Follow your passions. That’s what almost every commencement speaker says to the new graduates. It’s almost cruel. If all you’ve been doing is school and school-like stuff, how do you have any idea what your passions might be or how to follow them? To find and follow your passions you need lots of time and freedom to play. Play, almost by definition, IS following your passions. But we’ve pretty much removed play from young people’s lives.
Over the past several decades we’ve continuously increased the amount of time that children spend at school, and at schoolwork at home, and at school-like activities outside of school. We’ve turned childhood into a time of résumé building. You don’t build passions by building a résumé, trying to impress other people. You build passions by doing what you love, regardless of what others think. It’s no surprise that people who are famous for their passionate achievements have often declared their dislike or even hatred of school. For quotes about schooling from 50 such people, see here.
Wounded by School
Some years ago, Kirsten Olson, who was then a Harvard graduate student, began to conduct research on the ways that highly successful people were inspired by their experiences at school. She hoped to document how passions were kindled by school. But her early findings led her to turn that thesis around by 180 degrees. The book that eventually came out of that work is entitled Wounded by School. [For my review of the book, see here.] Here is quotation from the book’s forward, written by her thesis advisor Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot: “In her first foray into the field–in-depth interviews with an award-winning architect, a distinguished professor, a gifted writer, a marketing executive–Olson expected to hear stories of joyful and productive learning….
Instead, she discovered the shadows of pain, disappointment, even cynicism in their vivid recollections of schooling. Instead of the light she expected, she found darkness.And their stories did not merely refer to old wounds now healed; they recalled deeply embedded wounds that still bruised and ached, wounds that still compromised and distorted their sense of themselves as persons and professionals.”
Since the time when Olson’s respondents would have been in school, school has become even more oppressive. Recess has been reduced or removed. Creative activities have been largely removed from the curriculum. Homework has been increased. All in the name of improving scores on multiple-choice, one-right-answer standardized tests. The results of all this are not surprising. Research has shown that over these same decades, creative thinking has declined at all grade levels (here); and anxiety, depression, and suicide among young people have increased (here and here). A 2014 survey by the American Psychological Association found that teenagers were the most stressed-out people in America, and 83% of them attributed their stress to school (here). These are not conditions that promote the development of passionate interests.
My brother Fred
Now I’m going to switch to something happier, and tell you about my youngest brother Fred Carlson. His last name is different from mine because he has a different father. Fred is 12 years younger than me, so he started 1st grade in public school the same year I started college. He lasted there through 4th grade. Around that time my mother became something of a hippie and moved onto a Vermont commune with my younger brothers. Fred left public school then and attended a little free school, which my mother helped to start. The school had no imposed curriculum and he could do there whatever he wished.
That school wasn’t certified as a high school, however, so, at age 14, he enrolled in 9th grade at the local public school. On his second day there the principal told him, “We don’t like you hippie types around here.” So he left and never went back. Then, with no school, he hung around the commune for a couple of years and helped to build a house. He got interested in wood and carpentry. He also got interested in music and learned to play guitar and banjo.
When he was 16 he enrolled in a publicly supported program designed for high-school dropouts. The guy who ran the program asked him what he’d like to do, and he said, “I’d like to build a banjo.” Nobody there knew anything about instrument building, but the head of the program helped Fred find a local person, a guy named Ken, who had a woodworking shop and knew some things about banjo building. And so, with Ken’s help, Fred built a banjo. After that, Fred used the small sum of money that his father had saved for his education to take a 6-week course at a guitar-building school and to purchase the equipment he needed to set up his own shop. The rest is history.
By the time Fred was 21 years old, one of his beautiful guitars was on display at the Smithsonian Museum. Ever since then he’s continued to make one instrument after another, each one different from any of the others; each one a new invention. He is famous among luthiers for his artistry, creativity, and craftsmanship. (For one example, see the inserted photo; for other examples, see here.) Fred believes, and so do I, that if he had stayed in school he would never have found his passion.
Self-Directed Education as the Pursuit of Passions
I’ve spent part of my academic career researching the outcomes of Self-Directed Education—that is, outcomes for people who did not go to a curriculum-based school, but, instead, educated themselves by pursuing their own interests. These include, many years ago, a study of the graduates of the Sudbury Valley School, in Massachusetts, where students, from age 4 on through late teenage years, are free all day to pursue their own interests; and, more recently, a study of grown unschoolers (see here and here).
Unschoolers are people who for legal purposes are homeschoolers, but are not bound by a curriculum and are continuously free to pursue their own interests. The most interesting finding, for our concern now, is that a high percentage of these young adults were pursuing careers that were direct extensions of passionate interests they had developed as children in play.