Loved this story in Intelligent Life magazine, which asked seven thinkers and writers what they consider the most essential subject to learn in school.
Their answers: music, emotional intelligence, cultural literacy, history (backwards), basic geography, open-air dawdling, physics.
Of open-air dawdling, Deb Wilenski answered:
I have worked in the wild outdoors with young children and educators for more than ten years. I work in classrooms too, but there is no better place for dawdling than the woods. Free from the props and expectations of The Curriculum, children become explorers, philosophers, inventors, illustrators, poets, scientists, professionals of every kind.
If I were in charge of education, I would build open-air dawdling into the curriculum, giving every child time, slow time, to explore their own burning questions. The best subject is the one you can’t leave alone.
Here’s Jessica Lahey on cultural literacy:
Consequently, every subject depends on cultural literacy. The underlying warp of the class could be Latin, literature, writing or law, but the weft is all connection, linking new content to the strands of knowledge the students already possess. Words that are utterly forgettable in their dry state of denotation can be retained given connotation and a bit of context. Characters and plot lines that might otherwise slip through holes in attention become memorable when safely tethered by literary allusion.
Before we read Chapter 15 of “Great Expectations”, I tell the story of Cain and Abel. Cain’s jealousy, murderous anger and subsequent exile prepare my students to meet Orlick, the morose journeyman with no liking for Pip. When they read “he would slouch out, like Cain or the Wandering Jew,” they have a nuanced understanding of Orlick, and see why Pip senses that he may become fuel for his ire.
I attended private school Grades 4-9, and am grateful I did, even as I also learned to loathe arbitrary rules, (aren’t they all?!), crummy boarding school food and sharing a bedroom with four strangers.
I still vividly recall our terrifying fifth grade teacher who had us use carbon paper to trace the maps of various countries so we would learn what they looked like and our eighth grade teacher — whose last name rhymed, appropriately enough, with the words gruff, tough and rough — who had us ploughing through The Scarlet Letter, a dictionary necessary for almost every single sentence.
What did I learn that’s most useful to me, decades later?
To question and challenge authority. It’s not a subject taught in any classroom, but it’s a crucial life skill, certainly for a woman, a feminist and, as a journalist, someone paid to ask questions
To trust my judgement. Even as a child, much to some teachers’ frustration, I knew what mattered most to me and fought for my principles.
To see the world as a place worth exploring, as often and widely as possible. Reading work from other cultures, traveling, listening to the stories of people who’d ventured out and come back, whetted my lifelong appetite for more of the same.
To understand that someone expecting excellence of me will bring out my best. I’m a high-octane girl and need a lot of intellectual stimulation and challenge. I’m much happier feeling scared of a difficult assignment from which I’ll learn and grow than bored silly by something mundane and simple.
To write quickly and confidently. Our private school had an annual essay contest, in which Grades 4, 5 and 6 would compete against one another, Grades 7 and 8, Grades 9, 10 and 11 and Grades 12 and 13, (this was Ontario, Canada.) I won the contest in Grade 8, giving me, even then, the confidence I could do this writing thing, well and under pressure. It’s what I’ve been doing for a living for a long time.
To savor nature. Our school grounds had enormous chestnut trees and every fall I’d marvel at the ground littered with their thick, spongy, spiky green casings — and the glossy brown nuts inside them. We’d walk the block every morning, scuffing through leaves or snow. Being alone outdoors also offered a blessed respite from constant company, in class, at meals, in the common room or in our bedrooms.
I later studied English literature for four years at University of Toronto, Canada’s highest-ranked, but also learned that I don’t enjoy sitting still for hours being lectured to, no matter how much I love to learn new material. I much preferred my training at the New York School of Interior Design, two decades later, also because choosing color or knowing what materials work best in certain situations has proven a more useful tool day-to-day than the nuances of 16th-century drama.
I don’t envy today’s teachers — competing with (or at best making great use of) technology but also “teaching to the test”.
I fear that some of life’s most important skills, from financial literacy to civics to how our bodies work and how to keep them healthy, have little to no place in most classrooms. We learn them much later, if we’re lucky.
What did you learn in your early years of formal education you still find most useful today?
Here is the truth: I hated camp. I hated camp so much, and continue to hate it and to resent the fact that I hated it, that I’ve come to develop a grand, if wobbly, theory about it. The world divides into those people who despised camp and those people who loved it. What about those who never even went? They would probably fall into either camp if they had.
