(The following excerpt from Joy: A Subject Schools Lack by Susan Engel recently appeared on theatlantic.com. To view it in its entirety click on the link below.)
When Jonathan Swift proposed, in 1729, that the people of Ireland eat their children, he insisted it would solve three problems at once: feed the hungry masses, reduce the population during a severe depression, and stimulate restaurant business. Even as a satire, it seems repulsive and shocking in America with its child-centered culture. But actually, the country is closer to his proposal than you might think.
If you spend much time with educators and policy makers (even if you just read editorials about education), you’ll hear a lot of the following words: “standards,” “results,” “skills,” “self-control,” “accountability,” and so on. I have visited some of the newer supposedly “effective” schools, where children chant slogans in order to learn self-control, are given a jelly bean when they do their worksheet, or must stand behind their desk when they can’t sit still. When I go to these schools, all I can think of is Charles Dickens’ Hard Times, in which Wackford Squeers, the headmaster of a school, says with great certainty, “Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them …”
In the novel, Squeers is hell-bent on making sure that his students leave school with the knowledge they need to be “serviceable” in the adult world. It’s not so different today. Everyone is worried about whether kids are “learning what they need” to get into college, finding good jobs, getting along in a big company, and learning new trades. The country’s whole school system seems geared toward solving large-scale economic woes and producing future workers. It’s most definitely not geared toward children. In fact, the prevailing view is that if teachers focus too much on students’ pleasure they will somehow be encouraging wanton self-indulgence and dangerous hedonism.
A look at what goes on in most classrooms these days makes it abundantly clear that when people think about education, they are not thinking about what it feels like to be a child, or what makes childhood an important and valuable stage of life in its own right. This may explain why so many schools that I visit seem more like something out of a Dickens novel than anything else.
I’m a mother of three, a teacher, and a developmental psychologist. So I’ve watched a lot of children—talking, playing, arguing, eating, studying, and being, well, young. Here’s what I’ve come to understand. The thing that sets children apart from adults is not their ignorance, nor their lack of skills. It’s their enormous capacity for joy. Think of a 3-year-old lost in the pleasures of finding out what he can and cannot sink in the bathtub, a 5-year-old beside herself with the thrill of putting together strings of nonsensical words with her best friends, or an 11-year-old completely immersed in a riveting comic strip. A child’s ability to become deeply absorbed in something, and derive intense pleasure from that absorption, is something adults spend the rest of their lives trying to return to.
A friend told me the following story. One day, when he went to get his 7-year-old son from soccer practice, his kid greeted him with a downcast face and a despondent voice. The coach had chastised him for not paying attention and not focusing on his soccer drills. The little boy walked out of the school with his head drooping downwards, shoulders slumped, dragging his way towards the car. He seemed wrapped in sadness. But just before he reached the car door, he suddenly stopped, crouching down to peer at something on the sidewalk. His face went down lower and lower, and then, with complete ebullience he called out, “Dad. C’mere. This is the most amazing bug I’ve ever seen. It has, like, a million legs. Look at this. It’s awesome.” He looked up at his father, his features brimming with energy and delight. “Can’t we stay here for just a minute? I want to find out what he does with all those legs. This is the coolest ever.”
The traditional view of such moments is that they constitute a charming but irrelevant byproduct of youth—something to be pushed aside to make room for more important qualities, like perseverance, obligation, and practicality. Yet moments like this one are just the kind of intense absorption and pleasure adults spend the rest of their lives seeking. In his masterpiece essay, Civilization and Its Discontents, Sigmund Freud described childhood as a period of trying to balance primal urges to find pleasure and avoid pain with the growing need to be part of a group. Every piece of research since that essay has shown that Freud was right. Human lives are governed by the desire to experience joy. Becoming educated should not require giving up joy but rather lead to finding joy in new kinds of things: reading novels instead of playing with small figures, conducting experiments instead of sinking cups in the bathtub, and debating serious issues rather than stringing together nonsense words, for example. In some cases, schools should help children find new, more grown-up ways of doing the same things that are perennial sources of joy: making art, making friends, making decisions.
Building on a child’s ability to feel joy, rather than pushing it aside, wouldn’t be that hard. It would just require a shift in the education world’s mindset. Instead of trying to get children to buckle down, why not focus on getting them to take pleasure in meaningful, productive activity, like making things, working with others, exploring ideas, and solving problems? These focuses are not so different from the things to which they already gravitate and in which they delight.
Before you brush this argument aside as sentimental fluff, or think of joy as an unaffordable luxury in a nation where there is dire poverty, low academic achievement, and high dropout rates, think again. The more dire the school circumstances, the more important pleasure is to achieving any educational success.
Many of the assignments and rules teachers come up with, often because they are pressured by their administrators, treat pleasure and joy as the enemies of competence and responsibility. The assumption is that children shouldn’t chat in the classroom because it disrupts hard work; instead, they should learn to delay gratification so that they can pursue abstract goals, like going to college. They should keep their hands to themselves and tolerate boredom so that they become good at being bored later on.
Not only is this a dreary and awful way to treat children, it makes no sense educationally. Decades of research have shown that in order to acquire skills and real knowledge in school, kids need to want to learn. You can force a child to stay in his or her seat, fill out a worksheet, or practice division. But you can’t force a person to think carefully, enjoy books, digest complex information, or develop a taste for learning. To make that happen, you have to help the child find pleasure in learning—to see school as a source of joy.
