“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”
This essay summarizes my vision for educating children. It’s not meant to be prescriptive for other families, since I feel every parent has the responsibility and unique insight for their own kids. Rather it’s a personal statement and in many ways applies to my own continuing self-education. If you don’t like what I write below, come up with your own statement!
There are many ways to educate a child, and I consider a parent as a caretaker or guardian for a child till they leave the household, somewhere from the age of 14 to 21. The problem here is to create a philosophy and vision for what to teach a child, formally and informally. Ultimately a parent is the most important teacher, and the household, neighborhood, and community are the most important learning environments.
Moving, Speaking, Listening, Reading, Writing, Thinking, and Reasoning
These are the most basic, root skills that come with intelligent, deliberate practice. Controlling the body and then speech comes first (really from being a newborn to late in the 20s, or for all of life!). Next, listening and being listened to. After that reading and writing, for which a parent is the main and most important teacher. One example is giving kids lots of library time (a weekly trip) and practical tasks (write an essay to pitch a family activity, a new toy, etc). Thinking comes from good writing, and reasoning well comes from imitation (reading good arguments, listening to others, and then writing and crafting your own). Eventually, being able to evaluate facts and opinions, understanding deductive and inductive reasoning, and thinking independently from values, first principles, and data (not becoming a carbon copy of parents, teachers, local groupthink, etc).
Human and Spiritual Values
The best way to teach these values is for the parents to live them, and to put the child in a spiritual community and neighborhood that also are imbued with it. I would (imperfectly given my many shortcomings) teach the main values of three great human civilizations, namely: Vedanta/Buddhism/Jainism; the Judeo-Christian world; the Taoist-Confucian world. The ultimate goal is independent moral and ethical reasoning. There are many stories, norms, and texts to tech here, but the main ones I would focus on are:
- Vedanta/Buddhism/Jainism: Upanishads, Mahabharata and Gita, Yoga Sutras, Dhammapada, Agamas.
- The Judeo-Christian world: Ecclesiastes, The Gospels, the Sermon on the Mount, and Pirkei Avot.
- The Taoist-Confucian world: Tao Te Ching and the Analects.
Care of Oneself
This includes early potty training, bathing and bodily hygiene, good nutrition and eating, produce and grocery shopping, cooking, sleep hygiene practices, and self-care such as dealing with stress, adversity, boredom, solitude, pain, and failures. Early structure and habits start with self-care, and there’s a long list of items I won’t bother to list here.
Self Discipline and Concentration
Swami Vivekanda wrote: “To me the very essence of education is concentration of mind, not the collecting of facts. If I had to do my education over again, and had any voice in the matter, I would not study facts at all. I would develop the power of concentration and detachment, and then with a perfect instrument I could collect facts at will.” This means teaching practical ways to regulate and harness the breath, body, intention, mind, speech, and action. I’ve found breathing exercises, with children and adults, are quite helpful here.
Yoga Practices and Sanskrit
Bear with me – I know this is a niche discipline. Listening to spoken Sanskrit chanting begins at a young age, along with spoken Sanskrit lessons – these are great memory builders and speech developers. Then the values inside the Yamas and Niyamas (cultivated positive habits and restraints), along with hatha yoga asanas (physical exercise). Later pranayama (breath regulation), pratyahara (mind-body-spirit exploration), dharana (focus and concentration exercises), and dhyana (meditation practices).
After the ecstasy, the laundry. Age-appropriate household chores are useful because they: teach kids key life skills; help them feel competent and responsible; give them the experience of relationship skills like communicating clearly, negotiating, cooperating, and working as a team; make a family operate more smoothly. Kids need work, rewards for the work, and skin in the game at an early age (age 3 when they can start manipulating objects is a good starting point). It’s also a good introduction to learning how to earn their keep.
Empathy and Care of Other Creatures
Learning how to put yourself in the shoes of other humans and animals to deeply understand their viewpoints and feelings, is an important skill. Taking care of other people and animals is the best way to learn the Platinum Rule: do unto others the way they want us to do unto them. In other words, you have to treat people the way they want to be treated, not the way you want to be treated. This includes all the specifics of the poster “All I really need to know I learned in Kindergarten”, or the wisdom of Max Ehrmann’s poem “Desiderata”. It means spending time naming, exploring, and discussing one’s own emotions and the feelings of others.
Esther Wojcicki’s TRICK (Trust, Respect, Independence, Collaboration, Kindness)
Esther raised the talented Wojcicki sisters: Susan, Janet, and Anne (look them up!). She writes: “Trust is largely about setting routines, and then empowering kids to make decisions within those routines. Respect is basically understanding the ideas of another person, and listening. So the number one thing parents can do is listen, and then they can solicit their kids’ opinions. Independence is related to trust, and it is parents setting structural guidelines and then empowering kids to make their own independent choices. The parent prescribes the structure, but within that structure, there’s tons of opportunities for making decisions, and kids have that opportunity. Collaboration is about getting your kids’ ideas and buy-in before setting the structures and routines–so that you can then trust them to do things independently within them. Then you write down their ideas. Maybe they can’t even read, but they can see you’re writing it down. Then we talk about these things, and you try to include some of their ideas, with some of your ideas. The idea that you’re really pushing is: ‘We come up with this, collaboratively.’ Kindness is the antidote to fear and a kid needs it to be able to learn effectively. It means an atmosphere where, if you make a mistake, you’re treated with kindness. It’s not like the mistake doesn’t go unnoticed, it’s just that you’re not traumatized.”
