On the Spread of Stupid

I recently crushed the dreams of about 400 high school students. I was asked to give them career advice, and so I told them to stop believing that they can achieve anything they want simply by wanting it. “I Believe I Can Fly” may be an uplifting song, but it’s a stupid life philosophy. You can’t fly. If you study about ten times harder, and have an ounce of common sense, and work really long hours, then perhaps you can build yourself a plane, and then you can fly. Otherwise, get used to walking.

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People knock homeschoolers for not exposing their children to “socialization,” but maybe it’s a good thing. Being socialized into a society of idiots is not exactly great preparation for life success.

We have allowed our children to spawn their own personalized societies, worshipping as we do at the altar of individuality and personal space (the very name of the most popular social networking site reflects it: MySpace). To be sure, teenage years are a tribal time, when the overriding desire is to belong. They are called to their species like bees to honey. But this is precisely why we have to channel this impulse; given his druthers, the average teenager would like nothing more than to spend every scrap of time with other teenagers. But that’s not a model for learning, or for maturation; it’s Lord of the Flies.

The social impulse is a good thing, but as families disintegrate, and churches become less community than fleeting social club, we seem to offer our children little in this regard. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that they cling to each other like shivering animals. —Tony WoodliefOn the Spread of Stupid (Sand in the Gears)

Too harsh for my tastes, but blogworthy for several reasons. I’m about to start a brief professional development unit in one of my classes, and that will involve a challenging reality check for some students.

Yes, we’re supposed to be nurturing at Seton Hill, but the Disney mantra of “When You Wish Upon a Star” and “Some Day my Prince Will Come” and “I’ve Got No Strings to Hold Me Down” and “You Can Fly” and “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes” (and on and on the list goes) does seem to omit the “I’m Working My Butt Off So I Can Call My Successes My Own” part of the equation.

My wife dropped the kids off at work today (well, yesterday — it’s past midnight now), so that they could come to my Intro to Lit Study class and recite some of the “short poems” that I assigned. I’ve already had Peter (who just turned 9) recite all the rules for active and passive verbs, and grilled him in front of the class: “Peter, give me an active voice, past tense sentence. Now give me a passive voice, future tense sentence.” I stood little Carolyn up on the table and held onto her while she recited poems about mud and turtles. She than said she wanted to sing Twinkle Twinkle and London Bridge.

Because they are missing out on the socialization that happens in the “school building,” my children will have less experience spending seven hours a day with a group of 30 kids who are precisely their age, learning exactly the same material as they are, doing exactly the same tasks that someone else tells them to do. We sign the kids up for every library craft event, zoo class, nature reserve outing, and county rec program that we can fit into the schedule. Peter went SCUBA diving for the second time last week, and the week before that Carolyn floated on her back in the pool all by herself for the first time. We’re scheduled to do a sleepover at the Carnegie Science Center (where we are members). Peter has far more experience being around other adults than other children. While they aren’t always perfect angels to each other, Peter and Carolyn are each other’s best friends.

Neither will sit still for more than a minute. Recently I was in a waiting room with two children who were about five and six, and I watched in stunned silence as these children sat next to their parents and colored quietly instead of marching around being a Greek spearman defending his city against Godzilla, or telling knock-knock jokes endlessly, or (for Peter) asking to be quizzed on the technical specifications of Star Wars craft or en passant move in chess or the atomic weights of the elements, or (for Carolyn) exploring what’s under the table or behind the lamp or on that shelf while making up her own words to a Wiggles tune.

I have started shifting from praising my children less for being clever (which they are), to praising them more for being hard-working (which they are not always). Of course, hard-working for a four-year-old translates to putting away the toys she took out and not dumping her bathwater out when I go answer the telephone. Hard-working for a nine-year-old means following the instructions in his textbooks and continuing to do his homework when we’re not sitting down right next to him in order to keep him on task. But I think many college students equate “being smart” with “not having to struggle,” on the assumption that only stupid people have to work hard.

But, as I said, Woodlief has a harsher view on the subject. Today, my intro to lit students noticed that I put a line about careful revision at the climactic turning point of my sonnet about hating the strictures of sonnets, which I told them was a tribute to the new synapses that sonnet-writing will grow in their brains. Will they internalize that lesson? Most of them will, but at this early stage it’s too early to tell just how many. Still, the message is out there, and they have a career research exercise that is designed to get them thinking about what they’ll need to do while at SHU in order to be competitive for their dream job (or, more immediately, for a summer job or internship).

I’ve been thrilled by the level of energy my Lit Crit students have thrown into their work, and the past week I’ve been helping smooth out some backstage problems on The Setonian, so I’ve gotten a more extended look at how the current batch of students are managing themselves.