Here’s a common story from the zoo. We raise an animal, say a lion or a penguin, in captivity from birth. Zookeepers are careful to immerse the lion in a world perfectly constructed to look and feel like the savanna. The penguin lives in his proper Antarctic zone, designed to look like the ices of the tundra. They are both fed, on a regular schedule, and kept happy and healthy. So long as they perform for the zoo’s visitors.
Do lions feel cabin fever?
Yet the animals, with endless possibilities at birth, quickly come to know the limits of their potential at the zoo. The savanna zone has a wall. It is constrained freedom, an existence manufactured by outside observers as the image of what a lion ‘should’ grow up in. And so, should that lion be released from captivity later, the freedom would be deafening. Undoubtedly, it would be unable to function without a daily feeding and a bath. That has become its reality, and understanding of the world.
We understand these shortcomings, and continue to raise lions in zoos for the good of the onlookers. But why do we educate our children this way?
Earlier this week, Peter Thiel named his 20 under 20 fellows, who he would pay $100,000 to drop out of college to pursue other interests for two years. In doing so, Thiel raises questions about the value of higher education. If these high-performing kids go on to become extremely successful, it evidences the declining necessity of higher ed for success.
But, as Andrew Kelly points out, these were already the most academically gifted students in the country. They don’t need college, but they also don’t need the Thiel fellowship. They’re already successful in their own right. Thiel’s program proves nothing about college as an institution.
In reading their short biographies, I couldn’t help but reflect on my own experience in public schools for twelve years of my life. One difference is quite clear: I was raised in captivity. Each year had its walled garden of lessons and allowances. I learned in exactly the way that educators had decided I should.
We should know better. Like designing exhibits at a zoo, people are woefully inadequate at circumscribing worlds for others to live in. We systematically underestimate the capability of subjects, be they animals or young people, to care for themselves. And in doing so, we limit their potential.
Worse still, Thiel’s idea strikes a nerve because we’ve been made to feel a certain insecurity about our learning. We think we need rigor, requirements, and standards in order to learn and grow. So we set standards and require demonstrations of skill.
My childhood playground
Thankfully, my most formative years in captivity were spent with a back door. Spring 2001 was my first encounter with then-nascent Wikipedia. It was rough, articles were dramatically incomplete, and teachers were afraid of it. And it came with related links. Suddenly the great depths of human knowledge were interconnected and at my fingertips.
A few days ago, my friend Mindy (deservedly a Thiel fellow but probably too modest to apply) asked whether knowledge was too easy for our generation. She focused on the once-prevalent struggle to earn knowledge by finding it. Now that information is so easy to find, she asks, have knowledge and critical thinking become superficial?
I think this question is deeply intertwined with how we educate kids. When your curriculum is on rails, learning is a direct-to-DVD movie. Just read the spoilers, the bullet points, and the SparkNotes, know the destination and your ETA, and you can fall asleep for the rest of the ride — wakefulness is simply not worth the effort. We don’t short-circuit our learning because information is too easy to come by. Instead, we seek out easy information because we know the answers are canned anyway.
Alfie Kohn has done extensive research on the way intrinsic motivation can be undermined by extrinsic incentives, in business settings and at school. When time is precious and you’re evaluated by your knowledge of the occurrences in a book you were forced to read, the bulleted summary is a strictly dominant strategy. Lions in captivity don’t move around much except when there’s a steak involved.
The key to all of this is who selected the knowledge to be imparted. Students, it turns out, are quite capable of choosing their intellectual adventures without coercion. Every one of them, not just the geniuses. I did my fair share of leveraging Wikipedia to avoid wasting my time on coerced learning. But I also took the back door out of my cage when no one was looking. I followed Wikipedia trails, swinging from one link to the next in a forest that has no walls.
I don’t remember much of eighth grade social studies’ cursory treatment of the Constitutional Convention, but I do remember reading the Wikipedia articles on every one of the 27 amendments, which sparked my brief but intense obsession with Constitutional law. I remember secretly reading about string theory while bored of class exercises about the water cycle.
Our technology has categorized and linked the great body of human knowledge. And connectedness breeds discovery, mapping, and synthesis. All we need to do is let go of our insecurities and free children from the world we created to protect them from their own power. Each of the Thiel fellows did this early on, and we assuredly will be celebrating their accomplishments in a few years.
So maybe we could all use a little unschooling. Let go of the carrots and sticks, and stop trying to define what should be known only so as to guarantee it will be forgotten. I think we all remember tiring of the savanna exhibit long ago. Kids don’t need zookeepers, they just need to learn how to hunt.