the assumptions and presumptions that we make about the world and how it works do not apply to everyone. To teach a child this, to help him or her develop the humility and circumspection to move through the world fully invested in and open to their own experience as well as the experience and perspectives of others, is to give a gift of inestimable proportion.

Some readers will take offense at this suggestion, I am sure, but what better way to help a child develop the habits of mind and soul to navigate and appreciate the many cultures and possibilities of this earth than by opening his or her mind to the idea that not everyone does or can expect the same things of life, regardless of their intelligence or interests or will? What better way to help a child develop the empathy and understanding that can help him or her contribute humbly and fully through a lifetime toward making this world a better, safer, and even more wondrous place?

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