I am back, and I would like to continue this series by addressing one more aspect (or interpretation) of the argument which I have called “some children need structure”. This version reads something like this: “some children, if not provided with extrinsic academic structure, will make bad use of their time and never succeed.” In conventional schooling, it is implied that this applies not only to some children, but to most. In the context of discussing democratic education, this argument, in only referring to “some”, implies something like, “many children can handle the freedom given in a democratic school with grace and make good use of their time, but some of them fail to make good that freedom and will never amount to anything without adults helping them along the right path”. Sadly, I have mostly heard this kind of argument coming from parents, talking about their own children. Unlike the version of this argument which I discussed in Part 2 of this series, this version suggests not that these “some children” will be unhappy in the short-term future (because of inability to cope with creating their own structures), but that the unhappiness will come later on in life, even if the child is perfectly happy right now.
This is where the distastefulness of this argument lies: who is to say that an individual should not be allowed to pursue a course of action that gives them present enjoyment and fulfillment? Is it justified by the promise of future success (or, one would hope, happiness)? After all, there’s nothing wrong with suffering for the promise of something that you want. But then, this is not about a child electing to have less fun in the present to secure the future they want – it is about adults saying the child should be enjoying life less than they do, to enjoy a future the adult judges best. And even when the choice is made by one for oneself, I fear that the long-term consequence of this attitude (so pervasive in Western culture), is that we forget how to enjoy life; if all we can do is busy ourselves with improving the future, when does the point come where we truly enjoy the present 1? And is any point in our lifespan too soon for this? Should we not be enjoying the present as much as possible?
However, in this case it is not an individual’s personal choice we are discussing. It is an adult individual’s choice for a younger individual mostly powerless to resist coercion. In the short-term, this amounts to adults making children miserable. Although the theories of how these structures will help them are fine, the reality is that increased structure does not promise happiness, nor even material success. Many students do their best in traditional schools and still end up unhappy and/or unsuccessful (by their own standards or those of others.) And many students in traditional schools do their best to avoid the academic structures’ influence, get horrible grades (or flunk, or drop out) and end up having a fabulous adult life they are perfectly happy with 2. And even if we were to assume that the right structure increases the likelihood of success, the end result is still making a kid have less fun because of the mere likelihood of enjoying their life more later on. If it were discovered that surgically removing all of your teeth statistically contributes to a longer life, would these same people elect to lose their teeth and switch directly to dentures? After all, the statistical probability does nothing to promise a particular individual will enjoy the benefits – it merely means such an individual has a better chance at them. The price is paid whether or not the results manifest.
But I doubt it is so effective to provide a child with academic structure or any sort of guided path to making the most of their time. Putting aside the argument I have already made in Part 2, that children need to learn to deal with free choice, I would like to take a look at the actual use children make of their time and free choice. When parents say “my child needs structure” about a perfectly happy child in a Sudbury school, likely as not, that child spends most of their time either talking or playing. If it is a younger kid, they are probably playing with friends most of the time 3. If it is an older kid, they are probably talking with friends, or playing video games, which some (very rarely) do alone 4. In the next part (or possibly parts) of this series, I will take a brief look at each of these activities and their value for young children.
1Alan Watts wrote wonderfully on this topic, among many others.
2Many end up rich and/or famous, so I challenge the reader to think of five famous examples from the past 100 years.
3But there are exceptions: my little brother, when he was 7-8 years old, spent most of his time simply walking around with a friend and talking.
4This is not to say that the majority of older students play video games – only that this is very often the cause for parents to start saying their child needs more structure.