Monday, January 19, 2009

Discipline and Dawdling

I recently happened upon my stash of diaries and journals and in the process of shuffling them into deeper storage to prevent this sort of cringe-inducing trip down memory lane from happening too often, I glanced over the volume containing entries I wrote intermittently during the later years of elementary school. Now that we’re beginning to unschool/homeschool our son, I suddenly see a recurrent theme of these entries in a very different light. “Today I got all my work done in school,” I wrote in 4th grade. “Today I only had to take my English work home.” “Today I got my math done in work time so I didn’t have to take it to lunch to do it then.” Apparently there was a concern that I was dawdling in school, that I wasn’t finishing busy work as efficiently as I should.

My parents struggled throughout my school years to get me to manage my time more efficiently and effectively, and indeed I am sure they are still chagrined by what looks in me like a tendency to put things off, to do things at the last minute. It’s pretty good evidence for the resistance of inherent personality to change!

I now see my recurring struggle to get my schoolwork done in elementary school not as a sign of my weakness or lack of discipline but of the meaninglessness of the work itself. After all, in the summer after 4th or 5th grade, I wrote a 10+-page typed research paper on the history of ballet simply because I was interested in it and thought it would be a fun thing to do (fledgling academic nerd --and unschooler—I clearly was!) It is unfortunate that I perceived lack of discipline in some areas to be one of my central traits instead of focusing on how I did devote myself wholeheartedly to other areas or activities. I hope that unschooling gives me the chance to recognize N.’s true strengths, whatever they maybe, rather than measuring him against standards derived from a nineteenth-century industrial model of school and work that has little to do with real learning and happiness in life. I am thankful that my career as an academic does not require adherence to an industrial model of discipline. Although my profession has its share of deadlines, scholarly work is enriched by the fortuitous discoveries and deep explorations that sometimes look from the outside like procrastination.

Perhaps my tendency to procrastinate is a simply an inherent personality trait of mine, yet there are ways that my early education and the parenting practices of the day reinforced this trait even as my parents tried to reform it. I was raised in the heart of the self-esteem movement and fulsomely praised. I was pulled out of class for Gifted and Talented enrichment, programs whose laudable intent was to provide intellectual stimulation but whose terminology implied that I was special, endowed with gifts that I just happened to have, not that I had worked to cultivate. I felt internal and external pressure to live up to this “G&T” label, but I didn’t recognize, as a child, how insignificant a factor “genius” is in any accomplishment. I think this is the point my parents meant to make when they emphasized time management and discipline. They wanted to me to see that hard work is 90% of the story, but because school was both rewarding me for being “gifted” and requiring me to work hard on tasks that were meaningless, I didn’t really get the message.

School led me to think I was undisciplined because I had no particular desire to work at meaningless tasks; at the same time, the “gifted” label encouraged me to depend on my talents, rather than cultivating my inherent desire to work hard at something that engaged me. Unschooling allows me to reframe the issue in terms of learning and passion rather than character traits. And perhaps most importantly, to leave space for the rich bliss of dawdling!


Holly said...

I haven't been keeping up with reading blogs lately - and barely keeping up with writing mine! So it was a delight to pay a visit and find all these new posts! I'm catching up... This post really resonated with me. I was also a G&T kid who was made to work hard at meaningless tasks. However, because I was also a PRAISE JUNKIE I had no problem getting things done (and asking for more), which only confused the issue further. Also, the things I actually was passionate about (theatre, dance, art, creative writing) were actively discouraged because they weren't seen as the kinds of interests that would lead to a dependable career. The result - I made myself terribly unhappy for years trying to fit into other people's ideas of who I should be given my particular "gifts and talents." And I'm only now starting to figure out what I really want my life to look like! It is my sincerest hope that through unschooling our children will be able to avoid all that and have the courage and confidence to pursue their passions right from the start!

Fanny Harville said...

Another praise junkie here, Holly! I still struggle with the sense that my career in literature is not as valued by my parents as my brother's in medicine; would that I could grow up and get over that. And my interests in theatre, ballet, and music were seen as acceptable extra-curriculars, but also clearly not as careers to pursue. As you wrote on your blog once, I think, earlier iterations of feminism were implicated in all this -- for both of us. I do hope that, as you say, unschooling will lead to different result with our children!