Advanced Math and Physics
This is poorly taught in K-12 schools. This includes the reasoning, experimentation, computational thinking, probabilistic and statistical views, and scientific thinking that is as valuable today as it will be in 500 years (just like human and spiritual values, or reading). This means creating an interactive, hands-on curriculum that gives a child a strong basis in K-12 math and physics (say up to a third-year undergraduate level at MIT or Stanford).
The Scientific Method
There are really many scientific methods. The gold standard is physics, but there are different variants in key hard sciences (biology, chemistry, neuroscience, earth science, medicine, etc) and the social sciences (psychology, economics, etc). The goal here is to extend rational, evidence-based thinking to other parts of life, to be able to think scientifically about anything (to be skeptical, but also use reproducible experiments to test models of the world). Applied science is best learned by constantly running experiments (e.g. growing plants, manipulating objects, mixing substances, etc).
Value of Labor, Jobs, and Capital
The aim here is to teach the value of smart, productive, hard work. This means giving a child many real-world jobs and internships from the age of 7 onward, both manual and intellectual, and the ability to deal with many different types of people and to respect labor. It also means teaching the value of capital (manufactured, tools, financial, social, human), and how to use these to leverage and scale work to accomplish a lot more. Finally, it includes personal finance best practices.
Arete and Mastery
Arete is the pursuit of excellence, the act of living up to one’s full potential. Many of the world’s geniuses (Mozart and Beethoven, John Stuart Mill, Marie Curie, Von Neumann, Polgars, John Bardeen, Richard Feynman, Bill Gates & Steve Jobs, Stephen Hawking, Jennifer Doudna, Gauss and Euler, Terence Tao, Anna Wintour, Elon Musk, etc) were taught both arete and mastery from a young age. Mastery is many things, per Robert Greene: i) Finding Your Calling or Life’s Task; ii) Being an Ideal Apprentice; iii) Learning Optimally from Your Mentor; iv) Cultivating Social Intelligence; v) Becoming Multi-Dimensional (Creative-Active); vi) Combining Intuition & Rationality (Mastery). My hypothesis is that much of this can be taught once you find a child’s inclinations, interests, and strengths, to select for and reinforce them through levels of activities and a nourishing environment.
Value of Struggle, Suffering, Fighting, and Enduring
Educators sometimes refer to this as grit and perseverance, but it’s much more. Teaching a child how to struggle and suffer, how to be bold and stoically endure pain, how to keep pushing and fight for what they want (or to defend themselves), and also when to tactically retreat or even thoughtfully give up, is important. This also means teaching them how to take smart risks and deal with failure as a teacher, and how to have skin in the game.
Solitude and Free Range Time
Alone time and free time. Kids need it. Time to read by themselves, be bored, play with blocks or lego buckets, or to go walking and exploring in the parks and forests nearby. Kids that get this become more self-reliant and independent. They need unstructured and unscheduled time. They need to learn how being alone is valuable and how to direct themselves.
Connection and Comfort with Nature
Exposure and time to nature, away from civilization. This means exploring great parks and forests, and also camping under open skies of stars and learning practical tasks of surviving in the wild, starting fires, using and building tools, collecting water, building shelter, foraging for food, sailing boats, treating injuries, and dealing with animals. A counterpoint to this is teaching a child how to survive in a large city, an urban jungle – basically learning street smarts.
Good Habits of Work, Organization, and Structuring One’s Time and Energy
As kids get older, they need to understand the elements of good habits: how to create them and sustain them, and how to avoid and break bad habits. Once they realize that their time, attention, and energy are the most valuable resources in the world, they need to learn how to organize themselves and structure it. This means knowing when to explore, and when to pick areas to focus in and develop minimal or sufficient skills, or sometimes arete and mastery.
Team sports like soccer, basketball, crew, and track and field are wonderful ways to learn concentration, discipline, practice, bodily mastery, teamwork, leadership, grit, endurance, leadership, and so on. Some kids may prefer solitary sports like running, martial arts, swimming, biking, etc, and that is fine too.
Music is essential for aesthetic appreciation and is closely related to the mathematical mind. Learning to sing, dance, or play an instrument is important. It ties together math, the arts and culture, arete and mastery, the value of struggle, good habits and organization, and is one of the best ways to build concentration. As a side note, this means playing the best world music (Western Classical, Spanish guitar, Indian Classical, Chinese opera, Zheng Chinese Zither, African tribal, whale songs, etc) for children and not the saccharine Disney stuff.
Art and Engineering – Making Things
Kids need to learn the value of making things, of being creators of beautiful and/or useful things that they and others want. Art and engineering are more closely related than many people realize. Learning to draw, paint, make sculptures, build Lego structures, build small robots, program Raspberry Pis, make crafts or clothes, and so on, is a great practice for children.
Curiosity, Exploration, and Play
Fundamentally a good education is about building discipline and focus while also fostering curiosity, exploration, and play. This can happen with sports, music, art, nature, alone time, scientific experiments, or even making games out of chores and jobs. This is more about cultivating an attitude about the world that offers limitless possibilities and progress, where a person can pick one of many paths and enjoy the ride.