I am required by NY state to submit end-of-year assessments for my homeschooled children. When I retrieved the tests for my youngest two from a fellow homeschooler’s mailbox (we had joined in on a bulk test order) I was relieved to see that the scores of my youngest son had risen slightly. He had earned “low average” and “low” and even a “high average” in various areas, but not a single “very low” like he had last year. I had just ascertained from a specialist that he does indeed have a vision problem, which explains his general inability to work academically. He had surprised me as took the test, with me reading him the questions, with a rudimentary understanding of grammar. How would a person who can’t read know to put a comma anywhere?
I was reflecting on how the vision specialist kept referring to the difficulties that my son must encounter as he tries to do his “assignments”. My husband and I hinted that he didn’t actually have assignments, but we could tell that the specialist was not ready to truly understand the freedom that our children enjoy to essentially educate themselves when they are younger. Because of his vision difficulties, my son’s “freedom” had stretched on longer than even we had expected.
Meanwhile, my oldest son had picked up a friend from the airport who had flown in from Bejing to return to the US early in the hopes of working the remainder of the summer before they both resume animation school. He spent several days at our house. He was visibly skeptical about most of the food that we put in front of him, undoubtedly scarred by the year of bad cafeteria food. It turned out that he is a very good cook and he made first a delicious egg and vegetable breakfast for us, and then the dinner that is pictured above. It was inspiring to watch him cook and to realize how many more vegetables they eat at all meals in China. Not too many bowls of cereal or sandwiches get consumed I guess.
When my son returned from dropping him off at the airport for the last leg of his trip back to school, my son told me that his friend had been most astonished by watching the younger siblings “do nothing”. He explained to my son that in China, it is not OK for children to do nothing. As I went around doing my chores and activities the rest of the day, I pondered this. I knew this about China; my middle son even had studied cello with two separate Chinese instructors who shared memories of living in “music buildings” where everyone played instruments as much as possible so as to be the best that they could be at playing said instrument. Both instructors had parents who were musicians and drove the kids to practice many hours a day. Now though, I felt a bit like I had been plunged into icy cold water on a hot day. I was so accustomed to thinking of myself as a protector of my children’s freedom to learn at their own pace. “Doing nothing” is important in our house; important enough to warrant banning television and video watching when the children were younger. The internet had introduced a whole new challenge as far as allowing time for “nothing”. Something about the perspective from a different culture shook me up thoroughly. Maybe education in China was less about rote memorization and more about full engagement of the intellect? My son’s friend had stated that in China, people believed it was important to learn as much as was humanly possible; the idea was to acquire as much knowledge as possible. I had thought about this before; I had often wished that I had the resources to expose all four children to a second language when they were very young. And then, it had occurred to me that a rigorous study of classical subjects at a younger age might be beneficial. I had opted instead to essentially let them play until at 12 or 13 they began to want to study academic subjects like math and English. Does this encourage creative critical thinking? My son’s friend apparently marveled that one of the younger brothers could “do nothing” for years, and then buckle down to study hard and perhaps gain entrance to a top University.
It’s good to have an ideological shake-up once in a while.