Universal Experiences
29 February 2024 | 3:58 pm

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There are certain universal experiences. The alpha and omega of birth and death to name the most obvious. Loss and grief is another. And, naturally, there are those feelings that start in the body like hunger, pain, and fear. Not only are these experiences universal today, but they have been universal throughout human history.

We might feel like we're alone, and at the end of the day we are, but if we open our ears, eyes, and hearts, there is an entire population of fellow beings who are telling and showing us that we are genuinely all in this together. Whether or not we're able to take comfort in that universality is up to us.

There are some universal human experiences, or near universal experiences, that the modern world has made less universal. Case in point, for most of our species' 300,000 years, pretty much everyone experienced life-sustaining hunting and gathering. We can joke about how we still hunt and gather it in the supermarket or online, but it's obviously not the same thing as going out into nature and understanding it enough to find sustenance there. Another previously universal experience that has today, like hunting and gathering, been relegated to a certain class of humans is caring for the children. Whereas our ancestors raised children collectively, today, it is largely the job of mothers, professional caregivers, and other early childhood professionals.

At the same time, our modern world offers us modern universal experiences, or near universal experiences, about which our ancestors knew nothing. Individual economic insecurity, for instance, is something that most of us, at one time or another, and to one degree or another, experience. Our ancestors raised children in the context of community, with grandparents, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, cousins all playing their part. 

Not long ago I was out with a group of friends. It hadn't occurred to me that aside from my wife and me, none of them had children of their own. I made a comment about the rights of children to be included in day-to-day life, something that would make most readers of this blog nod along, only to have these smart, accomplished adults, tell me, in so many words, I was wrong. One of them even said, jokingly, but with an earnestness, "I would prefer that there were never children anywhere that I am."

In the grand scheme of things, this is an attitude outside the human experience, but one that is increasingly common in our modern world. Indeed, for most new parents, the last time they spent any meaningful time with young children in any context was when they, themselves, were young children, which is to say they have no experience at all with caring for them. No wonder so many new parents are anxious.

Another near universal modern experience is schooling. As cognitive psychologist and philosopher Alison Gopnik writes in her book The Gardener and the Carpenter, "Nowaday, when middle-class people become parents they typically have had lots of experience with schooling but little experience with caregiving. So when parents or policy makers hear from scientists about how much child learn, they often conclude that we should teach them more, the way we teach them in school. But children actually learn more from the unconscious details of what caregivers do than from any of the conscious manipulations of parenting."

This is something that was widely accepted, if not understood, when it was common for humans to spend their lives in societies that included children at the center of life. Schooling was, as Gopnik points out, "a very specific reaction to the rise of industrialization in nineteenth-century Europe." As an invention that has only been around for a couple hundred years, schools continue to be modeled on the assembly-line notions of standardization and efficiency, which is obviously a reasonable way to mass produce, say, washing machines, but not so great if our goal is to "produce" the kind of motivated, curious, critical thinkers that the world needs.

I've now spent more than a quarter century amongst preschoolers, learning at least as much from them as they've learned from me. Since almost of all of that experience has been among children who know they have permission to play, to ask and answer their own questions, to pursue their own passions and interests, I have had the privilege of spending my time with the only humans who have no experience with schooling. I've observed first hand how children educate themselves within the context of community. And since my schools have always been cooperatives in which their parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles attend alongside the children, I believe that I've had more than a glimpse of what education and child-rearing looked like throughout most of the Homo sapiens experience.

The people like Alison Gopnik who study childhood learning tell us, flat out, that our schools are doing it wrong, that more "teaching" is not the answer. More play is. This is what is best, not just for children, but for all of us. The very fact that otherwise intelligent people would wish children away tells me that they are unknowingly suffering from a lack of children in their lives. I can tell you from personal experience that having children in my life makes me more creative, more optimistic, more open-minded, and more philosophical. When we remove children from the center of society, we lose the perspective of these new hearts and minds as they, for the first time, encounter our world. We lose the capacity for seeing the world anew. We lose one of the most fundamental connections between humans, not just today, but through history. As Gopnik points out, we relegate caring for children, the principle project of every civilization that has ever existed, to what are essentially pink-collar ghettos. 

Of all the rifts in our world, this, I think is both the most profound and the most unappreciated.

During the past quarter century, I've tried, in my way, to shine a light on what to me seems so self-evident. That it's not just good for children, but for all of us, to re-normalize authentic childhood, which would mean re-normalizing authentic communities. Authentic communities are ones that embrace the presence and contribution of children everywhere there are humans. It's quite clear to me that in a fractured world, this is the one thing that would truly transform our world for the better.

Can it start in our preschool classrooms? We can try.

