I recently had a chance to dig into the pile of articles I put aside for future reading and came across an article by New York Timesconservative columnist David Brooks with the kind of title that calls out to any Head of School (or independent school parent): “Miseducating the Young.” Brooks’s piece points out one of the central failures of even very good educations: we don’t provide much preparation for dealing with the increasing open-endedness that graduates encounter once they finish school.
Of course, the end of schooling for many TCS kids is off in the horizon. Yet Brooks’s observations reignite my concerns that children in our demographic often lead too “curated” an existence. They come to a well organized and developmentally structured school where just about every detail has been mindfully created. Their twice-a-day recess period is when they most deal with open-endedness (and, not surprisingly, it is likely to be the time of day when most problems emerge). They tend to go to adult-structured activities scheduled after school, whether it is in sports, music, art, or other interests. They tend to spend an abundance of time on screens. Many don’t read much, outside of our brilliant new STAR (Stop Together And Read) time. They get lots of praise. Most are not expected to take on meaningful family responsibilities. Few go outside and play for extended periods, or hang around and have to figure out a way to interest themselves without adult direction. Boredom tends to be dreaded — both by kids and parents.
Brooks, who is roughly my contemporary, asserts that “When I graduated from college there was a finite number of career ladders in front of me: teacher, lawyer, doctor, business. Now college graduates enter a world with four million footstools. There are many more places to perch (a start-up, an NGO, a coffee shop, a consultancy) but few of the footstools pay a sustaining wage, seem connected with others, or lead to a clear set of rungs to climb upward.” Throw in the ubiquitous posing on social media and the fact that recent college graduates “are less likely to be anchored in a political party, church, or some other creedal community” and it’s no wonder that many, many college graduates — products of the best educations our society has to offer — have trouble forging a direction.
From everything I read that focuses on the future of education and the workplace, I don’t think this is going to be changing any time soon. Given that we are living in an age of rapid, exponential change in many areas of life, it is likely instead only to intensify.
Thus I believe we should all be looking for more opportunities to give our children practice with open-endedness rather than with adult-crafted solutions. It can be harder for us parents, because it’s not as easy to check off or schedule, and many of us can feel we are not adequately enriching our children’s lives if they are not taking a few kinds of lessons, playing on a team or two, and participating in some kind of an interest group or another.
However, as life becomes increasingly open-ended, as careers, connections, and meaning become more elusive, and as the rate of change outpaces humans’ ability to adapt, practice with open-endedness will benefit our children. As uncomfortable as such practice may be, we are actually enhancing kids’ abilities to discern direction, define meaning, refine their course, and experience happiness. It’s something to consider, particularly as summer begins to come into focus.