Sunday, March 15, 2009


In Which I Do Hope The Readers Will Bear With Me

I went to Ghana, stayed 5 1/2 months, and learned how people are the same, and what brings us together.  Here I am in Taiwan, just passing the 7 month mark in a probably 24 month stay, and I'm learning about all the ways we do our damnedest to keep ourselves estranged.

When I was growing up, I was told I could do anything I wanted to, be anyone I liked.  This is a very American concept.  It is also a very American lie.  While it is true that, technically speaking, I can do anything I want, no one mentions the consequences.  No one says to a four-year-old, of course, honey, anything you want, unless it's being a garbage collector, because then people won't respect you.  We have constructed for ourselves a giant isolated bubble in which negative consequences are universally to be avoided.  Anything with any negative side effects at all - any decision that rates a black look from the neighbors, any accidental step that makes us "look bad," in short, any mistake - is ruthlessly weeded out of the society we have so carefully constructed around ourselves.  It's very easily done, too.  We do it by the extremely simple expedient of offering our children carefully tailored choices.  By the time most of us get old enough to realize that we can make our own choices, we're so accustomed to having them all but made for us that we don't know what to do.  We just go on with the plan, get a job that pays the bills and is otherwise totally mundane and uninteresting, get married, have the requisite 2.3 children and wonder vaguely why we feel so damn unprepared for all of it.  Most of us have some kind of crisis after college (Oh God, not Real Life!), and another at 45 (What have I done with my life?), and if we're lucky we manage to keep it down to two and slip into resigned acceptance of the way our lives have turned out.

Being nudged into this kind of society with a well meaning You can do whatever you want is somewhat akin to being taken by your very particular Uncle Steve to the biggest bookstore in the world and told to choose just one in the space of an hour.  You know that there is a right one, or at least a right several, and that you will be judged on your choice.  

What am I learning here?  Partly that it is too late for me, in many ways.  This world is no longer my world, and I have wasted my time in it browsing shelves in the areas of the bookstore that Uncle Steve doesn't care for.  I can no longer labor under the pretense that it is my story in which I'm living.  My story left me competent in nothing but learning.  "Well," said a friend, "What a useful skill," and I agree wholeheartedly, but it is not, unfortunately, a terribly marketable one.  Sadly, marketability sets the boundaries of this no-longer-mine world that I live in, so I am left, in effect, not a useful member of a society that doesn't value real education.  

I've spent quite a lot of time thinking about this, and it troubles me.  It is, as I've said, too late for me.  I will never be the kind of person that society - as it is - welcomes with open arms and a friendly word.  At best, this society will leave me alone with no more than a half-admiring, half-bewildered sidelong glance.  But it is not, perhaps, too late for the kids who are now who I was.  This world now belongs to people who are right now running on small, unsteady, bare feet under swing-sets, reaching for stuffed animals, being carried by grandparents.  People even now being told that they can do whatever they want to do.  I cannot make the world into one that accepts me, or them, but perhaps I can offer them a space and a chance at self-awareness and true choice.

This is all leading up to a later discussion of the problem of education and potential solutions, but this part had to come first.


Andrew said...

The problem with education is a lack of critical thinking and skepticism taught throughout the entire process.

Don't tell kids facts and what to think. Teach them to question and wonder why something is the way it is. Of course that is the harder of the two to do, so that's why no one does it.

Rowan said...

That's exactly the problem, but I don't think it's as hard to teach kids to question things as everyone thinks. Kids do that pretty naturally. The challenging part is giving them the confidence to continue to do that even when the adults around them are doing no such thing.