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.

We adults are continuously imparting our multifarious forms of wisdom – filling time and space with a kind of “greatest hits of human culture” – completely heedless of our young people’s ongoing inner lives and internal processes.

How do I know this? I know it because, even as a presumably 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, is almost always remote.

I generally have a number of mental projects developing in the back of my mind, simultaneously advancing, intersecting, amplifying, muffling, or redirecting one another.(I’m not talking about highfalutin’ ideas, necessarily. I’m talking about anything from getting ready to paint a bedroom, to drafting an invitation, to writing a letter to the editor, to strategizing a multi-pronged solution to an ant infestation.)

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 observational and mental workshops as they do through our direct, physical interactions with the environment.

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

It’s hard to swallow that we are just not privy to the development that happens in the back rooms of our children’s heads. But it’s appallingly presumptuous to believe that just because we can’t assess it, it’s not happening.

Our children are doomed to lives of acquiescence and lassitude if we don’t give them space for that.

 

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