Drinking From Fire Hydrants

More and more these days, I feel overwhelmed by the jaw-dropping range of things I wish I had time to browse, read, hear, learn, and explore. (Indeed, a reasonable definition of middle age might be the dawning of deep awareness of just how finite our time and energy are.) My open browser tabs proliferate, and I add far more books to my to-read list than I could ever find time to open. So many people to connect with, so much news to follow; so much music to make, so many enjoyable games to play and worthy causes to pursue—and so little time.

Just as in the so-called Age of Discovery—when the full range of our planet’s geography, flora and fauna, and people were still largely unknown to individual cultures—the current Information Age presents us with a potentially overwhelming flood of data. Hence, a primary and essential quality for this new era is the ability to sift through massive amounts of input; to deal with outrageous, constant distractions; to sort out what matters; to prioritize and manage. Yet despite the natural and urgent desire to teach these skills to each other, they can only be mastered through extended practice, through direct encounters.

For this reason, Sudbury schools don’t pre-emptively filter the world for students; we don’t presume to know what young people should learn, how, or when. In fact, we realize that attempting to do so would be futile and counterproductive—who are you, who am I, to assert that there’s some specific set of content everyone needs to know; that, once comprehended, ensures a happy, successful life? The more information proliferates (and it doesn’t show any sign of slowing down, or even leveling off, this explosion of content), the more preposterous this notion becomes. As a culture, we confuse what’s interesting and potentially useful (which is just about everything) with what’s essential, and we try to push as much as we can into young minds that should instead experience life directly, not by means of forceful, if well-intentioned, intervention.

By contrast, at Sudbury schools we merely offer young people ample space and time, plus a supportive community, in which to immerse themselves in life’s vast cornucopia. Beyond the value of the specific information acquired and skills developed, Sudbury students gain the inestimable gift of knowing how to integrate the flood of information and scarcity of time which, together, will shape the rest of their lives.

Do you regularly feel overwhelmed? Are you all too conscious of how little time there is to accomplish all you want and need? Then why not join me in extending to more and more young people the opportunity to practice these critical life skills while they’re still young—to learn what’s truly most important?

fire hydrant

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Drinking From Fire Hydrants

  1. ehaugsjaa

    Hi Bruce, I thought the point is that most parents are well aware of this firehose and prefer–rightly or wrongly–to limit their kids’ exposure down to the basics, the classics, a set of foundational subjects. And additionally have it presented by someone in a fashion that aids this acquisition, rather than have them floundering around w/o structure in a sea of information. There is time for the firehose later, when they are adults and ready to jump off from their well set foundation of info and critical thinking skills. That’s the thinking, right? What evidence do we have that it is wrong? Or… that maybe a 12 year old is ready for it… but is a 4 year old? Also, Sudbury thinking says that certain subjects & skills are easily picked up (e.g. algebra in weeks not years). How about drinking from the firehose? That’s easy too, so don’t underestimate people… just wait, you don’t need 14 years of private school for that! (Me: 2 kids at SVS since age 4… but just sayin’…)

    • Hey, Erik, thanks for the comment! “What evidence do we have that it is wrong?” Maybe it’s the Buddhist in me, but I prefer seeing this not as right versus wrong, but a continuum of skillfulness — that is, whether something is more or less helpful in actualizing some desired potential. As for evidence that having an external filter/gatekeeper is less skillful, I would start with my own history (and those of other adults I know) as a middle-aged, conventionally educated man who’s still struggling to develop the ability to sift through and prioritize a fire-hydrant stream of information.

      It stands to reason that this skill takes practice, and that this practice takes time. Thus, why not let all children take on as much as they want, when they decide they’re ready, instead of making them wait until they’re older? I don’t mean to underestimate people’s ability to master fire-hydrant drinking: I just think it’s better to start early and small, with access to human training wheels if you want, but without being forced to use them regardless of your ability or readiness.

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