My sister called me up the other night to ask a question about publishing. Apparently I’m the expert in the family now, though she wasn’t asking on her behalf but rather our father’s. Our father has been trying to get his latest book project published (there have been many such book projects, each one described as “the last chance I have before I die”). This book is … well, my sister and I aren’t entirely sure what it is because we have yet to receive a clear and satisfactory description of it. We think it’s supposed to be a college textbook of sorts, but as soon as we ask him if that’s the case, he’ll exclaim, “No! It’s an anti-textbook!” This is the point, I think, where we are supposed to widen our eyes and drop our jaws as though John Keating has opened up the wonderful world of poetry to us instead of turning it into yet another soul-deadening subject students hate. Unfortunately, from there he goes on to describe a book that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense except that, like most academic books, it reflects the writer’s belief that his ideas are the right ones and the world would be a far better place if everyone followed them. I realize everyone in this world pretty much feels this way, but few of them go so far as to document this sensibility in chapter form with ridiculously leading discussion questions.
I admit I once tried to write a textbook myself but abandoned the project because unlike my father, I have at least an inkling of what a college classroom is like and what publishing has become. I cannot explain texting to my father; I will simply let him believe to the end of his days that “text” means a document printed on paper, which will make things easier for me but will keep him woefully ignorant about exactly who he thinks should benefit from his book.
To be fair, my father is 86 years old, and for him the idea of shunning things like rote memorization in the classroom is still bold and radical. I know we like to criticize classrooms today for hampering creativity and teaching to the test, but compared to my father’s schooling, education today is nearly free-form. When was the last time you found anyone under the age of 45 who diagrammed sentences as a kid? Yeah, Catholic school, I know, but still that practice has pretty much been dead for a very long time, as has the practice of memorizing historical names and dates and places—pretty much history in general. So when my father talks about daring to allow students to think for themselves, he’s ironically falling into the same pattern as just about every teacher I know, myself included. We all think we alone have discovered the answer.
It’s not just teachers, though; everyone on earth has an opinion on what’s wrong with our schools. Slightly fewer people, but only slightly, have ideas about how to fix what’s wrong with our schools. What’s interesting to me isn’t just what people think is wrong and what their solutions are but where these ideas come from. I read an interesting article from Slate suggesting that my “generation”—so-called Generation X, people currently anywhere from their early 40s to mid-50s—are guilty of overparenting precisely as a reaction against their own experiences as children being “under-parented.” The helicopter parents of today, the article hypothesized, hover over their brood precisely because their own folks were devout practitioners of benign neglect. They put food on the table but had no understanding of or time for emotional development, creativity, or personal growth. As a result, so the article claimed, this generation overcompensates by not only refusing to cut the cord but teaching their children how to weave that cord into a blanket, the better to smother you with. This, the article went on to say, is leading to serious problems for students in college, who are supposed to be adults yet have no real experiences on their own and are so afraid of failing to live up to expectations that they’re terrified of doing anything.
I nodded like a bobble-head doll throughout my reading of the article, several times pounding a fist on my desk and shouting a heart-felt “amen!” Damn those helicopter parents and their incessant coddling! In all seriousness, I do think this article had a lot of valid points. I’ve often felt particularly frustrated in the way people have tried to encourage girls to succeed both academically and extracurricularly. Obviously this sort of “girl power” movement is a reaction against all those decades—centuries, epochs, you name it—in which women were not only not encouraged but not allowed to do the things men did. And yet I worry about this push for success, for both boys and girls. The one thing in the world that helps you to grow as a human being is failure. But if our focus is on straight-As, first place, top prize, highest honors, and nothing less will do, well, I start to wonder if we’re learning anything at all.
And this goes beyond simply success or failure. The most interesting experiences in life don’t necessarily have a specific end goal. Travel, for example. I’m not even talking about the cliché about how it’s not the destination but rather the journey, because that’s kind of bullshit; the journey these days likely involves some very uncomfortable modes of transportation that nobody learns anything from except that deodorant is not as commonly used as one would hope. I think it's slightly more accurate to say that travel is an experience, not just a goal, and most people who travel have a lot more fun telling stories about the awkward, the embarrassing, the frustrating, the perplexing, even the boring. The six hours I spent in layover at the Taipei Airport—otherwise known as Sensory Deprivation Land—were like nothing else I’ve ever encountered.
I was all set to write a blogpost that might have ended right about here with just one final lament that today’s parents just don’t get it, they just don’t understand the necessity of letting kids figure things out for themselves, of not pushing them too hard to achieve even while pulling them away from any potential harm. I started to do just that, and then it hit me. Holy crap. I was describing my own childhood, my own parents, as being the ideal—something I have never for one second believed in my life. I’ve spent way too much time absurdly stewing over how much I missed out on as a child because my parents never paid all that much attention to what I was doing beyond making sure I did my homework and didn’t get into trouble. I resented their lack of encouragement, and here I am now suggesting that parents today encourage the life out of their kids. Irony can be so tiresome.
I wonder when that shift occurs, when in our lives we go from wanting to do everything the opposite of the way we were brought up to firmly maintaining, albeit not entirely consciously, that the way we were raised is the one true way. My father was largely self-taught, a dabbler-of-all-trades, and as a result he has produced a textbook (sorry, anti-textbook) that attempts to cover just about every subject in the world at the same time, more or less. Me, I think the most important things I learned in life, I learned later in life, after a lot of terrible trial and egregious error; as a result I will tell any undergraduate who will listen that it does not matter what you major in AT ALL. No, it TOTALLY doesn’t. What matters is trying stuff, doing stuff, not worrying about whether the stuff is going to make you admired or empowered or even successful but simply because you can. Go figure: I guess my life is valid after all.
Our views of what would make the world a better place are always going to reflect what would make it better for us personally. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. While we may be validating our own lives by suggesting other people live like we do, it also means that we are able to come to terms with what has deviled us in the past. Maybe those aimless, baffling years weren’t such a waste in the end. Maybe I can even get a book out of them.