Thursday, June 14, 2012

Edith Wharton, Restless Curiosity, and Intellectual Discipline

After writing recently about Tim reading Edith Wharton's autobiography A Backward Glance (1933) to N., I am still pondering the passage in which she criticizes her parents' use of what we might today call "interest-led learning" as the method of her education:
The sentimental theory that
children must not be made to study anything that does not interest them
was already in the air, and reinforced by the fear of "fatiguing" my
brain, it made my parents turn my work into play. Being deprived of the
irreplaceable grounding of Greek and Latin, I never learned to
concentrate except on subjects naturally interesting to me, and
developed a restless curiosity which prevented my fixing my thoughts for
long even on these.
First: I'd like to know more about this "sentimental theory;" how widespread was the idea that "children must not be made to study anything that does not interest them" in the 1860s-70s?  Was this "sentimental theory" circulating mainly in Wharton's closed social sphere?

Second: How odd that Wharton writes at the end of a prolific career that she "never learned to concentrate" and that she could rarely fix her thoughts for long, even on subjects that interested her.  She could hardly have written so much and so well without discipline and concentration.  Is she simply wrong about herself?

Third: Wharton imagines that a stricter and more formal educational method would have disciplined her intellectual restlessness; in contrast many today who pursue interest-led learning believe that conventional schooling tames curiosity to the point of killing it.  But is there something to take seriously here?  Can a salutary intellectual discipline be learned through studying something boring?  Or, how can we combat what Samuel Johnson or Daniel Defoe would see as the natural and fundamentally human restlessness of curiosity that Wharton laments?  How can we encourage sustained focus on a subject of interest?  This is a concern that the project-based learning method is designed to address.  We don't use that approach, although I find it very appealing.  I think our family develops concentration in part through routines; both Tim and N. are happiest when their days unfold predictably.  An organically developed routine fosters sustained focus and attention on subjects of inquiry.  N. practices the piano for an hour every day and only on the weekends when our days are less predictable is he tempted to skip practice.  During the week, practicing piano has become a habit that feels utterly natural. 

At the same time, N. has developed concentration by having lots of open-ended time to himself, for play, reading, drawing, inquiry.  We've consciously avoided enrolling N. in many structured activities in order to preserve unscheduled time within the day's routine.  He has plenty of time to focus on the things he wants to pursue, just as Wharton had time to indulge her passion for reading.  Unstructured time also gives you the opportunity to examine more deeply the ideas on which your inevitably restless curiosity alights.  Curiosity and intellectual discipline need not be seen as opposing or competing learning traits, but as mutually reinforcing foundations of knowledge.


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