Student: “I’m confused.”
Teacher: “You’re not confused; you are learning!”
We live in a time of quick results and instant gratification, one that is shaped in large measure by the exigencies of technology. We assess the quality of a ‘smartphone’ interface, for example, by how quickly a novice user – paradigmatically, a child – is able to navigate and execute its functions: one, two, three clicks at the most – any more than that and the technology reviewer will call the user interface “confusing,” the user experience “frustrating” and give the device or rather its software a ‘thumbs down.’
Not surprisingly, our experience with technology has informed our culture at large, our standards and expectations of learning and education for instance. Increasingly, as parents, we drive our children through a seemingly endless series of structured ‘activities,’ expecting the child to master each activity quickly so that we can move on to the next – and indeed we find ourselves measuring the ‘quality’ of the activity as offered by an organizer, teacher or other ‘service provider’ according to how quickly the child is able to master it and obtain the ‘well-deserved’ praise and satisfaction before moving on to the next item in the program.
Yet, if we step back but a little, we can see that this technology-driven model cannot, or at least should not, serve as a model for life and education. Life is not to be reduced to a series of activities or tasks to be accomplished as in an amusement park, a scavenger hunt or an obstacle course; and education or true learning cannot be based on immediate praise and gratification. If we train our children in this way, we raise them to be impatient, cranky and fundamentally dissatisfied individuals – consumers of services at best, and we indeed hinder rather than promote their access to the investigation of the truly substantial questions in the sciences and the arts.
To succeed in the sciences and the arts – and equally in the more pedestrian métiers requiring refined perceptual and motor skills such as the skilled crafts and trades or sports – it is crucially important to learn to be patient and humble, to pursue one’s goal with persistence and discipline, to recognize others who have traveled this path before as teachers and masters who stand before one as genuine models to be emulated rather than as service providers. In other words, it is crucial to learn that one is learning and that one must learn for many years before one can be said to have mastered the particular discipline.
Children who pursue such a serious path need our support as families and parents, for there will be days in the life of even the most enthusiastic and committed child when such enthusiasm and commitment will falter and when the mature steadfastness of their elders is required to see them through.