The Hard Way

“All right, we can do this the easy way or the hard way…”

How many of you have heard some variation of this, in real life or some movie or show? It’s something of a cliché, right? Some authority figure, maybe a detective, trying to secure the cooperation of a less powerful but recalcitrant individual, issues this not-so-thinly veiled threat. Do what I want, or I will make things difficult and unpleasant for you.

In this post, I want to discuss the relative merits of the hard way. For starters, consider the seemingly unstoppable human drive to learn things the hard way. I’ve often thought you can offer someone several detailed reasons why they won’t like the results of something they’re about to do—you could create charts and images matching the consequences against things they most definitely hate—and yet, so much of the time, the person will insist on doing it anyway.

At some point it occurred to me that if this is such a common experience, maybe there’s something deep at work here. And maybe that something is this: that we can’t learn anything in a truly meaningful way unless we experience it directly; unless it means something to us. Pleasant or unpleasant, maybe we have to learn certain things “the hard way.”

Many educators have surely taken this lesson to heart. Indeed, as Benjamin Hoff put it in his book The Te of Piglet, the-te-of-piglet1“Educator Eeyores” see the purpose of teaching as “impress[ing] the maximum number of Unpleasant Things upon children.” They want to “put children in school at the earliest age possible, load them down with homework, take away their time, their creativity, their play, their power.”

I suppose we might call this the School of Hard Knocks, the pedagogy that says, “Life is unpleasant, so let’s prepare kids by making their entire upbringing a series of constant challenges. Let’s toughen them up so they’re ready for a world that’s decidedly obnoxious and difficult.” Well, that’s one approach I guess, and it’s certainly possible that some good intentions are driving some of this boot-camp mentality.

Not surprisingly, however, I see things differently.

It seems to me that life presents plenty of challenges as it is. How should I spend my time? Where should I work, and what should I do? How should I deal with this (or that) challenge, with that (or this) difficult person? Am I successful? If not, what should I do about that? What do I want, and how do I bring that about? Am I making a difference in the world? Will my life have any lasting value?

Compare these authentic questions to those many of us remember from school: Is this going to be on the test? What does the teacher want? Can I get extra credit? When are we going to use this in real life? Or from the other side of the desk: Where’s your hall pass? Why were you late/absent? Are you chewing gum?

When young people are allowed to ask their own questions and choose their own challenges, not only is their learning more meaningful, it’s actually more difficult! That is to say, instead of adults making most of the significant decisions, the responsibility to direct the course of their life and learning is left up to each individual. While being bossed around all day may be obnoxious, on one level it’s a whole lot easier than having to decide for yourself what to do with your life.

Many people approach Sudbury schools thinking nothing could be easier than doing what you want all day. I’m here to tell you, nothing is more difficult—in a helpful and authentic, if hard, way.

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