******

Hi, I'm Teacher Tom and this is my podcast! If you're an early childhood educator, parent of preschoolers, or otherwise have young children in your life, I think you'll find my conversations with early childhood experts and thought-leaders useful, inspiring, and eye-opening. You might even come away transformed by the ideas and perspectives we share. Please give us a listen. You can find Teacher Tom's Podcast on the Mirasee FM Podcast Network or anywhere you download your podcasts.


I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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"The Perfect Uselessness of Knowing the Answer to the Wrong Question"
28 February 2024 | 3:46 pm

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"There is really only one question that can be answered," writes Ursula LeGuin in her classic novel The Left Hand of Darkness, "and we already know the answer . . . The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty: not knowing what comes next."

Of course, wanting to know what comes next is natural. Humans are inclined to seek out security and predictability, or the illusion of predictability, is one of the ways we seek to assure ourselves that tomorrow will at least be no worse than today. Astrological readings, weather forecasting, and business planning are all efforts to see into the future, hopefully to one that is in some way an improvement on today, but at a minimum one for which we are prepared. The most hopeful or ambitious among us hope to shape that future, to make it fit our dreams in some way.

It can be both stressful and exciting to know that choices we make today will shape the future. All of us some of the time, and some of us much of the time, find ourselves time-traveling into dystopian futures of our own making, but we likewise know that no matter how much we prepare and plan and forecast, it might still go wrong. We try to focus on our hopes, but our fears will have their say.

"Complete certainty, safety, and a life of no fear is impossible," writes Brandon Webb in his book Mastering Fear, "There'll never be a pain in your life where you'll think, 'now's the right time, I'm totally prepared and at ease . . . If you wait for fear to go away first, you'll never do it. Because the fear is never going away."

Studies show that successful people experience as much fear and anxiety as the rest of us, but that they have learned to make decisions about what to believe and do, even when the evidence is less than fully persuasive either way. Or as the philosopher William James has it, "It is only by risking our persons from one hour to another that we live at all."

Perhaps the most obvious warning sign that we are doing it wrong, is that for the past several decades, we've seen an alarming spike in the incidence of anxiety in our youth, including preschoolers. Children as young as three are being diagnosed using the same diagnostic tests that we've been using since at least the middle of the last century. There are many theories about this, but the most persuasive to me is that our schools, even preschools, are becoming increasingly academic and competitive, which is to say future focused in a way that is developmentally harmful to young minds. Instead of living in the now, which is the natural habitat of the young, we try, in our incredible hubris, to peer decades into the future in order to reverse engineer their lives, imposing the onus of college and career readiness on humans who should, by all that is good, be contemplating motes, pretending to be fairies, practicing getting along with others, and asking and answering their own questions, not about the future, but about the world in front of them right now. No wonder they're anxious.

The people in LeGuin's story certain individuals have developed an ability they call Foretelling, which allows certain individuals to know, with certainty, the future. Henry, the stories protagonist, seeks out a Foreteller in order to know what his future holds. The process involves asking a question, the more specific the more accurate the answer will be. Henry, however, is not satisfied with what he learns. "You don't see yet, Henry, why we perfected the practice of Foretelling?" asks the Foreteller, "To exhibit the perfect uselessness of knowing the answer to the wrong question."

School has come to be about right and wrong answers -- that's what we test, that's what we grade -- but life is about learning to ask the right questions because the future is always uncertain, it can always go wrong, and it will always be different than the future for which we've forecast or planned. And at the end of the day we are always faced with an uncertain future, which is why the most important thing we can learn is how to ask and answer our own questions, not to be more right than the next guy, but rather to develop the habit of wondering, because whatever else the future holds, our ability to wonder is our bulwark against the permanent, intolerable uncertainty. We will never know what comes next, but it's our curiosity that will make life in the future possible.

******

Hi, I'm Teacher Tom and this is my podcast! If you're an early childhood educator, parent of preschoolers, or otherwise have young children in your life, I think you'll find my conversations with early childhood experts and thought-leaders useful, inspiring, and eye-opening. You might even come away transformed by the ideas and perspectives we share. Please give us a listen. You can find Teacher Tom's Podcast on the Mirasee FM Podcast Network or anywhere you download your podcasts.


I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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The ABCs of Book Banning
27 February 2024 | 3:36 pm

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I recently watched the Academy Award nominated short documentary The ABCs of Book Banning, in which director Sheila Nevins, turns the camera on children between the ages of 8 and 16 who attend schools impacted by the wave of school book banning that has taken place in parts of the US.

In this public discourse, we've heard from parents, we've heard from policy makers, we've heard from the media, but this film is one of few efforts that strives to listen to children who have been directly effected by having certain books removed from their libraries and classrooms. And they have questions.

