I’ll be good, you’ll see, take this dream away

August 25, 2008

I think this is a great post. I identified with a lot, especially “A lot of my problems with work over the years have stemmed from the feeling that I wasn’t doing all I could, that I ought to be achieving more.”

I was a high flyer. In school I got top marks without, um, ever doing any work at all. In college, likewise. This has had many consequences for me, not all bad. But one is that there’s always been a little voice in my head, repeating, “People are looking at you. You can’t let them see you fail.” That hasn’t been particularly helpful, because, as Trunk and SJ point out, the standard of achievement against which I am judging myself is of course a myth. (And other people aren’t thinking about me anyway, except in the vaguest of terms.)

I also agree with SJ that what we are taught in schools does not fit us well for adult life. I cannot imagine a circumstance under which I will be called upon to solve a partial differential equation. I adore knowing Latin, but its only value in my life is for crosswords and showing off. The only things I regularly use that I learned in school are English grammar and typing.

It is of course more complicated – my academic skills have some value, even if my knowledge doesn’t. It’s useful to be able to tell real from false logic, to be able to analyse each situation and look for the patterns that unite them. It’s exceptionally useful to be able to read. But I think SJ’s right to point out that, without the requisite social skills, the careers in which I can be successful are limited, whatever my abilities. Rocket science, IT, engineering, that thing in investment banking where you work out the value of obscure structured finance products, or the Treasury – and that’s about it. (Counter-intelligence, perhaps?)

I’ve spent most of my adult life teaching myself the social skills I need. It’s been hard going, and I’ve often been very resentful of the fact that I’ve had to do it myself. I used to go round posturing about how it would be different when I Am In Charge: children would be taught things that would be of use to them, such as listening and cooking and self-awareness and how to live within one’s income and where to find the main stopcock and why good manners are a Good Thing. (And reading.)

But it’s not quite that simple. If I look back on myself as a teenager, could anyone actually have got me to pay attention to such lessons? Was the environment safe to practice them? Could I have understood them, and why they were useful? If I wasn’t willing to study language and literature, would I really have shown up for personal development?

It’s a conundrum. I disliked school very much indeed, and it is true to say that it didn’t fit me for the world. Personally I no longer want to blame the institution for that, because I prefer to take the responsibility. I don’t like the idea of being a victim of my school days twenty years on. But I’m also aware that I am very privileged, and I should not generalise from my own experience.

I also think that Ros is right (in comments) to question the roles of the school and the parent. Carol Craig, whom I admire, points out* that a major danger of incorporating social and emotional aspects of learning into the curriculum is that it is letting parents off the hook for their part of the civil contract. To her, the privilege argument is irrelevant – we are disempowering all children by doing this. It doesn’t matter that some parents have more resources than others.

I absolutely agree that we could get a lot better at scoping education so that it is useful for both the individual and society, but I’m not certain I’d start from there.

* The main report is 100 pages, but there’s an 18 page ‘summary’ hiding somewhere on the site if you’re really interested.

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11 Responses to “I’ll be good, you’ll see, take this dream away”

  1. Sarah Jane Says:

    The thing is, I think that socialisation is one of the key things school does do for most children. Parents can’t teach their children how to get on with their peer group nearly as effectively as that peer group itself (they can tell them it’s important to do so, of course). But I just tried to opt out of socialisation as much as possible. Would I have made more of an effort if I’d been told that it was as important as the other lessons? I don’t know. I certainly wasn’t told that (very much the opposite, in fact, especially when I’d come home crying because I’d been bullied or fallen out with the few friends I did have).

  2. Francesca Says:

    This is predicated, though, on the assumption that children do what they’re told is important. Do you think that is true? A lot of people don’t work for exams or leave school early despite advice, and then regret it in later life.

    I wonder whether it’s possible for adults to do much to help children socialise? I always wished I’d been taught how to look attractive by my mother, who always looks fabulous but never spends more than five minutes on her appearance except when I’m in charge of it. (Her feet look like something out of the Lord of the Rings.) But I don’t actually know whether I could have learned what I now know through any other route except working it out myself, the hard way.

