Back to School … for Three-Year-Olds?

September 2007

It’s hard to sit by as a new school year starts and not be in the trenches.

Aside from the sheer fascination and pleasure that was part of my life each fall, I realize another side effect of being on the side-lines. My total immersion in the daily life of the school distracted me from observing some of the gloomier aspects of the larger world.  If  I were in the midst of school right now, for example, I’d have less time to anguish over New York City school chancellor Joel Klein’s latest wonderful idea—rigorous standards-based schooling starting with 3 year olds.  (Not to mention Iraq, etc).

But, I do have time, not only to read about it, and worry about it, but to think I ought to do something about it.

Klein’s latest idea is the logical outcome of a way of thinking that is dangerous. I refer readers to a book that came out 9 years ago—and I just read—Seeing Like a State, by James C. Scott of Yale University. What we’re witnessing, suggests Scott, is the kind of Expert Rationalism that has long led many a well-meaning reformer down disastrous paths. It’s a “way of seeing” that can only be counteracted by another way of seeing, the kind that is usually experienced by people who, alas, generally see themselves as powerless—the folks with the “know-how” or what he calls “metis.”  False utopias get an easy foothold to start with out of a false modesty (who am I to think I know better than experts?) plus fear on the part of ordinary practitioners that they’ll pay a price for being troublemakers. But alas, it is also, Scott notes, why “reformers” are often blind to their failures. Soviet five year plans never ever failed to meet their goals. Thirty years of plan after plan to produce higher test scores has been exactly as successful as those Soviet five year plans.

Three year-olds already have both standards and “rigor.”  From birth on they are natural artists, craftsmen, and scientists—all rolled into one—with well-focused “standards.” And rigor? Last weekend I watched my one-year old grand-nephew as he over and over again practiced getting more competent at clapping.  He was engaged—mind and body.   Our delight was sufficient reward, assuming he needed anything outside of his own satisfaction.

What Klein is proposing is a systematic attack on this intellectual potential, although of course he doesn’t mean that to be the case at all. Little children are just not his “thing.” Of course, he also hasn’t bothered to look the word “rigor” up in the dictionary or he (and others like him)  would look for a better synonym for what they have in mind.  Or would they?  Look it up.

First three definitions: (1) severe, (2) harsh, (3) cruel.  Think “rigor mortis”.

Mastering the complex—driving a car, designing a house, building a bridge or learning language, as James Scott notes, require both the same perseverance and the attentiveness that 12 month old Charles was putting into getting clapping just right. Figuring out how to translate this into schooling is what made me stick with schooling for 40 years. More and earlier imposition of adult “standards” (e.g. academic tests) is not the way to go.

Unfortunately such an agenda also endangers an equally important task of early childhood:  honing our uniquely human capacity for “wishful thinking”— imagination.  What separates us from animals living simply to survive is that strange ability to imagine what isn’t, to live in alternate realities, to step into the shoes of others—including other species and objects. It’s what Charles’ three year old brother Max was busy doing upstairs with a box of years of collectibles I had accumulated. While we may complain that school children lack a willingness to persevere, his parents—like the parents of all thee-year olds, couldn’t drag Max away.

Imagination is what enables us to have a language full of “as ifs” and “supposing that’s—language that lies at the heart of mathematics, science and ordinary living. It’s also at the core of the kind of moral responsiveness that goes deepen than compliance.

There’s a reason that for centuries the ruling classes were  known as “the leisure class.” The two went together. It takes leisure to play with powerful ideas. It’s not an accident that one of the earliest demands of working people’s institutions was the 40 hour week.   Work is honorable but so is “play”—the play of the body and mind, as the ancient Greeks proclaimed. We’ve lost that luxury even for the middle and upper classes perhaps. We need to regain it—for everyone. So let’s not take it away from 3 year olds. This year 3 year olds, next year it will be 2…. and on and on.

To be “fancy” and high brow I renamed play “self-initiated cognitive activity.”  Some friends really liked it although I had intended it as a joke. However, it’s what’s endangered these days. Team sports on the field or solo games on our Blackberries are no substitute for inventing our own.

Stop trying to skip childhood, Mr Klein. Play with these ideas a bit longer before you go rushing into action;  read Seeing Like A State when you get some “free” time.  As for the rest of us, just imagine what it might be like if we all responded with an “it’s unthinkable, Mr. Klein.”—and meant it!

© 2007 Deborah Meier

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