Does personal meaning have a place in learning today?
In a conversation recently, a friend of mine made the offhand comment that his son “likes to dive.” That was it: “My son likes to dive.” Because of this like, the father explained, he and his wife were taking the boy to the pool every day, just so that he could dive.
I found my friend’s comments refreshing because they were not accompanied by what I call the “world-class standards” conversation. We all have experienced this. It happens when an adult is given the opportunity to describe the gifts of a young family member or other close relation. The conversation starts with an activity that the child appears to enjoy intensely and at an early age. Adults view this interest as a sign of great things to come: Today a child likes to dive, to hit a ball, to run, to play chess, to sing; tomorrow, the grownups will find themselves sitting in stadiums or concert halls with thousands cheering their offspring’s achievements.
For parents, close relatives, and, unfortunately, many of those who should know better (teachers and coaches, for example), kids aren’t to be encouraged simply to like to dive, or to play baseball, or to ski, or even to read. In our contemporary “culture of excellence,” kids are expected to transform a proclivity into a world-class skill. A skill that has the potential of generating adulation or cash.
Even the most sensible parents seem to lose a sense of proportion if their son or daughter shows a spurt of giftedness. A display of talent is a call to action. Parents quickly respond by seeking out the best camps, coaches, or tutors to provide the means necessary for their sons or daughters to become world-class athletes, artists, or scholars. They are also apt to engage in intense political and social maneuverings to make sure that their child is “selected” for competitive venues that will further develop and exhibit innate abilities.
One doesn’t have to read the sports pages or, for that matter, the front pages of the newspapers to understand the upsides and downsides of this pursuit of excellence. The upsides for select individuals are apparent. Americans are willing to pay a lot of money and spend a lot of time attending, watching, and talking about professional and collegiate athletics, for example. For the athlete who has attained world-class status, the financial and social rewards are enormous.
But the downsides are also well known—they’re just in different sections of the newspaper. The most obvious dysfunction is the single-mindedness required of the adults and young people who decide to journey down the road of excellence. To be truly world-class demands a 24-7 commitment. There is no time in the schedule to pursue other interests or experiences. This narrowness can result in poor moral, financial, or social choices that ultimately end badly for the wunderkind. And beyond the questionable lifestyle choices, the sheer physical and mental toll of becoming world-class can be literally crippling.
Even the most sensible parents seem to lose a sense of proportion if their son or daughter shows a spurt of giftedness.
As an educator, I have concerns that go beyond the tragic personal toll. I wonder how our society’s infatuation with athletic prowess and, to a lesser extent, academic excellence is distorting the values and goals of our institutions of learning. Principals as well as university presidents will say privately that they are spending far too much time on issues associated with athletics and far too little time with issues associated with teaching and learning. At the end of day, when we count up the number of athletes or scholars served by varsity sports or gifted programs, we see that a very small percentage of the student population consumes a large share of time and resources.
What we all know in schools is that our “feeder” programs are founded on a pyramid concept of participation. Such a system encourages wide participation at an early age (the bottom of the pyramid), and understands that only a few will remain at the end (the top of the pyramid). Every year, for example, thousands of young boys and girls participate in community baseball or softball leagues. By the junior year in high school, there are only perhaps 20 boys and girls left who are playing varsity baseball or softball. Along the way, a lot has happened to all the young people who “liked to dive.” This is how the system works; it is how the pursuit of “excellence” works.
Should we be satisfied, as educators, with this outcome? After all, alumni, board members, and parent groups like to have winning teams and gifted programs for their sons and daughters. From a school administrator’s point of view, to oppose the “pyramid” structure of athletics or academics appears to be un-American. After all, that is how the real world works. But does it?
Societies that are dynamic and continue to grow have the ability to replace the pyramid picture of excellence with one that is a concentric circle of personal best. The latter provides young people with many levels of participation in activities they have an interest in, and allows them to develop these interests at their own pace, in what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi would call “flow experiences.” The concentric circles recognize that some young people will become more expert in an activity—they will gravitate to the center of the circle. Those of us who are less talented, though, are still permitted to participate in the expanding circles of the activity, rather than being shut out at an early age.
