Is ‘Education’ Stifling Independent and Critical Thought?

In an article on children, philosopher Stephen Hicks makes an interesting case against homework for school-aged kids. “Everyone says that they want children to grow up able to live independent lives and pursue their chosen careers passionately. But that aspiration does not fit with a traditional practice of education that teaches children to follow instructions – above all – without asking ‘why’.

“What kind of education will prepare students for order-following and self-stultifying jobs? Simple: One which requires rigidly defined school projects assigned by “authorities”. When kids do the schoolwork primarily because they have been told to do so, homework then becomes nothing more than an additional imposition. Kids learn that life is about doing tasks, whether they like it or not, and following orders. No wonder independent and critical thinking is slowly disappearing from so many young people.

“In the ‘traditional’ system, most children will learn to accept and go along grudgingly, and to that extent give up their potential for a life fully lived. Only a few will fight to preserve their potential for self-actualization by rebelling — often obnoxiously because of their youth — against their teachers, parents, and other perceived representatives of the system.” []

Interesting. We seem to have created a generation of children whose aspirations and expectations are immensely high, but whose initiative and follow-through are incredibly low. More young people are living at home with their parents than at any time since the 1930s. Yes, some of this is economic, but it goes deeper than that.

I hear stories in my office every day from people about their kids. When I started training as a family therapist in the late ‘80s, I never heard of kids living at home with their parents; lacking direction and purpose – unless there was some kind of medical illness or, even more frequently, a drug or alcohol addiction.

Today, it’s different. I routinely hear stories of people whose kids are home well into their 20s and even their 30s. They’re not ill, and they don’t abuse drugs or alcohol. Many of them completed college. They’re not particularly irresponsible, but they do seem frightened and insecure while — oddly enough — entitled to a level of comfort that nobody can attain as easily as they seem to assume.

Even when grown kids are moved out and working, it’s typical for me to hear complaints from the older generation that we didn’t hear in the past. “My son [or daughter] has such grand expectations. He can’t understand why he’s not making a million dollars so quickly.” It seems that young expectations have of have never been higher, while initiative has never been weaker.

So here’s a theory: Schools for recent and current generations do it the old way, but with a new twist. The old way was to create passivity and ultimately resentment, with a command-and-control school system (see the Hicks quote above).  But more recently, added to that uninspiring approach has been an emphasis on badly defined “self-esteem”. The prevailing definition of self-esteem has been (and still is) to make someone “feel good” about themselves. But when you use a subjective standard to define self-esteem, you convey unrealistic – and unattainable – ideas like, “You can be anything you want to be,” or “You’re entitled to be happy.” But today’s “good little citizen” education doesn’t provide the tools to actually do that.

The good news is that many young people challenge this Pollyanna phoniness when they reach young adulthood. But sadly, others come to believe it. They expect huge levels of wealth and achievement, but they lack the follow-through required to make it happen. They want ends without means; results without effort. To some extent all people (of any generation) are subject to this problem, but in the present generation this appears to have reached epidemic proportions.

Hicks brilliantly sums it up when he says: “So we should listen carefully and read between the lines, so to speak, when our children start saying self-assertive things like; ‘You’re not the boss of me!’ To that we should reply, ‘Damned straight, kid. You are the boss of yourself, and our job as adults is to help you become better at it.’” Exactly.



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