This article was originally published in the October 2017 Princeton Echo.
In a blog post about misunderstandings, Seth Godin wrote this:
“And anyone who has been through high school has been reminded how important it is to be well-rounded. But Nobel Prize winners, successful NGO founders and just about everyone you admire didn’t get that way by being mediocre at a lot of things.”
It got me thinking.
It’s nearly an article of faith in schools that creating well-rounded students is the ultimate goal of education. As a young teacher I was a believer — I’m not anymore.
What concerns me most about this approach to education is not the spirit of the idea, but the trade-offs that are usually required to attempt it.
Most people I know are not well-rounded. They have a couple of things that they are good at or that interest them and the rest mostly slides by. Good or bad, it is what it is.
Attempting to make kids well-rounded means getting them to pay attention to things that they otherwise wouldn’t and generally requires some level of coercion—quizzes, tests, grades, required classes, credits, diplomas. In other words, making kids put aside things that they are interested in and love, to make room for things that they are not good at or have little to no interest in.
But does this really help? Kids might be able to pass tests, but how much of that “learning” ends up in the literal or mental trash can after the class? My guess is quite a bit. Is it worth it to spend so much time and effort on things that are not part of a person’s path?
Even if being well-rounded is theoretically superior, it is practically impossible to do if a kid’s heart is not in it. Meaningful learning that sticks around and changes someone’s life is not a mechanistic process with reliable outputs coming from standardized inputs. It’s not like shaping metal — start with iron, heat to certain degree, add carbon, quench, heat again, hammer, sharpen — voila!, a sword. It’s not — read Hamlet, take vocabulary quizzes, watch modern movie adaptation, discuss in class, write paper on whether to be or not to be — voila!, have a better understanding of the soul of mankind.
Learning happens best when people are open to it. I remember begrudgingly taking a required class in music history in college. We looked at jazz (which I had never been exposed to before) and I remember thinking this was the craziest, weirdest music I had ever heard. It became a running joke between my roommate and I how bad jazz was. I carried that ridiculous idea in my head for 15 years or so until I discovered John Coltrane much later in life. Now I like jazz. The difference for me was that I listened for my own reasons and was ready and open to appreciating jazz as an art form.
Self-directed education allows young people to take control of how they spend their time and energy to pursue the things that make them feel most alive and that they are best at. Do that first. That is what is going to give your life meaning and earn your bread. As for your weaknesses or things that you’re not interested in, deal with them to the degree that you have to in order to get where you want to go and do the things that you want to do. Sure, I don’t love accounting and payroll, but I’ve learned enough about how they work so that I’m able to do work that I DO enjoy at The Learning Cooperatives.
People who are engaged in their own life and satisfied with how they spend their time are more likely to keep their ears, eyes and mind open to new possibilities that arise. And if they have experience diving deeply into areas that they are interested in, as opposed to jumping through the required hoops someone else has created, they are going to be in the best position to take advantage of those opportunities. Becoming well-rounded is a product of having a healthy relationship with learning and the confidence to go after it, not a misguided attempt to force young people to be well-rounded.
Joel Hammon is a former public school teacher and co-founder of The Learning Cooperatives, a group of centers in Princeton, Flemington, and Langhorne, PA that support teens to create a meaningful education for themselves based on their interests, goals and strengths. He will speak at TEDx Carnegie Lake on Saturday, October 28, at John Witherspoon Middle School. tedxcarnegielake.com.