One of the ways we cripple our children is to assume that there’s nothing going on inside their heads until we liberate them from their emptiness by creating magical experiences, demonstrating vital life skills, delivering cautionary homilies, and directing them to perform endless sequences of illuminating and character building tasks.

As Bertrand Russell put it, in his essay In Praise of Idleness: “Work is of two kinds: first, altering the position of matter at or near the earth’s surface relative to other such matter; second, telling other people to do so.”

In schools, only when teachers do the latter form of work, and students the former, are both considered productive.

Responsible educators are expected to be continuously imparting wisdom and assigning work that is scientifically proven to be cognitively productive. Good teachers fill time and space with a steady stream of “greatest hits of human culture,” generally heedless of young peoples’ ongoing inner lives and maturing sense of individual efficacy and purpose.

How do I know this? I know it because, even as an arguably autonomous adult, I struggle to maintain enough control over the allocation of my mental energies to keep my trains of thought on the rails. Unless, as an adult, you have achieved the holy grail (some entity or another demonstrates the concrete value of your thinking by remunerating you for it), thinking for any length of time is difficult to defend as a productive activity. And writing in order to think is just one notch above chin stroking (on the scale of credible productivity) when there’s bread to be put on the table. There’s always something quite important I should be accomplishing instead.

Productivity, after all, requires a product, which in the case of thinking, almost always has a remote association with empirical reality.

At any given time, I typically have a number of projects developing in the back of my mind, simultaneously advancing, intersecting, amplifying, muffling, or redirecting one another. (I might, for example, be drafting an essay,  preparing for a seminar, seeking common ground in a conflict, formulating research questions, strategizing a multi-modal communication blitz.)

We’re constantly defining and creating ourselves through our engagement with the world. But self-construction and self-organization happen every bit as much in our mental workshops as they do through our direct, material interactions with the environment.

The more we demand “accountability” from educators and students, the more we fail to leave the space for young people to learn to grok and direct their own self-constructive processes.

It’s hard to swallow the certainty that the development that happens in the back rooms of our children’s heads is ultimately inaccessible to us. But it’s hubris to believe that because we can’t assess it, it’s not happening.

The process of self construction requires the space to discover one’s needs and the agency to determine one’s aims and means. Our children are doomed to lives of acquiescence and lassitude if we don’t give them space for that.


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