Conscripted Children

I went out thinking of what I heard a well‑known college dean say recently when he spoke before an assemblage of so‑called progressive parents. He had been reading Professor Thorndike’s latest book, in which that veteran thinker says that there are many things being taught in high schools to‑day which could be learned much better and more quickly at the age of twenty‑five. The dean had just come from a sociological conference where experts in economics had shown that the working hours and the working days of the average man are being shortened, and his working years as well; in the not far distant future they saw the prospect of vastly more leisure for all classes of society than has ever before been known in the history of mankind. ’Would it not, then, be better,’ queried the dean, ‘to bestow some of this coming leisure upon the child during his childhood years, and put off to a later date the mastering of those subjects which can be learned then more quickly and easily?’ He went on only half seriously: ‘Are we not, perhaps, making a mistake to send our children to school at all? Instead of school buildings, should we not provide huge parks, woods, and playgrounds where they could just grow and play and vegetate; and then send them to school when they grow up?’

Although the dean was speaking half in jest, nevertheless he was toying with an important idea. To a child, time is a golden asset. Each morning a child’s natural response to life should be that of Browning’s Pippa flinging her window on her one brief yearly holiday:—

Oh, Day, if I squander a wavelet of thee,
A mite of my twelve hours’ treasure...

It is hard to imagine any child springing with sandaled feet to meet the heavily regimented hours which we adults of to‑day have so laboriously worked out for our own children.

In the elementary school which my children attended it was decided a few years ago to set aside a double period one afternoon a week when the school would literally be thrown open to the children. During this period there was the shop with all its fascinating tools and clean white lumber, the studio with fresh‑mixed paints and great, inviting sheets of paper stretched on easels; there was clay, moist, waiting; there was the stage, the quiet room where one could write, the kitchen where one could really cook. All these doors stood open and each child could choose which he would enter. Many exciting things have happened to my children in this school, but nothing ‑‑ not even the visit of Admiral Byrd—brought such a thrill as the granting of this free period for creative work. I was prepared to understand when, a little later, the children came to me and begged, ‘Please don’t send us to camp this summer. We want some free time.’

III

What do children want to do with free time? In spite of psychologists and gifted teachers, we do not know, but we do know that they want in a thousand ways to try out life. When we first moved from the country to the suburbs in order to put our children in a city school my fourteen-year‑old son came home late for dinner every night for a week. When he was questioned about it he was evasive, until at last he confessed, ‘I know now where all the subways go. I’ve tried every last one of them!’ This may not have been the healthiest way to study geography, but it was certainly an effective one. This boy was simply doing what every normal boy wants to do—go exploring. A generation ago his father followed up a trout stream to its source; he followed up a subway.

In Harris Hawthorne Wilder’s recent biography, The Early Years of a Biologist, we can read the prayer of a six‑year‑old boy as it has been recorded by his mother: ’Our dear Heavenly Father, I want a human skeleton very much.’ This was the prayer of a boy who grew up to be one of the greatest teachers of biology in America.

I mention these two illustrations not only to show how little we know, in spite of our experts, about the real wants and needs of children, but also to show how often the child, given the chance, does know ‑‑ immediately and accurately. And in many instances what he wants to do is just what he ought to do at that particular moment. But he must have time ‑‑ free time, limitless time, unhurried time for his exploring. Many years ago my father told me about his boyhood on a New England farm and I can remember the tone of deep gratitude with which he said, ‘My father was too poor to give me anything toward a college education, and too ignorant of its worth to give me even sympathy; but he was just enough to give me my own time, although he needed it desperately on the farm.’ We give our children money, we try to give them sympathy, we give them liberally of education; but we are not just enough to give them their time.

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