Adults tend to talk about learning as if it were medicine: unpleasant, but necessary and good for you. Why not instead think of learning as if it were food—something so valuable to humans that they have evolved to experience it as a pleasure? The more a person likes fresh, healthy food, the more likely that individual is to have a good diet. Why can’t it be the same with learning? Let children learn because they love to—think only of a 2-year-old trying to talk to see how natural humans’ thirst for knowledge is. Then, in school, help children build on their natural joy in learning.
Joy should not be trained out of children or left for after-school programs. The more difficult a child’s life circumstances, the more important it is for that child to find joy in his or her classroom. “Pleasure” is not a dirty word. And it’s not antithetical to the goals of K-12 public education. It is, in fact, the sine qua non.
Historic blizzard? Not for New Jersey. Looks more like another case of overhyped sensationalism struck our mainstream media causing uncalled for panic and fear in New Jersey residents where “Monster Blizzard 2015” was an embarrassing bust as forecasters cut snow amount predictions in half and apologized.
(The following post Blizzard Likely A Bust As Snow Projections Cut In Half, Forecasters Apologize recently appeared nj.com. To view it in its entirety click on the link below.)
It’s looking more and more like the Blizzard of 2015 is a bust.
While the first major snow event of 2015 should still have a substantial impact on New Jersey, a feared knockout punch was downgraded early Tuesday to a glancing blow for much of the state — to the embarrassment of forecasters.
“My deepest apologies to many key decision makers and so many members of the general public,” Gary Szatkowkski, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Mt. Holly, said via Twitter early Tuesday morning.
Blizzard warnings remained in effect early Tuesday for the coast and the northeast areas of the state, with Monmouth, Ocean, Middlesex, Passaic and Bergen counties all forecast to see accumulations of between 8 and 12 inches through Tuesday.
Gusts of up to 45 miles per hour and whiteout conditions were still possible, as were power outages due to falling limbs. Travel along the I-95 corridor Tuesday is expected to be impacted as well, the National Weather Service predicted.
(The following excerpt from If We Could Talk To The Animals by David Luden, Ph.D., recently appeared on psychologytoday.com. To view it in its entirety click on the link below.)
If you’ve ever shooed a bee away from a sugary drink, only to fend off a whole swarm of bees a few minutes later, you may have wondered if the first bee somehow told the others about your sweet soda. In fact, that’s just what she did.
Animals communicate about four things. They let others in their group know about opportunities for food and threats from predators. They also communicate to build social networks and to attract mates.
But animal communication systems aren’t just simple languages. Rather, there are fundamental differences between the ways that non-human animals communicate with each other and the ways that human animals do. Let’s consider four of these differences.
First, animal communication systems always have a very limited range of expression. Honeybees perform a dance to communicate about the direction and distance to a resource, but they can’t tell what that resource is. So those bees had no idea what a tasty treat was in store for them—and a caffeine buzz to boot!
Vervet monkeys can warn other members of their group about an approaching predator. They even have different alarm calls for leopards, eagles, and snakes. These are their three main threats, and each requires a different kind of evasive action. But there’s simply nothing else a vervet can talk about.
Human languages, by contrast, have unlimited range of expression. A native speaker of a language knows tens of thousands of words. We’re constantly learning new words as we go through life. And as a speech community, we make up new words as the need arises.
Second, an utterance in an animal communication system is always a holophrase. In other words, each vocalization or gesture refers to an entire situation and not to the specific objects and events that make up that situation. So the vervet “leopard” call really means something more like, “Look out, there’s a leopard coming this way!” And the “snake” calls means something like, “Yikes, I just saw a snake in the grass!”
Human toddlers start their language development with holophrases as well. “Ball!” can mean “Give me the ball!” or “Look, there’s a ball!” And “No!” means something like, “I don’t want that.” Even human adults, when overcome with emotion, often resort to holophrases. In fact, the reaction of most humans to a snake in the grass isn’t much different from that of a vervet monkey: “Snake! Ahh!”
Third, animal communication systems generally lack the ability to combine symbols together to express novel ideas. It’s still a matter for further research what a vervet would say if it encountered both a leopard and a snake at the same time. Still, we just don’t see vervets combining symbols to express novel ideas.
The honeybee dance does complicate this issue somewhat. Each honeybee dance will be different, because each time the distance and direction will be different. Still, honeybees have no ability to express any sort of meaning beyond that. It’s this ability to combine symbols to express novel ideas that gives human language its expressive power.
Finally, we can point out one last hallmark of animal communication systems, namely that they are always about the here and now. A vervet “eagle” call is about an eagle flying overhead at this very moment, and not about an eagle it saw last week. When a cow says “moo,” she’s saying, “Here I am, right now,” and not, “See you down by the water trough in half an hour.”
Again, honeybee dance complicates the picture, since she’s telling her hive mates about a resource she found some distance away some time ago. But still, she’s talking about a distance a bee can reasonably fly, and presumably the resource is still there now.
Most of our language use also involves communication about the present time and place—“What’s up?” “Not much.” “Hey, watch out for that truck!” But human language allows us to escape the confines of the here and now to talk about the past, to think about the future, to wonder what’s happening on the other side of the planet, and to imagine times and places that never existed.
Modern humans started making their mark on this world within the last hundred thousand years, probably around the time that language became fully formed. This powerful new tool for communicating—and for thinking—enabled humans to transcend the limits of animal life, to bend nature to their will. And then in the blink of an eye, in evolutionary terms, language transported us from the Stone Age to the Space Age.