In high school, you were told that you needed to be well-rounded. So you tell your students and your children and your grandchildren and your nieces and your nephews and your dog, “Son, you need to be well-rounded or you’ll never be successful.” But think about that. No, really really think about it. When has well-roundedness ever helped you… ever? When was the last time well-roundedness helped you in your life in a practical way?
Now, I’m not saying we should all be one-trick ponies. Humans are complex. We are curious. At any given time, we have a diverse panoply of interests that consume us and make us unique.
But well-roundedness in the modern world, like many features of the education system, has taken a toxic turn. No longer is it about becoming a whole human being. No longer is it just about finding passions, honing skills and exploring interests. A lot of the time, it’s not even truly about the kids. It’s about parents. It’s about schools. It’s about colleges. It’s about fear. It’s about everything but the kids.
Here’s how this insidious myth of well-roundedness is poisoning our generation:
1. It leaves no room for wonder: After 7 hours of school, 2 hours of extra school, football, ballet, piano and volunteering, where does a child get time to be a child? Where is the time to let their minds wander, to nurture that hungry imagination? If you think keeping children always active is what is going to drive them to success, check the facts. The Einsteins, the Lilly Singhs, the Gates’ and the Zuckerbergs of the world all came up with their revolutionary ideas how? They passionately explored things outside of the paraphernalia of school life. They gave their minds time to wander.
2. It is exhausting our human resources: Think about Arianna Huffington. She became an avid advocate for sleep after she fell asleep at her desk and ended up fracturing her jaw bone. From my experience of once being a child and now working with children, I know that by the time most children leave school and enter the work force, every ounce of vitality and love for learning has been sucked dry from their bones. They live without passion. They make bad decisions. They have a lot of suppressed emotion. They lack creativity. They are tired before they start. What kind of work force is that?
3. It leaves children’s minds fractured and fearful: Social media distractions are already tearing our chidren’s minds in a million different directions. But the truth is: keeping them engaged in so many different fields of endeavour all at once is doing the same thing. Furthermore, what we are creating for our children is what psychologist Brené Brown calls a “culture of scarcity” — a culture of “never enough.” We teach them that they need to have everything figured out and know exactly what they want to do with their lives but in the same breath, we tell them that they have to do as many things as possible so they will always have something to fall back on. Even with the best of intentions, what we are teaching them is that they are not good enough and they will never be good enough so they have to at least look good enough on paper; they must have a lot of subjects and activities and accolades behind them if they are to have any kind of self-worth and become successful. But if you’re juggling too many things at once, naturally, the ball is going to drop somewhere. In fact, more often than not, all the balls drop and students can’t seem to excel at anything and they internalise this as something being intrinsically wrong with them when really, it’s the system that’s broken. An elephant is incredibly strong but if you ask him to carry the sun, he’s going to fall flat.
4. It confuses children: Sheena Iyengar and Barry Schwartz, in separate TED talks discuss the “choice overload problem” facing the Western world. With all the best of intentions based on our cultural programming, we want to give our children as much choice as possible so we make sure they study Math, sciences, businesses and languages, while excelling at a sport and a club and an instrument and volunteering. Just in case. Just in case. The problem with this is that when our brains are presented with too many choices, we become paralysed. It is difficult especially for young minds and especially when we don’t have a concrete image of the consequences of our choices. Let’s be real: studying Chemistry in school does not actually give a student much insight on what her life will be like as a pharmacist. When faced with too many different or abstract choices, we choose not to choose or we make bad decisions. This is why many students are confused about what they want to do when they leave school.
5. It promotes a “do it for the likes” culture: It’s our modern-day version of “keeping up with the Joneses.” I listen to students’ stories of struggling through the lives their parents have created for them. I watch their tired faces and tired minds struggle to hold together. But I also watch them wear “busy” and “#TeamNoSleep” as badges of honour. I hear them doubt their self-worth because “Ashley is doing all my clubs plus 11 CSEC subjects and I’m only doing 9. What’s wrong with me?” I watch them post their busy lives and their constant state of fatigue online and revel in their lethargy in a way that is almost pornographic. We create lives that look good on the outside instead of lives that truly feel good on the inside and we teach our children to do the same. Misery on a pedestal perched far too high is the inheritance we are leaving for our children.
6. It doesn’t allow children to really hone their skills and excel at any one thing: How amazing our children would be if they could get an early jumpstart on a career! In former times, parents would just train their children from a very young age to do whatever they did. Now, I’m not saying we’re going to go back to a time where boys became hunter-gatherers like their fathers and girls were proficient homemakers by the time they hit puberty. But steering a child along one particular career path from an early age, in a kind of apprenticeship, is not such a bad thing. That way, they really get to excel at one thing, which limits their emotional fatigue and their indecision and is more likely to make them successful.
The truth is, there are different understandings of what it means to be well-rounded. The pervasive definition discussed above will not serve us. Certainly, a child should be exposed to a variety of things and should be allowed to try their hand at a variety of things that interest them. After all, they will never have as much time as they do now. But do we really expect them to be good at all of them?
They can have it all but not at the same time.
True well-roundedness is not about what you consistently do. It’s about what you consistently are. A child can focus on one main thing and still become a truly rounded individual. It just depends on what that one thing is teaching them. For example, a child can study languages and literature as their main focus from an early age. This course of study will teach them discipline, creativity and empathy. It will also hone their skills in communication, critical thinking and writing. That child sounds pretty whole and rounded to me.
I know it’s scary to think about the world in which our children will live. We believe in them and want to give them as many possibilities as we can. We’re always thinking, “What if they don’t make it?” “What if they grow up to hate their lives and become unhappy?” “What if I don’t give them enough options so that they can make the best choice for their lives?” “What if they end up poor?” “What if I make the wrong choice?” I know it’s hard but we should have a little more faith in them and in ourselves. Truth be told, the average person will have several careers in their lifetime. A Jamaican doctor recently left a great career in medicine to become a restauranteur. Jamaicans are retiring from their jobs in medicine and architecture to go study law. That’s life.
Let’s teach children what Angela Lee Duckworth calls “grit” — the sweet spot where passion and focus meet perseverance. Instead of teaching them to be well-rounded, what we need to teach them is what authors like Michelle Obama and Nicole McLaren-Campbell are advocating: they can have it all but not all at the same time. We must teach our children to believe that they are never stuck, that life is fluid but they need to wade in the waters and that they can always re-invent themselves at any time. We should teach this to our children as we teach it to ourselves. Rather than lighting a fire in our children, well-roundedness is setting our children on fire. Let’s light the myth of well-roundedness and throw it under a bus. #Focus2019