Recently, I was involved in a discussion about the things we do and do not teach our children. I’ve already said quite a bit on this subject. But after talking with a few other people about education, and especially secondary education, I realized I approached the subject from the assumption that the purpose of school is to train the mind in skills like reading and manipulating numbers. Which is not at all what I believe. I don’t think head skills should take precedence over hand skills even in this world where head skills are critical to wage-earning. Every child today needs to be learning how to do, how to make, how to take care of themselves and others. In a world that is falling apart, hand skills are essential.
Still, being a writer and a bookseller and a scientist I have many reasons to want to see head skills perpetuated. And even if I did not have these particular values, I would advocate for book learning and mind training. Most head skills are, in essence, how we communicate, how we remember, and how we make judgements. We teach our children to read so that they can take in more information than they can gather from direct experience. We teach them to read so they can know what came before and what they might expect to come in the future. We teach them to read so that the past can talk to them and they can talk to their own descendants. We should also be teaching them to evaluate all this information critically and draw conclusions from it, but that has fallen victim to teaching to The Test. We don’t teach thought; we teach head skills.
And I just don’t think head skills — being able to read and write and do maths — are as important as being able to think originally, critically and curiously. In the world our children face, those who can take in printed information, but can not analyze what is written for precision and accuracy with the real world, will be a liability on society. A person who can’t ask questions and who can’t think originally will not contribute beneficially to a world in which written data are conflicting — with other data and with the real world.
I owned a kids’ bookstore and worked in books and libraries for decades before that. I’ve been involved in teaching geology and general science at both ends of the age of education, elementary school kids and young adults in college. And yet all my students possessed one commonality — an inability to think in questions. Even more disturbingly, most lacked an ability to read critically. I have many reasons to be a champion of literacy — not least all this scribbling that I hope somebody will read — but those teaching experiences made me question our literacy teaching methods. A young person is taught merely to read, not to analyze that communication form nor the information it conveys. We teach our children to venerate the written word, all written words. What is written is a truth that supersedes their lived experience. We do not even give them the intellectual tools to evaluate conflicting written words. This is worse than being illiterate. We are silencing their curious and questioning minds and making them incapable of determining truth and subterfuge. Or even inaccuracy. And our current political climate — among other communication breakdowns — is the direct result of this education process.
I watched this play out. The elementary school kids, who were only just beginning to take in written information, who had not yet developed that unquestioning awe for the written word, asked more questions. They asked interesting and original questions. Questions that made me pause and sometimes search for answers, sometimes even reevaluate my own ideas. I never once experienced that in Geology 101, not even in the lab classrooms which were not textbook-oriented, did not even have that enshrined written word to passively absorb as truth. The lab should have been the place where questions were raised and thinking was free from restraint. And yet that did not happen. They sat there quietly awaiting my pronouncements and the printed lab instructions. Maybe none of them were interested enough in the course to engage with it — most were in my classes because it was perceived as an easy course to fulfill the science requirement (though, ironically, our department regularly got in trouble for failing too many of the under-performers) — but I think it was a deeper problem. The difference, as I see it, is that elementary school kids can still think critically and make observations and ask questions. The college freshman have lost that ability. I believe they lost it primarily through education — though screen living has undoubtedly also played a part in reducing our capacity to think critically. But screens don’t teach an unquestioning reverence for printed words, our schools do that. Education is “literally” killing their wonderfully curious, creatively analytical minds.
I saw the change in my bookstore as well. The youngest children pulled books from all sections in their age-appropriate portion of the store with little favoritism for subject matter — as long as the art and words were engaging. Meaning that they were seeking that critical experience, those questions, those opportunities to think and learn new things — and exposure to new information really ought to be an experience that is rife with questions. The little ones did not lack for questions. They annoyed us all with prodigious Why’s in our bookclub discussions. The older ones, those on the cusp of adolescence, were still the most likely customers to ask for book recommendations without any qualifiers. They wanted new things to read, things to engage their still questioning minds.
The teens almost exclusively read from the young adult fiction room. And even there, they had divided themselves into windowless silos. Some only read from the paranormal fantasy shelves; some only read “reality-based” fiction; some were so specific they could only be persuaded to read from a small handful of (usually bestselling) authors. And these were the reading teens, the bookworms, the ones who always carried around some dog-eared paperback, who made time for book club meetings in their over-scheduled lives. But they were uninterested in challenges. This may be the teen age, but I think it is also our method of educating which silences all questions. By design.