This kind of system supports both the individual and the group. Broader and deeper levels of participation in many spheres can be a source of new ideas and skills in a society. And the concentric model of “meritocracy” is able to accommodate both the development of personal meaning and the public display of excellence. The personal represents our privately held knowledge, skills, and enthusiasms. The public is what we are called on to do at work, school, or in some other public arena. When we go public, there is a certain level of knowledge and skills that is needed to perform our jobs or participate in civic functions. Our private domain, however, is that realm of activities that gives us a way to address questions of meaning in life and self-expression. The most fortunate of us find that our pursuit of personal meaning also provides us with a decent livelihood. Tiger Woods, for example.
What do pyramids and concentric circles have to do with schooling? The beliefs, ideas, and practices associated with pyramids support our current emphasis on standards and excellence. Yet, a concentric-circle model also accommodates and encourages standards and excellence, but with a significant difference. If we develop talent within a pyramid, we narrow the levels of excellence and restrict the definition of standards. In a concentric-circle approach, we accept many levels of excellence and expand the definition of standards. Instead of pursuing “excellence,” or one standard at the center of the circle, students are able to pursue many levels of excellence and varying definitions of standards in the outer rings of the concentric circle.
We’ve all had experiences while participating in activities—golf, working out at the local health club, participating in book groups, repairing our house—where we know what excellence is and what the standard would look like, but we possess neither the talent nor the time, money, or physiology to reach that level. Does it mean we stop playing golf, or working out, or reading? I would hope the answer is no.
Schools should honor the many levels of talent and interests that lie outside what is accepted as the standard of excellence.
For schoolpeople, the answer must be no. If schools are to support a society that encourages the constant infusion of new ideas and novel ways to solve problems, while at the same time nourishing the public and private pursuit of meaning, then we must think very differently about how we view talent in our classrooms. The current call for all students to achieve some predetermined standard of excellence will marginalize approaches to problem-solving that exist on the outer periphery of the concentric circle and alienate those who privately think that the “public good” now in fashion is mistaken.
A better approach is to honor the many levels of talent and interests that lie outside what is accepted as the standard of excellence. What would that look like in schools? First, the definition of extracurricular activities would have to be broadened to include all those activities that students have an interest in and would like to pursue at a more complex level. For most schools, this would mean a radical restructuring of budgets, coaching qualifications, and facilities (most schools, unfortunately, have built facilities and employed coaches that align with a pyramid approach to talent development).
Second, the definition of achievement must be broadened to include the many levels of growth that occur when individuals pursue something they find intriguing. The current practice of yelling at young people “to be the best” raises the bar so high that most give up or, worse, develop antipathy for an activity that might have provided an added dimension to their private world.
Increasing the breadth of activities and broadening the definition of achievement would create an inclusive school environment in which the talents of all young people were respected and given an environment to grow. Such an environment would also mean increased participation of young people, instead of the rapid exclusion of those whose interests conflict with the current sports-and-activities profile that thrives with a pyramid approach to talent development.
The goal of schooling, repeated often by educators and parents, is preparation for life—for the real world. The real world, for many of these educators and parents, is a pyramid: Many try; few reach the top. This is not what John Dewey meant by growth in education. Dewey had an expanded vision of schooling that required schools to grow talent and to grow ideas. For him, just “liking to dive” was a good beginning. The sacred obligation of schools, from Dewey’s perspective, was to continually work at growing what people like to do or find meaningful: to build on a good beginning. Dewey would find the goals of schooling seriously distorted in schools and communities today, where “liking to dive” is too often viewed as a terminal activity.
In The Evolving Self, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi provides a portrait of what happens to societies that “provide room for growth,” as opposed to those that establish a narrow pathway for young people to find personal meaning and public achievement. The task of a good society, according to Csikszentmihalyi “is not to enshrine the creative solutions of the past into permanent institutions; it is, rather, to make it possible for creativity to keep asserting itself.”
Alan C. Jones, a retired high school principal, is an assistant professor of education at Saint Xavier University in Chicago.