Focus, self-control and a few other distractions

While my kids were in their Spanish class today, I caught up with my NYTimes for the week, as well as a couple of magazines (Time & NY Magazine) that have been languishing on my table.

It was a busy week for articles on learning and schooling, as it turns out.   Here then, are a few of the nuggets of absurdity and/or wisdom that stood out.

From “The Art of Distraction” by Harif Kaneishi on why focus might be slightly overrated:

For me, now, things do get done; books are finished, and other projects are started that are also finished.  They take the time they take, and the breaks are as important as the continuities.  Only a fool would think that someone should be able to bear boredom and frustration for long hours at a time and that this would be an achievement.

I love that quote.  ”Fool” is a strong word,  but we are surrounded by people who believe that enduring hours and years of boredom in school is some sort of achievement; similar to those people who believe that touting the details of their own miserable upbringing and unsatisfying work history makes them better than the rest of us, somehow.

This is Kaneishi again:

…sometimes things get done better when you’re doing something else.  If you’re writing and you get stuck, and you then make tea, while waiting for the kettle to boil the chances are good ideas will occur to you…Some interruptions are worth having if they create a space for something to work in the fertile unconscious.  Indeed, some distractions are more than useful; they might be more like realizations and can be as informative and multi-layered as dreams.  They might be where the excitement is.

As we as a society become desperate financially, and more regulated and conformist, our ideals of competence become more misleading and cruel, making people feel like losers.  There might be more to our distractions than we realized we knew.  We might need to be irresponsible.  But to follow a distraction requires independence and disobedience; there will be anxiety in not completing something, in looking away, or in not looking where others prefer you to…

I read that last part and thought, “Well, unless you unschool, where distractions and following your own path are completely accepted and supported.”   But he’s right about the general population, and this is why it is so vital for unschooling and the idea of self-direction to takes its’ place in the forefront on the debate surrounding learning and education.

The next quotes are from “Building Self-Control, the American Way” by Sandra Aamot & Sam Wong.  With all due respect to Ms. Aamot and Mr. Wong, this was one of those articles that, at first,  had me shaking my head and wondering why what they are saying is worthy of the Op-Ed section of the Times:

Rather than force activities onto an unwilling child, take advantage of his or her individual tendencies.  When children develop self-control through their own pursuit of happiness, no parental hovering is required.  Find something that the child is crazy about but that requires active effort.  Whether it’s compiling baseball statistics or making YouTube videos, passionate hobbies build mental staying power…

Seriously?  Why is this news?

Play allows children to practice skills that are useful in adult life…

An internally motivated approach to building self-control plays to traditional American strengths.  Being self-motivated may lead to other positive long-term consequences as well, like independence of thought and willingness to speak out.

Ok, maybe it is news.  These days, independent thought is rare; it may be a traditional American value but it’s one that has taken a backseat to conformity and doing as we are told, even if it’s to our detriment.   We listen to the “experts” (Ms. Aamot and Mr. Wong excluded) who tell us that kids need to focus on their schoolwork, that they all need to learn the same things at exactly the same ages and that things like recess and playing pretend are not as important as drilling with letters and numbers, often starting as young as 2.   Woe to the person or people who dare to contradict these experts, as many unschoolers know first hand.   By allowing or even encouraging our children’s play, by not forcing them into activities for which they have no interest and allowing them to follow their passions, we are called irresponsible parents who are destroying any chance our children might have for a successful life.

Because of this, articles like “Building Self-Control” are probably seen as forward thinking and maybe even somewhat radical;  to me they are only a reminder of what most of the population seems to have forgotten.

If those articles represented the sublime, (debatable) we are now heading into the realm of the ridiculous.   Here is the opening paragraph from an article titled “Judgment Day for the Kindergarten Set”:

Perhaps there’s some cosmic significance to the fact that two of the city’s most pitched competitions occur concomitantly: the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, which concluded at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday, and the final determining rounds of private kindergarten admission, which play out on a far broader psychic territory.  In each case, the subjects delivered for judgment have the least investment in the outcome.  Just as no one has ever seen a corgi rend her collar over losing to a borzoi, no one has ever witnessed a 4 1/2 year old stare deep down into his juice box and declaim the lost opportunities bound to arise from his rejection from Fieldston.

Ha ha!  The article goes on to talk about the elaborate hoops through which parents whose child is placed in wait-list purgatory must go through to try and gain admission.  Don’t forget, we’re talking KINDERGARTEN here.   We are also talking, in the case of some private schools like the aforementioned Fieldston, about a $40,000 tuition.    For a five year old.

None of it is exaggeration, either.  I remember when Ben was 3 years old and taking a gymnastics class, I spent one session listening to the other parents discuss their latest round of open-houses and the admissions processes at various pre-schools and kindergartens.   Finally my silence on the subject became noticeable and one of the fathers said to me, “Which kindergarten are you planning on for Ben?”  I said that we weren’t, as we would be homeschooling, and without missing a beat he replied, “Are you taking applications?”

And now, Rick Santorum.  I do apologize, but he keeps spouting on and on about homeschooling and saying things that, on the surface, make it sound like he and I are in agreement.  (I cringe just writing that.)   For example:

…comments by the former Pennsylvania senator [suggest]…that he takes a dim view of public schooling.  He and his wife home-schooled their children.

For the first 150 years, most presidents home-schooled their children at the White House, he said.  ”Where did they come up that public education and bigger education bureaucracies was the rule in America?  Parents educated their children, because it’s their responsibility to educate their children.”

“Yes, the government can help,” Mr. Santorum added, “But the idea that the federal government should be running schools, frankly much less that the state government should be running schools, is anachronistic.  It goes back to the time of industrialization of America when people came off of farms where they did home-school or have the little neighborhood school, and into these big factories, so we built equal factories called public schools.  And while those factories as we all know in Ohio and Pennsylvania have fundamentally changed, the factory school has not.”

Oh my.  Some of that sounds like I could have written it.   Most of it is true.  Except for the one little sentence about how Mr. Santorum and his wife homeschooled their children.   I guess if you want to be super literal about it – meaning their children did their schooling at home – then yes, they did.   But here’s the sticking point.  Mr. Santorum’s children were enrolled in a public cyber charter school.  A public school (yes, charter schools are privately funded, at least in part, but are still considered public).   Also, according to this information on the AskPauline site, you are not legally considered a home educator if your child is enrolled in an public cyber charter school.

So way to go Rick Santorum, on muddling the confusion many people have around learning outside of school just a little more. The last thing most of us want (and truly, none of us need) is to be lumped together with the Santorums when it come to how our children are educated.

And finally this, from a Time Magazine article about how the chemicals in microwave popcorn may deaden the affect of certain vaccines, which does not relate directly to learning but which I couldn’t pass up:

…the results raise the scary possibility that exposure to chemicals may be weakening children’s immune systems overall.

Stop. The. Presses.   You mean chemicals are bad for us?  For our kids?   Geez, there goes my plan to take my kids on a grand tour of toxic waste dumps and Chinese factories that produce cheap plastic toys…

Happy Wednesday, everyone.

About Amy

Amy Milstein was born and raised on a farm in Indiana, but after 20+ years considers herself a full-fledged New Yorker. She is married with two kids, who do not go to school but are instead life learners. This means they learn by living in the world (real life ) instead of hearing about it and simulating it in a classroom. With her family, Amy loves to travel, read, watch movies, write, sew, knit - the list is endless.
This entry was posted in Education, Learning, Life Learning, Parenting, School, Unschooling and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.