Our education system is incapable of producing critical and original thinkers and may be primarily responsible for muting the natural curiosity and analytical capabilities of our species. We got here as a species, surviving and even mastering all sorts of changes and disruptions, because we could think originally and critically. Now we face even greater planetary challenges (mostly self-created, perhaps the ugliest Ouroboros of all time), and yet we are dulling our minds. We are precisely excising the very abilities that enable us to meet challenges when we have the greatest need of them. For an illustration of the depth of this problem, my computer’s thesaurus does not seem to recognize a positive definition of critical, choosing to define the word in terms of nit-picking and perilous situations; and analysis is apparently always subsumed into some existing order or framework devoid of original thought.
So we’re not teaching very helpful head skills, and thus we’re not likely to have very helpful minds lying about as we head deeper into these “critical” times. But, to circle back to the beginning, we’re also not teaching hand skills. At a time when we absolutely need them. I believe these are related problems in education and in our culture.
Hand skills are denigrated in EuroWestern society. Skilled people do not earn high wages and do not receive respect. Those who work with the hands are scorned. Much of the labor done with the hands is so deplored in our society that it is invisible, it is not seen, it is certainly not seen as skilled. Modern society has been surprised to discover that baking bread is difficult and creative work that takes years to master, for example. In any case, we teach our children to despise hand skills. We tell our children that hand skills lead to a life of quiet desperation. At best, hand skills are seen as ways to idle away time and spend a good deal of money in the pursuit. We are encouraged to spend time and money to decorate our lives with our crafts and makings. We are not encouraged to craft and make our lives. So we do not teach our children to do or craft or make.
The experience and information we gain from hand skills is very difficult to refute and manipulate (note that word!). We can’t be taught to ignore the reality encountered through our hands. We can’t learn prescribed methods of engaging with most hand skills through mediation. We have to watch others do and then we have to do ourselves. Over and over again, learning these hand skills through the fashioning of practice, experience, and reality into stored knowledge and muscle memory. We can’t do or make without a questioning and flexible mind behind those hands. Hand skills require a mind that is thoroughly grounded in the realities it encounters. A mind that is able to analyze and create anew.
We need to think creatively in order to create with our hands. This should be obvious. But instead hand skills are seen as separate from and inferior to head skills. Hand skills are dirty and blue-collared; head skills are white. And right there we see the connection and the root of the problem.
Our education system is doing exactly what it is designed to do. It is teaching humans to be good little passive consumers in stratified EuroWestern society. We excise our abilities to think with hands and minds in order to stop those questions, in order to be dependent in ways that make a mockery of originality, in order to become obedient to the words of those deemed sufficiently white-collared to hand down directives. We learn to read, but not to read critically, so that we may passively receive mediated information, information that comes from outside our lived experience, so that we can be told how to behave from a distance. We are taught to read sign-posts and respond accordingly, without any questions. We learn to despise all interaction between the world and our hands because those interactions can’t be controlled from above — and are often in direct conflict with the prime directive, to work for wages to buy stuff. With a critical and original mind engaged with the hands, we don’t have to purchase our needs. We often don’t want to. We prefer what we make and do for ourselves — and skip the wage-earning step entirely. Thus, a critical and creative populace has very little need of prime directives and those that hand them down. A critical and creative populace quickly sees that prime directives are of no benefit to themselves. A critical and creative populace knows that prime directives don’t work. Especially in times of change. But, really, never. Because they are not real. Prime directives are all mediated.
And so we are taught to read those directives and not question them, and we are taught to despise everything that is in conflict with those directives, including our own wonderfully skilled hands and creative minds.
This is extremely problematic in our world. And it will only get worse in the world our children face. They will need far more than head skills to survive. In fact, they may not need head skills at all. It may be of no benefit to know how to read in the future they face. There may be nothing to read, for one thing. Today, books are being culled from libraries to make budgetary and physical space for “technology”, and yet that technology will definitely fail in the lifetime of a child born today. But little that is in legible form now — printed and therefore resistant to change — will be applicable to their radically different world of constant flux.
We are teaching our children to be unskilled and unoriginal so that they will fit into a world that is killing us and everything else. We are making square pegs for pounding when what we need are well-rounded people. We are mutilating the wonder and curiosity inherent in us in order to mute the horror of participating in a culture that harms everything it touches. We are teaching our children exactly the opposite of what they need to learn.
Because what they need, what we all need, is in direct conflict with the prime directive.
©Elizabeth Anker 2021