When I read about school committees cutting music, art, sports, and skill-building programs to make room for more math and science classes, I groan inwardly at the thought of how we teach our kids to live conceptual lives in a conceptualized world, as if the world of detailed sensory-motor experience didn’t matter or even exist. As if test scores and right answers are the measures of a good education, not experience, engagement, fascination, or enjoyment.

We teach our kids to “know” what a small, select segment of the adult population already knows, not to lead their own lives and draw their own conclusions from their streams of unique experience. We train for entry-level jobs in favored industries as if we could tell the future, not for leading a life in unpredictable times, which would be closer to what is likely to happen. As once we trained farm girls to tend whirling spindles in textile mills through New England, jobs that no longer exist because we have automated them and shipped them overseas.

This is exactly parallel to our reaching out to new experience from the vantage of where we’ve already been, rather than taking pains to explore what is presently before us. Projecting our remembrances onto the now, seeing in terms of the past—how does that serve as adequate preparation for welcoming a future we cannot predict in advance?

We know that Steve Jobs would have been a misfit in the days of James Watt, Thomas Edison, or Henry Ford. We need to help our children live in a world we cannot see from where we stand today. The task facing every generation is to learn to be open to possibilities raised by novel situations, today and forever.

If we insist on clamping what we already know now onto the minds of the young, condemning them to relive the lives their teachers have already lived, how are they going to find the essential freedom, imagination, skills, and curiosity to lead lives of their own in their own times?

In truth, education must allow for a high degree of uncertainty in how it is to be put to use. Its goal must ever be teaching the young to experience and to think for themselves in the many unknown situations they will surely face. Some of those situations will be similar to the ones we have known, but they will also differ in many respects.

Heading into the unknown with resources that can be brought to bear no matter what, that is the gift of the true education we owe to our children. Making them into copies of employees we need today in our workplaces—that condemns them to a life of frustration and inadequacy in falling short of becoming their own unique selves.

 

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In novel situations, we lack preparation for what we are likely to perceive, so lack the proper orientation for making sense of what is to follow. We can be slow to catch on to what’s happening because perception has to start cold without a boost from memory providing glimpses of likely situations.

When Pierre Monteux premiered Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring on a French ballet program in 1913, the audience had never heard anything remotely like it, so was famously outraged at having sounds and rhythms they were not prepared for thrust upon them. They had no way of engaging such music, so rebelled against it because their expectations were thwarted and few could find a way into it, or let it into them. Now, a hundred years later, audiences seek out that same music because they find it so exciting.

We may be expert at seeing what we are trained or accustomed to see, but seeing the novel and unexpected means having to learn our way through solving problems by extensive training or trial and error, which takes careful attention, scrutiny, and double-checking our surmises. If we are lucky, we have been prepared by experience to be cautious in just such situations, to put ourselves out so we can take our environments in. Institutions and situations that prepare us for doing that make up the bulk of our educational and job-training systems.