I've embedded the entire film below because the children's voices are far more persuasive than anything I could write. Of course, I'm not surprised at their clear-sightedness both about book banning as well as the subject matters being banned. As a preschool teacher I've read and discussed several of these banned books to and with young children and have been deeply moved by the compassion, insight, and thoughtfulness of the resulting age-appropriate conversations about race, gender, history, diversity, and identity.

Those who support these book bans argue that to broach these subjects in school is to violate their parental rights. They worry that their innocent children will be made to feel guilty for historic wrongs. They worry that their innocent children will be confused and upset to learn that other people have experiences and perspectives that differ from those of their own families. At the extreme, they worry that these books, if allowed to sit alongside the shelves and shelves of "approved" books, will somehow "brainwash" their innocent child. 

"Later," most of them say, but not now, not when they are so innocent. Innocent is another word for ignorant.

I don't recall a time when I wasn't aware of the Nazis. Some of my earliest drawings were elaborate war scenes in which the good guys were shooting Nazis. By the time I was in middle school I'd read The Diary of Anne Frank and knew enough about the Holocaust to fantasize about traveling back in time to, if not assassinate Hitler, at least, as the author of the book Monsters Clair Dederer puts it, "spritz (my) enlightened-ness all over the place." After all, the German people simply must not have known. They must not have known what was happening because if they did, of course, they would never have allowed such evil to occur.

"We imagine," writes Dederer, "we would've been that person, the one who would've written the letter, who would've spoken out, would've hidden the Jews, would've provided the stop on the Underground Railroad . . . We say this to ourselves as the world literally burns, as militarized police forces murder citizens, as children are held in camps at our own borders . . . The idea of time -- laden with the badness that came "before" -- and our apex at the top of it is a way of distancing ourselves from the negative aspects of humanity. The idea of the Past functions in the same way the word "monster" does -- it serves to separate us from all that is worst about humanity. We are the adults of the world. we have outgrown our worst behaviors. We are not monsters. That is not us. We cast history, and monsters, out from our enlightened circle."

Ultimately, this is what all of us do, not just book banners, especially when it comes to young children. Let them be innocent (ignorant) for awhile longer.

I get it. I shielded my own five-year-old daughter from 9/11, an effort that got me tearfully scolded by her when she learned about it as an eight-year-old: "You mean it happened when I was alive? You have to tell me these things!" I skipped the pages in my books that discussed the assassination of MLK because I wanted the kids to be inspired the man's work, not frightened that his work got him killed. I'm meticulous in listening to children's questions about "touchy" subjects so that I can be certain that I'm only answering, honestly, the questions they ask and not confuse or scare them with too much information.

The problem with arguments that rely on childhood innocence is that the children themselves do not want to be ignorant as the children in this documentary make clear. We are compelled by biology to grow and learn alongside loving adults. The books I read to preschoolers may not reveal the whole, unvarnished truth, but they do tend to answer the questions that we should all be asking:

Why are some people different from me?

Why is there pain?

Why are things so unfair?

These are questions we are born to ask, born to discuss, and born to seek to answer. When we "protect" children from considering these questions, from looking at the world from new perspectives, we seek to separate them from life itself, to tell them the myth (and they know it's a myth from the moment they emerge into a world that is too bright and too loud) that they live in a largely perfected world.

It's no wonder that so many children feel betrayed by adults as they grow up to learn the truths from which we, in our own ignorance, have attempted to protect them.

I've not read all the book mentioned in this documentary, but I've read enough of them to know that their focus is not on the worst of humanity, but rather on the triumphs of those who display the best of humanity in the face of horrors: courage, honesty, kindness, justice, and wisdom. These are stories of human goodness are every bit as true as the ones about evil. These are stories our children will need to know if they are going to be the ones who stand up to evil, not in a time-travel fantasy of spritzing their enlightened-ness all over the place, but rather to be the heroes of today, who write the letters, speak out, hide the Jews, and provide stops on the Underground Railroad. After all, now is the only time that virtue has any value.

I watched this documentary with teary eyes, moved by these children who are already so much wiser than many of their elders. I imagine you will feel the same way.


 


******

Hi, I'm Teacher Tom and this is my podcast! If you're an early childhood educator, parent of preschoolers, or otherwise have young children in your life, I think you'll find my conversations with early childhood experts and thought-leaders useful, inspiring, and eye-opening. You might even come away transformed by the ideas and perspectives we share. Please give us a listen. You can find Teacher Tom's Podcast on the Mirasee FM Podcast Network or anywhere you download your podcasts.


I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
Bookmark and Share


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