I know I’ve written about this topic before: our crazy, fast-paced, highly pressurized modern lives that don’t leave much room to breathe and are especially toxic for our children (see my previous blogs here and there).
It seems there is always more to say. I just saw a TED talk that made me gasp and cheer. This 13-year-old boy gives the most amazing speech on the things he thinks are wrong with our education system, and what we need to do to change them. His thing is that the public school system these days is too crazy and needs to be hacked. What does he mean by that? He says anything is up for being hacked. Hackers are innovators, who challenge and change systems – it’s a mindset that some people have, and more people need to adopt. We need to hack the education system! He points out that too much of the education we get in school is geared towards making a living, rather than making a life. By constantly striving for excellence, to get the best grades to get into the best colleges, to get the best jobs and consequently the best house, car, vacation etc., we don’t have time to think about what actually makes us happy.
Living in the Bay Area, this certainly struck a chord with me. A colleague of mine (non-American) said something very clever the other day. We were talking about this exceptional(ly crazy) place we’re living in, and the madness that is Bay Area house prices and everybody’s desire to get on the property ladder. She simply said (imagine husky Russian accent): “I don’t think this is a time to strive for possessions. It is a time to create.”
Yes, this place is exceptional in many ways. Between September last year and this March, three teenagers from Palo Alto High Schools have committed suicide. Suicides are a pretty normal occurrence in the Palo Alto school year, but three in the space of roughly six months is a lot, even here. This is happening in Silicon Valley, supposedly one of the best and happiest places in the world to live. We have smiley Californians, good jobs in abundance, perfect weather, interesting and well-educated people from around the world who choose to come here, and yet something seems to be utterly wrong. Frank Bruni describes this so well in his New York Times op-ed. According to a 2013 survey by the C.D.C. (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), 17% of American high school students had considered suicide in the previous year, and 8% said they’d attempted it. That’s a lot of unhappy kids.
But it seems this is not just a Bay Area phenomenon. For the German readers out there, you might want to look at this Huffington Post article. It describes the plight of over-scheduling and turning our kids into robots, this time in a German context, and a school system that is totally different to that of the United States. If you’re interested it reading about new ideas in the field of education and learning, take a look at http://dclass.de/videos/, there is an abundance of interesting material to watch and listen to. And even while writing this, I was alerted to yet another article about this issue, describing someone’s decision to do things differently, how to break away from his own, middle-class educational parameters. It really seems to be a pressing issue. And of course, the classic: If you haven’t seen it yet, Ken Robinson’s talk on how schools kill creativity is an absolute must.

I guess there’s no simple solution to the madness that is childhood and education today. I want to believe in public education, and in my children finding and fighting their way through the good, the bad and the ugly. I’m determined to let them enjoy their childhood as much as possible, and have time to figure out what it is that makes them happy in life. That also entails making absolutely sure they get bored on a regular basis. As a family, we seem to find a lot of downtime. Not so much during the week, when we’re all chasing activities, trying to complete homework and chores before we collapse into bed, the normal day-to-day madness of a normal family. But we always eat dinner together. And we rest at the weekend. By that I mean sleeping in, watching a movie together, sunbathing in the garden, and proper dolce far niente – sweet idleness. But I know plenty of families that don’t do those things regularly, whose weekends sound just as busy and filled to the brim as their weekdays. Maybe it’s a European thing. I couldn’t function without rest every now and then. I need to be not-busy on a regular basis. One of my favorite expressions is this one (by fabulous German author Kurt Tucholsky): “die Seele baumeln lassen”, roughly translated as “to let one’s soul dangle”. In fact, there are a lot of German expressions to do with rest and relaxation that don’t seem to have an equivalent in English. “Zur Ruhe kommen”, for example – which we say when life has been hectic, and we need to slow down, calm down and quieten the mind. Directly translated, this would be “to come to rest”, which in English sounds more like dying! I guess the expression “I can sleep when I’m dead” was not coined in Germany.

Two kids without a schedule doing some soul-dangling

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