What are the children learning?

An article in the NY Times today tells a worrying tale about how some high school students in high-achieving schools are using so-called “study pills” to increase their performance on exams. The drugs are legally prescribed to many teenagers who complain about an inability to concentrate or a tendency “to stare out the window” during classes. Well, most of us who have finished school can remember long periods of staring out of windows (if we were lucky enough to have classrooms with windows) during classes that seemed long and boring. I remember staring longingly out of an open window from which I could hear the thump of the school baseball team practicing every afternoon during my history class. History was one of my favorite subjects, but when spring came and the sun was shining on bright new grass outside, even stories of Henry VIII and his many wives couldn’t compete. When did staring out of a window become a symptom needing treatment instead of a natural response for young people? Being distracted by new sensations isn’t necessarily a bad thing and surely it would be better for parents and teachers to help kids learn how to cope instead of sending them to a doctor for medication. But trying to produce outstanding children motivates lots of parents.   

The urge to push children into ever-higher achievement isn’t new; the Victorians did the same.  John Stuart Mill is an example of a child whose parents wanted him to excel. His father, a famous philosopher, decided his son would follow in his footsteps, and he started early. According to a Wikipedia article, John Stuart was taught Greek when he was three years old. “By the age of eight he had read Aesop’s Fables, Xenophon’s Anabasis and the whole of Herodotus, and was acquainted with Lucian, Diogenes Laërtius, Isocrates and six dialogues of Plato. He had also read a great deal of history in English and had been taught arithmetic.” The lessons came thick and fast all through his teenage years and he studied dutifully until at the age of twenty he suffered a nervous breakdown, which he later thought was caused by the heavy emphasis on early intellectual achievement. Fortunately for Mill, he pulled out of his depression and went on to have a distinguished career.

Margaret Fuller is another example of an individual whose early life was dominated by a father’s insistence on intellectual distinction. Her position was unusual for a woman, because most fathers in the early 19th century would not have bothered educating a daughter. While I was writing my biography of Margaret Fuller, I found ample evidence that Margaret had very mixed feelings about her precocious education and how it affected her life. Before Margaret was four years old, her father started teaching her to read. She learned easily and within a few months she was reading stories and enjoying them. Almost as soon as she had mastered reading in English, she started on Latin. By the time she was six years old, Margaret was spending her days bent over a book instead of playing with other children. Although she too grew up to have a distinguished career, she sometimes wondered whether her father’s early pushing made her life less happy than it might have been.

It seems as though we haven’t learned much over the years about letting children find their own paths in life. I guess it’s just something every generation has to learn all over again. Meanwhile we can only hope that pharmaceuticals won’t become a regular part of high school life.

2 thoughts on “What are the children learning?

  1. Children can’t find their own way anymore because the Televison sets and video games are always on. Nobody pays attention to the kids except when their stuffing soda pop and french fries down their throats to get them to shut up.

    Children shouldn’t have to find their own way. They should be patiently guided and taught skills that will help them in the future by kind parents who have goals for the future that don’t involve cyber space and virtual reality devices.

    It seems to be though, that nobody has time to guide the children. They are left to raise themselves so their parents can buy giant houses, expensive cars and cheap crap from China.

    Each generation shouldn’t have to relearn everything. But generation X has had to because the baby boomer generation is a generation of spoiled brats who refused to raise polite well mannered children. Each generation gets worse and worse because the baby boomer generation wants to spoil their grand kids, not knowing how detrimental this is to the future of society.

    Maybe you are perfect and aren’t involved in the madness, but I have had to be strong and stand for what I believe in while throwing out sponge bob dvd’s and video games and ten pound sacks of cheesy poofs and candy bars.

    • I certainly agree that children need to be guided and parents have to pay attention, but it seems to me that’s just what’s happening in a lot of families. No one is perfect, but every day I see examples of parents and children doing great things together. Just a few weeks ago we had a clean-up day at Ocean Beach and loads of families were out there picking up trash and cleaning the beach so we can all use it. And in the library I see parents reading stories to their young children and obviously enjoying it. I admire young parents today who are often pressured into working longer and longer hours, or holding down two jobs, and still they try to do the best for their kids. Granted, not everyone does that and some children are pitifully neglected, but that’s always been true. A hundred years ago there were plenty of children roaming the streets without anyone to guide them or sometimes even feed them. Let’s keep this in perspective. Times are hard now and growing up is difficult. Parents and children alike need some help from all of us–more support for schools, preschool services for young children, and decent health care (including mental health) for all children and their parents.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.