Friday, August 12, 2011

Neglect and Exposure

If you live in a reasonably well-off area of the United States, the chances are that you know of a few of the young whose parents have relentlessly focused them on academic achievement since about the age of four. They have spent afternoons at tutoring centers; every summer they've spent a week or two at an academic enrichment program; from 5th grade on, they've taken the SATs a couple of times a year. The more susceptible may catch the bug themselves with varying degrees of virulence: mild cases have an odd knowledge of where this or that school ranks according to US News and World Report;  acute cases bore classmates with their calculations of where to spend that binding early admission application.

In some ways this is good. A retired chemistry professor, said by his wife to have recruited more accountants from Chemistry 101 than the business school ever did with all its brochures, has told me more than once that far more students do poorly from lack of work habits than from lack of intelligence. The child who has spent all those afternoons at the tutoring center knows something about work habits. She may well grow up to be the person you want as your doctor or lawyer, somebody who will see that every test is run and every citation checked.

Yet for the best results, I think one needs not only the power of concentration but the self direction to find a worthy object, and the leisure to pursue it. If self direction means what mom and dad want, and leisure is evidence of idleness, then I think something is lost.

A couple of years ago, reading Thoreau's A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, I was struck by a passage on Goethe:
 He further says of himself: "I had lived among painters from my childhood, and had accustomed myself to look at objects, as they did, with reference to art."  And this was his practice to the last.  He was even too well-bred to be thoroughly bred.  He says that he had had no intercourse with the lowest class of his towns-boys. The child should have the advantage of ignorance as well as of knowledge, and is fortunate if he gets his share of neglect and exposure.

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