  3. Sheenagh Says:

    I’ve arrived at what I think is a fairly similar place, but by such a different path. I loved school. It had all the things I lked – clearly-defined tasks and rewards for completing those tasks. And I was ‘clever’ at school things, and able to take part in music, if not sport. I was also extremely lucky to go to acemidcally-selective all-girls schools (primary and secondary, well, we had boys up to aged 7) where ‘being brainy’ was not considered that odd.

    And I was taught socialisation – by my parents, more than by school. But it was taught (as I am the daughter an a ‘classic’ introvert and a very, very social showoffy introvert – if that makes sense) that this was a game we played, where we lie (ooh, I love that dress) and talk about things we don’t find interesting, but the other person might, and where we don’t express our opinion loudly or at all, if people might disagree. Which has left me good at small talk (I was always the one my friends’ parents got palmed off on if they had to go to work/to a lecture and I wasn’t busy) and I’m very good at a very superficial level of friendship. What I really don’t quite get is how you maintain those deep friendships that last a lifetime. I’m lucky to have a couople, but mainly because they’re very good at keeping it going. I love them to bits, but I could really quite easily not speak to them for 6 months and not feel I was missing much.

  4. Francesca Says:

    This is really interesting. I’m completely at the opposite end of the spectrum – I have had to work hard to teach myself small talk and, although I think I pass these days, I never really feel I’m doing it right. I didn’t learn it at home; my mother does it naturally (and therefore wouldn’t know what to teach) and my father not at all.

    This is kindling another post about how we learn and teach. Hmm.

  5. Sarah Jane Says:

    I certainly did what I was told was important. But then again, I was far from being an average child, and I suspect the average children put less emphasis on schoolwork and socialised better anyway (my youngest brother is a very clear example of this).

    My mother taught me not to worry too much about my appearance, for which I am eternally grateful. (Yes, I know I waste a lot of time thinking about clothes and shoes. Imagine how much more time I’d waste if I was also thinking about makeup and hairstyling!)

  6. Francesca Says:

    I waste a lot of time thinking about clothes and shoes.

    You see it as wasted time? I thought it made you happy.

    As you and I have discussed before, I suspect a lot of our differences in motivation are down to introversion and extraversion. Relationships – of any sort – have always been more important to me than anything else.

  7. Francesca Says:

    But I also think the appearance thing is directly relevant to the socialisation thing. Your original post was about the skills one requires to get on; a big part of that is by being attractive to be around. There’s a reasonable amount of evidence correlating attractive looks with success for both men and women*, although of course they might both be influenced by some other variable such as how hard one tries.

    * Take it as read that it’s more true for women, and more perniciously so. If anyone wants, I will dig out the evidence in the next couple of days.

  8. Sarah Jane Says:

    I enjoy looking at pretty clothes, and it’s fun to put things together in new and interesting ways. But when I find myself distracted from work by trying to track down the perfect pair of shoes/trousers/top and obsessing over it until I find it then yes, I do think it’s a waste of time.

    And I suspect that relationships really ought to be more important to me than they are. I don’t necessarily think they should be the most important thing, but getting on with people *is* important, and I have almost no natural impulse towards that.

  9. Francesca Says:

    But when I find myself distracted from work by trying to track down the perfect pair of shoes/trousers/top and obsessing over it until I find it then yes, I do think it’s a waste of time.

    That’s interesting. I do similar, but I never think the clothes are a waste of time. I think I’m wasting time.

    Put another way, I know perfectly well that if it weren’t the clothes, it would be something else. So I can’t really blame the clothes.

  10. Sarah Jane Says:

    Somehow wasting time writing fanfic or tracking down literary references or looking up knitting patterns doesn’t seem so bad, though. It may not be what I’m supposed to be doing, but it’s constructive in itself. As is playing with my existing wardrobe, in fact; it’s the consumerist “must have x” that makes me uncomfortable. This is why I want to learn to make more of my own clothes.

  11. Francesca Says:

    I’ve always wanted to be able to make my own clothes, albeit for slightly different reasons, I think.

    I think that at least part of me looks at my wardrobe as performance art, or something like that. I know that sounds very pretentious, but it is the best way I know to describe the feeling. Somehow time spent on my wardrobe often seems like time less wasted than time spent doing almost anything else, because I am really good at it. It is a chance to practice my art.

    And of course, I also do it at least in part to learn more so that I’m better in my practice with others. So I think there are at least two eudaimonic elements to it when I’m doing it.


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