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Learning: Freedom vs Force

Last years escape
8th May 2016
Biggin Hill as a place
10th October 2016

p-ssI had a wild early childhood in New Zealand. We lived on a farm with a big garden (very big to a little person) near the beach. I was so lucky to have the freedom to roam. My sister and I played outside extensively. We made things, built stuff, read, painted, rode bikes, crashed bikes, swam, ran and penned letters to the fairies in the forest. I didn’t start full time schooling until I was five, it was fairly dismal process but I accepted it. There was always a lot of time to play after school.

After an abrupt move to England I found myself confronted with an education system different to what I had known before. It was much more formal. The school days were longer. The students were more pressurised. I was forced to wear shoes to school. The latter was very traumatic for all involved.

Maths classes were a horrific ordeal. I don’t remember much time spent actually learning, just being tested. We had to listen to these cassette tapes featuring arithmetic questions with intermittent silences in which one was supposed to write down the answer. The teacher and an assistant would be watching. I had never been tested like this and had never felt this sort of pressure before. Even if I did understand how could I possibly think straight enough to figure it out? It was hopeless; there were many tears. I had extra maths tuition and extra homework.

After the move from the country where I was born, I have far fewer really happy childhood memories than before. Mostly due to being stuck inside, in a classroom or doing extra homework and then being too exhausted to do anything else afterwards. I was known as “Smiler” ironically. At age 13 I decided that I didn’t want to do what the grown-ups kept telling me to do. I did the absolute minimum to get by, often less. The rest of the time was spent burning things and leaping out of hedges to surprise unsuspecting passers by. Fortunately the teachers liked (tolerated) me because I was polite and tended not to be noisy in class (for being noisy would attract attention and thus make it harder to get away with things).

There were, however, a lot of problems that escalated into adolescence. I began to get panic attacks on the way to school everyday and suffered severe and debilitating anxiety. I couldn’t cope with the sudden switch from the bks-ssrigidity of school term with its 8½ hour school day and its social pressures to the quite isolated and empty summer holidays. Hence I was given a high dosage of Zoloft to sort some things out.

Then, I felt like there was something wrong with me, but now I can’t help but think that maybe it wasn’t just me that was the problem. Not everyone is the same, not everyone learns or deals with things in the same way. It seems to be assumed that the school system is good for everyone, that the only way to prepare children for the rest of their lives is to force them to sit in a classroom for hours on end. It is assumed that if a child does not fit in, the reason must be that there is a problem with the child rather than the system. Maybe school (as we know it) alone cannot be the sole cause of such mental health problems, but it must play a significant role. The importance of time to explore the world on ones own terms, to be outside and to be free has become increasingly underestimated and yet this has always felt so essential to me. Especially as a child, free time seemed necessary to process changes and new information, and the natural world so necessary for the mind.

School, however, never seemed terribly necessary to me, other than to be “socialised”. I suppose it is also important for getting pieces of paper with letters on them. I don’t remember very much of the content taught in school (most probably because I wasn’t listening). Most of the knowledge, both academic and not, that I hold in my head now was not learnt in school, but by reading, by doing, by observation, by making my own connections between pieces of information picked up here and there. I learn what I think I need to know or because I want to know and understand.

It wasn’t until I picked up a book on relativity in our house at the age of 17 that I started to love theoretical physics. I could appreciate the elegance of the equations and the way they revealed the interconnectedness of nature. I did not fully understand, but I wanted to. This put me on a path to a physics degree. The important thing is that no one made me pick up that book. No one even told me to. I read it by my own free will. Had I been forced to read it I would probably never have truly appreciated its contents. Of course, at that age, had I been forced to read it I would have done everything I could to avoid reading it in the first place.

Je ne regrette rien, but sometimes I wish that I had been entrusted with my own learning as a child. I wish I had more choices. I wish the natural world wasn’t simply a luxury reserved for weekends; that I had more time to be outside. I wish there was more freedom. I wish there was a Wild Routes.

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