Aristotle says that the aim of education
is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought.
–C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man
I discussed this in my talk at our local conference this year: this implies that children do not always like what they ought to like. My concern is that I’ve come across a lot of mothers lately who are so concerned that their children enjoy school that they avoid things that their children don’t like. The curriculum is then designed entirely around the child’s current interests — upon his natural likes and dislikes.
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Here’s a rundown of what I’ve seen and heard:
- My child doesn’t enjoy classical music, so we’ll skip that part.
- My child doesn’t find art interesting, is it okay to skip it?
- My child prefers the indoors to the outdoors. Do we really have to do nature study?
- My child hates poetry, can we stop reading it?
- My child doesn’t like this book, so what substitute would you suggest?
My child doesn’t like x, so we’ll do y instead!
I’m not saying there is a never a reason to change out a book. We really do want our children to connect with what is being studied.
But here is something to think about: when a person — a child, or an adult — doesn’t like something that is good, there is something wrong with the person, not with the good thing.
God made a beautiful, wonderful world out there, and some of the greatest triumphs of humanity have been in music, art, literature, and, yes, even poetry.
If our children do not have a taste for poetry, for example, that doesn’t mean we trade it out for something they find more to their tastes. It means, first, that we might need start with ourselves, because love is often contagious.
Secondly, it means we need to think of ways to woo.
Sometimes wooing can be very, very simple. Years ago I listened to a lecture by the conductor John Hodges. He said in regard to music (and then by extension to all types of cultural artifacts) that “exposure breeds taste.”
It’s really much like teaching children to eat new foods.
A couple years ago I discovered a love for Brussels sprouts. When I found out that they also pack a great nutritional punch, I began to serve them weekly. My children? Well, out of the four, only one had a natural affinity. With the others, I’ve had varying levels of success. One acquired the taste after about a month (four or five tries). With another, it took almost a year (so let’s say 45 tries). There’s still one hold out. She’s tasted them close to 100 times and still doesn’t usually want to eat more than two bites. She tolerates them, but she doesn’t love them. She is, however, familiar enough to be able to eat them without throwing a fit or making a face.
Out of a common genetic pool, only one child liked this food naturally. That’s 25%. In other words, 75% of Vencel children hated Brussels sprouts with a passion on Day 1. With regular tasting (as in: “you must eat two bites before leaving the table”), we turned those odds around. Now, 75% of Vencel children like Brussels sprouts, and 25% tolerate them. Please note that no one hates them.
I know it’s only a vegetable, but it’s still a story of changing tastes.
That’s one of the ways we grow up, right? We learn to eat like adults — we can have a salad or some green beans or a steak (without ketchup!) rather than just cheese and starches.
Well, let’s face it. A lot of children — I’d say most — want to focus on the intellectual cheese and starches. Oh sure, there’s the rare genius who is literally interested in everything, but there is a reason why we say the exception proves the rule.
Because it does.
Appreciating the more sophisticated parts of human culture, or the things that require mental effort (like math), takes time and maturity. A palate is never developed if it’s fed on the same cheese and starches for two decades. It’s developed by experiencing tastes that are new and different.
When we say, my child doesn’t like x so I’m going to take it right on out of the curriculum, we’re essentially allowing that child to eventually enter into the world with an underdeveloped palate.
Childhood is a very special time. In it, we can expand our tastes and interests in ways that it is very difficult to do in adulthood, after all our bones have fused. I always think of what Charlotte Mason said about the education of the poet Goethe (a certifiable genius) in her fifth volume:
Everything which had been initiated in Goethe’s education came to conspicuous development; but, also, nothing which had been overlooked in his education arrived to him in after life.
You know what? My own life is very similar. I bet yours is, too. It is the things to which my parents or grandparents or babysitters or teachers or family friends introduced me that have come to fruition in adulthood.
Camping? No one ever introduced me to camping. This explains so much.
So here’s my point (you were hoping I’d get to it, right?): when a child rejects something good, they need our help. This is not normally the time to back down and coddle. It is, however, the time to consider the ways in which to romance the child’s heart. I’m not saying the best idea is to force feed him a plateful of vegetables.
We’re the teacher, right (no matter how wrong that grammar is)? The goal of education is to come to love what is lovely, hate what is hateful, delight in what is delightful. As C.S. Lewis wrote:
The little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likeable, disgusting and hateful.
Good teachers have to keep this in mind, and grow thick skin. They know they’re going to introduce some things that aren’t automatically embraced and celebrated by children who are, though persons, still persons of very limited experience and understanding.
Sometimes, we just have to be honest.
Today we’re going to spend a little bit of time doing something you don’t like. Studying something you don’t find interesting. Thinking about something you would rather not think about. And we’re going to do this because your feelings about this thing are totally and completely wrong. But that’s okay. You will learn to affirm the greatness of those who came before, and we’ll do it one little bite at a time … together.
Look! I’ll go first.
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