One of the central arguments of Rod Baird’s book Counterfeit Kids is that, unlike prior generations, today’s teenagers are oddly incapable of making decisions for themselves, oddly reluctant to grow up. He sees a complex web of causes: the decline of certainty in the ages of Modernism and Post-Modernism, the reluctance of (my) Generation X to trust institutions, the greed is good ethos of the late 20th century, to name a few. While aiming to (over)protect children from the pain and uncertainty of late Industrial Age life, he argues, many parents end up infantilizing their children, making decisions for them, providing so many material things and such a comfortable cocoon that, unlike prior generations, they don’t want to grow up, leave the home, become adults. At the same time, young people are constantly bombarded with commercials and entertainment that (over)idealize youth, a fantasy world where adults, if present, are peripheral at best, foolish at worst.
What’s the result? An odd blend of over-worldliness with childishness, which you might just recognize if you’ve spent time with privileged young people. A world where getting into a good college is the Shining End that Justifies All Means, because a Really Good Job will magically follow. A world that the young people themselves, in their relentless progress along the assembly line of College Preparation, don’t actually believe in, either … a world where the joy of learning is systematically, if unintentionally, crushed in the quest for good grades and a perfectly well-rounded transcript.
A world, in other words, where joyful learning community is both sorely needed and accidentally resisted. A world very much like the one where many of my students spend their days – even those who are far less privileged than Mr. Baird’s students.
I’ve started re-reading Mr. Baird’s book, more slowly and deliberately this time. If you haven’t read it yet, I would highly recommend it. I’ve also been excited to discover the online community that’s forming around the book.
I kept thinking about over-worldly childishness on Wednesday, kept seeing examples, kept realizing how well it explains some puzzling things my students do. Like B, who finally got an Internet-capable device for Christmas … and celebrated by trying to pass it around the room, distracting everyone with a set of inappropriate pictures. Like N and U, whose “whispered” conversations are more like a scream, but who are always surprised when someone notices. Or T, U, and T, whom I hardly ever write about, but who just couldn’t stop their conversation about present-opening rituals.
Over-worldly childishness. It’s a strange image, an odd paradigm … and I’m not yet completely convinced. I’m trying it out, though, slowly and thoughtfully, as this new calendar year begins and the old, tired semester winds down. And I’m thinking of questions I’ve asked my students in the past few years – questions about their intentions and perceptions, questions they struggled to answer. I’m wondering how often the over-worldliness blinded me to the childishness.
Over on Google+, Pam put into words a principle that guided my plans for the week. “Remember,” she said,
everyone comes in slow motion – mostly – after break. Take time to listen, to share your experience … Today is about reconnecting relationships, not frenetic content.
So all three classes saw “the last new thing” (modus optātīvus verbs for the Latin I classes, a more formal presentation of conditional sentences for the III’s), and I made sure to point out that it was the last new thing. “I can imagine,” I said, “that some classes are going to be pretty frantic for the next few days.” I thought of Ms. X – and so did her students. We took time, enough time, to read together, to form small groups and read, to create questions about the stories we’d read, to catalog “frustrating” vocabulary for an upcoming project. And because we slowed down, I saw evidence of joyful community amidst the over-worldly childishness. B (another B), who was super-excited, asked to step out and calm down, then apologized. B (yet another B), who always does everything perfectly, apologized for some “slacking off” which I hadn’t noticed. Everyone smiled at the story of a long-ago former student (let’s call him S) who had contacted me to say he’d tried to use our traditional signum to quiet his three-year-old. People remembered – and reminded each other – not to move around loudly, not to scrape desks across the floor, not to leave a mess.
Small, quiet signs – like the slowly-lengthening days of late winter. Easy to miss in the rush, but important. Signs of an upcoming spring of joyful learning and deepening maturity?
Debbie made an important point, too:
… the thought that kept popping into my head was: “What does a joyful community look like, sound like and act like?” Without knowing what exactly we are trying to create then we are almost grasping at straws to make it happen.
And what does a joyful community look like for the students? How do you mesh the two visions together in order to MAKE the joyful community happen? Without their vision, their input, their intention then you have the makings of conflict, of failure, and of old-school strategies slipping back in, trying to force the joyful community to happen.
Even if, especially if, you are over-worldly and childish, your perspective is important. You, of all people, need a seat around that Fire of Truth we keep talking about … and you’re not likely to listen if there’s no space for you to talk. In our quest to cover the curriculum, to prepare for college, to make them grow up, factory-model schools silence young people, push them out of the circle, ironically disempower them in the name of Your Future. How can we build a joyful community wide and strong enough to embrace, to honor, to challenge both young and old?