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A New Coming-of-Age Story
What does it take for a person to feel excited and ready to lead her own life?
What does it take, for example, for an upcoming high school or college graduate to approach her future with zest, ambition, purpose? Maybe not to know the exact path or where it leads, but to know the next step forward and to dive in with her whole heart and soul? To be all-in on figuring out her goals, creating her abilities, building her life?
When I worked as a high school teacher, and later when I switched careers and went back to college, these questions haunted me. The contrast between what seemed eminently possible, good, right—and what I was confronted with in classrooms—was stark.
For the majority of students, the prospect of directing their own life was regarded with anything but optimism or determination. For many, anxiety was high, and, for some, it was debilitating. For others, the prospect of moving out and starting their own life elicited various degrees of apathy or resentment. Even the rare few who were eager to seize the reins often did it, not to pursue a life they wanted to create, but only to shake off the unchosen duties that they felt shackled to at home and school.
That this is any adolescent or young adult’s experience of her coming-of-age is heartbreaking. That it is a trite and familiar experience, that it is common, is tragic. It is particularly tragic in light of the fact that the most basic purpose of all education—the goal of the countless hours of work and effort of dozens of well-meaning people—teachers, coaches, caretakers—and occupying the time of nearly two decades of the life of an individual young person—is to prepare that person for independent life as an adult.
Three quarters of a century ago, Montessori recognized this problem in education too and provided the key to solving the puzzle:
The inert child who never worked with his hands, who never had the feeling of being useful and capable of effort, who never found by experience that to live means living socially, and that to think and to create means to make use of a harmony of souls; this type of child will become a selfish youth, he will be pessimistic and melancholy and will seek on the surface of vanity the compensation for a lost paradise.
And thus, a lessened man, he will appear at the gates of the university. And to ask for what? To ask for a profession that will render him capable of making his home in a society in which he is a stranger and which is indifferent to him. He will enter into society in order to take part in the functioning of a civilization for which he lacks all feeling. (From Childhood to Adolescence, Appendix C, p. 101 in the Kindle edition.)
What Montessori emphasizes here and throughout her work is that it’s the child’s accumulated experience of himself as capable, as victorious through his own efforts, that enables him to proceed to each new stage of life with confidence. Even more than providing confidence, it’s this sense of capability that enables him to move forward with a great hunger for the future challenges he’ll face and the mountains he’ll climb.
Undertaking meaningful work, the work of building independence across all the domains of life, is fundamental to the child having this experience of himself. The toddler who is deeply interested in zipping his jacket and who labors to do it all by himself—who is expending effort to focus on the task at hand, to hold the zipper in just the right way, to apply just the right amount of force, to pick it up again when it slipped from his hands—is doing more than is immediately obvious. He’s doing more than learning one concrete skill, more than accomplishing a practical goal like staying dry in the rain, and more than gaining the immediate sense of satisfaction and joy that comes with his success.
He’s also weaving a certain kind of orientation toward life into the fabric of his mind and character.
The child is building an orientation toward living life fully. In these and like efforts—some practical and others more academic, some alone and others more social, some obviously educational and others apparently more extra-curricular—he’s learning to be purposeful, to find work that he loves, and not to cut corners but to commit to gaining all the knowledge and completing all the steps necessary for accomplishing his goals. He’s forming an abiding respect for the truth—for figuring out why things work the way they do, for questioning his assumptions and approach, for understanding and evaluating everything. He’s learning to yearn for and celebrate achievement, to seek and gain mastery, to earn the joy and self-confidence that are the fruits of his endurance.
The child who is building this orientation is rehearsing all the skills and attitudes he will need to live life fully as an adult. He’s not waiting for college-prep courses or for his 18th birthday to think about the demands of independence. He’s practicing—here, now, every day—
For Montessori, an educational approach that empowers a child’s work and encourages his independence is education as it should be. It’s education as an aid to life, to a fully lived life. A child with this kind of education can come of age, look out across the vast, uncharted expanse of his future, and not be paralyzed or apathetic at the prospect of charting it for himself. He knows, from repeated and gradually expanding experience, that he can set lofty goals, that he can achieve them, and that the rewards are worth it.
Have a great weekend,