Is School a Game?

A very interesting and sometimes contentious conversation on this question popped up on an e-mail discussion list I participate in.

I can’t quote from other participants, but in general the discussion centered on whether or not it was healthy or wise for gifted kids to treat school as a game. In other words, whether (or to what extent) they should play along with the system and jump through required hoops even when they seem pointless.

This list is made up of people who would never homeschool, former homeschoolers, current homeschoolers who plan to send their kids to school eventually, and die-hard homeschoolers, so you can imagine there was a range of opinion. And even homeschoolers sometimes find themselves wondering whether a kid ought to do something because that’s just the way it’s done.

One person pointed to this essay, a speech by Paul Graham intended for high school students, which says in part:

If I had to go through high school again, I’d treat it like a day job. I don’t mean that I’d slack in school. Working at something as a day job doesn’t mean doing it badly. It means not being defined by it. I mean I wouldn’t think of myself as a high school student, just as a musician with a day job as a waiter doesn’t think of himself as a waiter. And when I wasn’t working at my day job I’d start trying to do real work.

And on the college admissions process it says:

By putting you in this situation, society has fouled you. Yes, as you suspect, a lot of the stuff you learn in your classes is crap. And yes, as you suspect, the college admissions process is largely a charade. But like many fouls, this one was unintentional. So just keep playing.

Rebellion is almost as stupid as obedience. In either case you let yourself be defined by what they tell you to do. The best plan, I think, is to step onto an orthogonal vector. Don’t just do what they tell you, and don’t just refuse to. Instead treat school as a day job. As day jobs go, it’s pretty sweet. You’re done at 3 o’clock, and you can even work on your own stuff while you’re there.

The conversation and the speech really touched a nerve with me, because both V’s and my earlier experience.

We tried very hard to get Violet, back when she was 6, to jump through certain hoops in order to get her needs met. I think we learned a couple of things from this experience:

1. Often, people who make you jump through hoops are stalling and are not necessarily going to do anything for you once you’ve met the first set of requirements. Just as likely, they will come up with a second set of hoops. Playing along can set a bad precedent. Judge carefully before you proceed. When you tell your young child that if he/she will just cooperate and do the easy work, they will then get challenging work, and then this doesn’t happen, it doesn’t take a genius to see that there is no reason to cooperate, and no reason to trust.

2. Some personalities are better at playing along than others, and this is probably dependent on age as well. I have always sought out occupations that give me maximum independence, both from superiors and from subordinates, and so has my husband. It would be too much to expect that our daughter would be radically different. Actually, the Ed.Psych. we consulted told us it was good, in a way, that our daughter was not willing to simply go along in a bad situation. Many gifted girls do, to their long-term detriment.

I think “playing the game” and tolerating tedium are two somewhat different things, though both are useful skills. A person can be good at one, but not the other. I try to model for my children that parts of my work are fascinating, stimulating, and exciting, and parts are insanely tedious. From what I can tell, that describes most kinds of work and most education/training. A willingness to slog through the tedium is absolutely necessary. However, I also look for opportunities to minimize the tedium so that I can focus on the good stuff — who wouldn’t?

“Playing the game” is more of a social skill — whether it is “suffering fools gladly,” as Leta Hollingworth said, or learning to wait your turn and give others a chance to shine as well.

I absolutely wish my kids were more flexible and able to tolerate things that are less-than-ideal, and I do try to work with them on that. At age 6, that did and does not seem an achievable goal. My husband and I are 40, and we are still working on it! Violet is now 10, and it is easier. Developmentally, kids become more interested in peers (to varying degrees), and this can be an opportunity to learn some empathy and patience with others. Working hard on one of your passions can also be a good learning experience — piano has taught and continues to teach my daughter about the need to do tedious work in order to do the fun stuff. Ditto learning Chinese — sometimes memorizing is just dull memorizing, but it serves a purpose that she’s interested in. As she gets older, the connection between those things becomes clearer to her.

I very much relate to the Paul Graham speech — that is just how I approached high school. But I was 14 then, and the tantalizing world of adulthood was so close I could almost touch it. The end was in sight. Likewise, I no longer have a day job vs. a real job — wasn’t that the point of my post-secondary education? The way of thinking Graham describes seems to apply to a period of time that everyone — including the student — knows is transitory and unique.

For an elementary age kid, childhood is still stretching on forever in front of them, and adulthood doesn’t even seem that desirable. I’m not sure either the game or the “day job” metaphor would work in the same way.

What do you think?

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3 Comments

Filed under Gifted Ed, Gifted Heart and Soul, Why Homeschool?

3 responses to “Is School a Game?

  1. If you learn to play the game and jump through the hoops, you are never going to be able to think outside the box and therefore discover some incredible cure, or invent something no one has ever considered before, or find a way to teleport people safely, or write a genius novel.

    Whatever metaphor people want to use doesn’t change the fact that school trains children to be factory workers, obedient voters, sheep.

    Think about the greatest geniuses of history. Very few of them went to school for long.

  2. lapazfarm

    I like the day-job analogy, but I think it’s usefulness is limited. No child is going to think that way because they cannot see beyond the now. And it would even be a rare teenager who has the self-confidence to be able to rise above his circumstances and say “this does not define me.” That requires a level of detachment that I’m not sure many teens can achieve. Maybe an exceptional few. Heck, it is hard for many adults who see themselves as defined by their careers or other externals (whether they like them or not). You really have to know yourself to be able to discard that way of thinking, and kids are just discovering who they are. After all, isn’t it only in college that most of us begin to “find ourselves”?
    So, yes, the analogy works as someone older looking back and saying “if I had it to do over again…” but not so much as a kid who is living it.

  3. School is essential. Interacting with new people and making new friends. You dont only learn the subjects, you also learn about life.

    Its vital to go to school and not homeschools… in my opinion

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