Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The tiger and the apple -- educating America

Rarely do I find myself in agreement with columnist David Brooks (and rarely do I comment on books I haven't read), but there's a lot of wisdom in his column reacting to Amy Chua's Battle hymn of the tiger mother, the controversial new memoir about one Asian intellectual's tough love approach to child-rearing. Brooks says that activities that, on first glance, might look like wasteful play -- like the sleepovers Chua denied her children -- are, in fact, vital places for learning:

Practicing a piece of music for four hours requires focused attention, but it is nowhere near as cognitively demanding as a sleepover with 14-year-old girls. Managing status rivalries, negotiating group dynamics, understanding social norms, navigating the distinction between self and group — these and other social tests impose cognitive demands that blow away any intense tutoring session or a class at Yale
The wisdom here is particularly pertinent at a time when we are -- at least in the public schools -- putting more and more emphasis on the most formal elements of schooling: on the so-called basics where achievement can be easily measured by standardized tests. It is notable, however, that this craze to strip schools of play and extra-curricular activities has not extended to the most prestigious of private and religious schools where an enriched curriculum of sports, arts and other non-basics is sometimes even more intense for kids than their formal learning.

It is also notable to observe -- as Steve Jobs sadly drops the reigns at Apple for health reasons -- that some of our very most successful people are ones who got a minimum of formal schooling by the standards of the Chua's of the world. Jobs only finished one semester at off-beat Reed College in Oregon. He credits a very-much-non-basics class he later audited there -- in calligraphy of all things -- for giving him the background for some of his most important contributions to Apple's success. In a commencement address at Stanford University, Jobs later stated, "If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts."

The one place where I most definitely disagree with Brooks, however, is when he states that the skill set for participating well in groups is one that cannot be "taught formally, but it is imparted through arduous experiences." Obviously, as one who is completing a course in Group Dynamics and who uses group experiences in Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) to help people develop awareness of group dynamics, I believe that group skills can be taught -- or at least fostered -- in a formal setting. But I do agree that the benefits only come from "arduous experiences" participating in groups. I simply believe also that those experiences can be guided in beneficial ways.

May you find time for play and other informal learning experiences as well!

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