People who like camp, naturally (that’s a key word in this divide) are different from me in every way. Campers are outgoing; they are out-everything, really — outdoorsy, outward bound. They dart through bushes without worrying about ticks or slugs or sharp metal objects hidden in the undergrowth. They enjoy getting undressed in front of large groups of strangers. They know how to throw and catch Frisbees. They don’t mind bologna.
You learn to pick your bunk, preferably the lower one so you can draw your knees up and kick the bum of the kid above you. You hope the kid above you does not wet the bed, snore or have an epileptic fit.
You learn to hoist a sail, build a fire, portage a canoe, gunwhale bob (and pronounce gunwhale, “gunnel”), twang a bow, pitch a tent, collect firewood from the highest branches (using a Melamine mug and long rope swung like a lasso.)
You get homesick, and get over it. You discover you’re really good at the J-stroke or singing Broadway show tunes in the summer musical. You learn how to cup your hands and imitate a loon call.
You learn how to spot a loon across a lake before he dives deep and disappears. You learn to find your place in a new community, amid the bed-wetters and thumb-suckers, the jocks and the artistes.
You realize, no matter how poorly you might fit into your class or your school or your neighborhood or town or your family, these people are genuinely happy to see you. The best counselors, and they are gifts indeed, want to see you thrive and grow. Your shoulders drop a little with relief.
Camp is definitely a North American thing, and usually for people whose families have healthy incomes.
For me, it was also the place I put myself back together again — emotionally and intellectually — after yet another year in boarding school being yelled at by old, fat Scottish housemothers and competing all the time for grades. There, I was often in trouble, being messy and scoring low marks for our room’s neatness, which then required that I memorize Bible verses (yes) in order to even be allowed off campus for the weekend.
I attended summer camp for all eight weeks ages eight to 16, and went to three of them, all in northern Ontario, each about three hours by bus from my home city of Toronto. Each camp was all-girl, and one of the things it taught me is that smart, athletic, kind girls rock.
The counselors who took us out on 10-day canoe trips through Algonquin Park, battling rain and black flies, were female. They kept us alive!
I doubt I’d have been as comfortable in a Nicaraguan dugout canoe without it!
Competence was expected and excellence often the norm. Those are powerful lessons for any young girl.
If you come from a happy family, and/or have a safe, calm and lovely place to escape city smell, noise and humidity during the summer, camp isn’t probably very appealing.
But if you don’t, and also hunger for a place where all your talents can thrive — and the best camps do — it can be such a refuge.
It was for me. One reason I’m still so deeply comforted by nature is having spent so much time in it there: canoeing, hiking, sailing, swimming and living in a wooden cabin with the sound of the lake lapping on the rocks below. Sharing space with four or five or six girls I didn’t know was normal after boarding school.
And only in the safe harbor of camp was I able to fully become all the things I wanted to be: a singer, actress, sailor, friend, and even a leader of my peers. No school or classroom, anywhere, ever, allowed me such freedom, or gave me access to so many people who loved me, every year, for the quirky and creative kid I was, and would remain.
Camp gave me the confidence I might never have found elsewhere, and the guts to survive three years of high school bullying. I am grateful beyond measure for having had that experience.
It’s been quite the year. Here are my four (major) epiphanies for 2011, three pleasant, one not so much…
Why I work
Earlier this year, I took a fascinating test offered to me gratis by James Sale, a British businessman who found me on LinkedIn. His company, Motivational Maps, helps companies and workers find the best possible fit between their deepest personal values and their job. After taking this quick but incisive test, you’ll learn whether you most want to be a Builder, Friend, Star, Director or other role.
I emerged as a Creator and Seeker, which surprised me, but explained a lot. It clarified a wearying battle between my desire for a higher income and my joy in doing good work that satisfies me.
I’ve been duped for decades
The details are too grim and convoluted to share here, but I learned this year that my mother has been lying to me for a long time, relying on my ignorant goodwill. Words fail me on this one.
I’m spiritually hungry
I did an eight-day silent retreat this summer with Jose. I dreaded it, but learned a lot and came away moved and inspired: by the Buddhist teachings, the spirit of community, the wisdom and humor of our teachers and some new, helpful ways of thinking and behaving. (Visit my website if you’d like to read my piece about it from November’s Marie-Claire.)
Spending time in natural surroundings nurtures me deeply
For a New York Times story, I spent eight hours in a Central Park thicket studying wilderness survival techniques, which reminded me how much I love being outdoors, in nature, far away from machines and noise and screens and things that blink and beep. If 2012 allows, maybe it’s the year I finally buy a canoe, small sailboat or kayak so I can get out on the Hudson River and really enjoy it!