Emotional education in formal education

David Brooks has a sweet column about his emotional education at the hands of Bruce Springsteen. I couldn't agree more that this second education is more crucial to one's well-being and flourishing than is formal education.

The major part of this education cannot be formalized. It partially comes from, as David Brooks suggests, the trial and error of pleasure-seeking. It comes from family and friends and romantic partners. (Looking at my close friends and family, the ones who feel unconditionally loved by parents all have an inner reassurance that is lacking in the others. This makes a greater difference than any parenting technique - whether spanked or not, left to cry it out or not, drilled in etiquette or not, etc.)

But formal education can help.

One way in which it cannot help is by overly dwelling on the minutiae of the social lives of kids, trying to ameliorate lack of popularity or peer pressure (trying to ameliorate bullying is another matter and should definitely be taken seriously). I think there is much more of this ham-handed attempt to educate going on in schools these days. But the lessons of the emotional life are subtle, and, as Brooks suggests, not easily brought to consciousness, much less taught to someone else. One learns emotional education from trying and failing and flailing and reaching out and feeling deep pleasure and deep hurt, not from receiving a context-insensitive script from an adult.

One way in which formal education can help is by de-emphasizing rote memorization and math and reading skills at very young ages, and emphasizing and allowing pretend play. Here's one of my bugaboos again: the push to develop cognition in kids when we don't know much about what we're doing can have long-term unintended consequences. (See: Einstein, Baby). Forcing kids to use flashcards instead of spending time playing in the sandbox can seriously impact emotional education and creativity. From an article on the topic:

Locally and across the nation, time for play has been increasingly squeezed out of kindergarten and first grade as schools, bent on raising student achievement, especially among poor and minority students, have focused on literacy and math skills for children at ever-younger ages. The federal No Child Left Behind Act requires schools to ensure that all children are proficient in math, reading and writing by 2014.

That proficiency is measured on tests, but the far-reaching effects of play don't show up in answers to multiple-choice questions. They show up in life.

Research has shown that by 23, people who attended play-based preschools were eight times less likely to need treatment for emotional disturbances than those who went to preschools where direct instruction prevailed. Graduates of the play-based preschools were three times less likely to be arrested for committing a felony.

"It's not that direct instruction caused delinquency," said Larry Schweinhart, director of the HighScope Research Foundation in Ypsilanti, Mich., which conducted the study and developed the play-based curriculum that Arlington uses in all 31 of its preschool classes for low-income children. "But it wasn't preventing it. It wasn't giving kids an opportunity to develop socially."

Emphasis mine. That's an incredibly dramatic result, far greater than any change in IQ from listening to classical music. It's fine to teach children skills, but make sure that they have time to indulge what they long to do (probably for evolutionarily advantageous reasons): pretend play and socialize. That's how they can teach themselves.

Counterintuitively, teaching older kids using their everyday experiences and teaching them how to manage their social lives can, I think, hinder social and emotional development.

There is a movement to make all education applicable and recognizable to students' lives. Math must use examples from their daily lives, assigned novels should be recently written and reflect the kids' everyday experience, etc. I think this is a terrible mistake. First, it encourages shelteredness - students who live in poor environments who are not exposed to any other environments will continue in their social isolation.

Exposure to other habits and ways of thinking allows one to recognize what is universal and what is particular, what is necessary to human nature, and what is contingent. This is especially valuable to older children. For a teenager, dealing with math on a purely abstract level encourages....the ability to have abstract thoughts and get perspective. Privileged children are expected to learn about other cultures, but we condescend to poor children and have them learn only about themselves. Brooks says:

I followed Springsteen into his world. Once again, it wasn’t the explicit characters that mattered most. Springsteen sings about teenage couples out on a desperate lark, workers struggling as the mills close down, and drifters on the wrong side of the law. These stories don’t directly touch my life, and as far as I know he’s never written a song about a middle-age pundit who interviews politicians by day and makes mind-numbingly repetitive school lunches at night.

What mattered most, as with any artist, were the assumptions behind the stories. His tales take place in a distinct universe, a distinct map of reality. In Springsteen’s universe, life’s “losers” always retain their dignity. Their choices have immense moral consequences, and are seen on an epic and anthemic scale.

There are certain prominent neighborhoods on his map — one called defeat, another called exaltation, another called nostalgia. Certain emotional chords — stoicism, for one — are common, while others are absent. “There is no sarcasm in his writing,” Landau says, “and not a lot of irony.”

I find I can’t really describe what this landscape feels like, especially in newspaper prose. But I do believe his narrative tone, the mental map, has worked its way into my head, influencing the way I organize the buzzing confusion of reality, shaping the unconscious categories through which I perceive events.

Novels moved me more than music when I was a kid, and the novels that moved me were, among many others, A Wrinkle in Time, the Narnia books, Jane Eyre, Charlotte's Web, Little House on the Prairie. Many took place in the 19th century, many were overtly Christian, many were British. None took place in a Jewish suburban family on Long Island in the contemporary day. Yet they still had much to teach me.

For little kids, allow them time to play and socialize. For older kids, force them to read those novels that, at first pass, don't speak to their lives. Have them learn subjects that don't apply to their daily lives. And don't micromanage their social lives. And, if you're a parent, love them a lot and also let them be and explore the world for themselves.


  1. Love this post, Elizabeth. And share many of your favorite books. Add to my list the Anne of Avonlea series and Phantom Tollbooth.
    I found a great play-based school for my son, but am having a devil of a time finding a play-based kindergarten and first grade. We have time, but I've read too much about how the literacy rate was much higher before mandatory schooling, and how the current system is intent on producing followers, not thinkers, to want my child forced to read before age 7 or 8.
    Why kill the love of learning early, whe all kids are natural scientists and will learn more than we can ever teach if allowed to choose what interests them?

  2. LOVED all of Anne of Green Gables and the Phantom Tollbooth, too! And a shout-out to Lizard Music, if it's even still in print.