Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Cradle is Not a Future Cashbox

I am not a parent. So, what follows, may be discounted as the ramblings of an idealist, a person who "doesn't get it." Nevertheless, I want to make a single statement and offer a thought.

StatementThe Cradle Is Not a Future Cashbox

An extremely bright college student sought me out recently with a heartrending dilemma: the student wants, more than anything, to become a math teacher. The parents, however, refuse to allow this: they will pay for a business degree and nothing else. If the student should decide to pursue a degree in education, the parents will refuse to continue paying tuition for a degree able to be obtained "anywhere."

It matters little to the parents that the student is totally passionate about educating others, that the student's personality is vibrant and engaging, that the student knows how simultaneously to inspire and challenge those being tutored. What matters is that the parents have decided that a degree in business is the only justification to send a child off to college; a slip of paper proclaiming competency in accounting from a prestigious school is more valuable than, say, the human formation gained over four years.

I'm not a parent. I do have parents (at least they tell me they're my parents...I can't really confirm it) and I know a lot people who are parents. So I don't know, exactly, what it is to put a baby in the cradle for the first time, to linger over a newborn life and to ponder the future you will play a role in shaping. I don't know what it is to soothe a crying baby at 3:00 am and, as the infant calms down, to dream of what may be in store.

Nevertheless, I am going to bet that when parents behold a newborn baby, it never occurs to them that they should one day select the child's college major, that they should dictate using the power of money what the infant will do with his or her life. I simply cannot believe that a new mommy and daddy ever behold the little bundle of futurity and say to one another:
Let's work very hard throughout our lives so that we can send our child to college in order that we exercise our own will over his life and force him to pursue studies we deem worthy of investment. Sure, we'll indulge him as a child. When he's a toddler, we'll play with figures and stuffed animals. As he gets older, we'll let him play sports, join clubs, learn an instrument. We'll go to karate practice and soccer, to concerts and playdates. We'll humor the various fashion fads. We'll cajole him through the rough patches of high school, encouraging him to get involved and develop his interests. BUT THEN, after he (actually, it will be we) selects a college, we'll tell him: Congratulations, son! These are going to be great years for you so long as you fulfill our expectations and study something we approve of. We know we let you develop some interests over the course of your life, yet we can't trust that your interests and passions are ever going to get you a job, going to sustain you as a human, so you need to follow our orders or else we will flex our financial muscle around your neck and drag you home. You've had 18 years of exploration. Now, settle into the ruts we want you to follow.
 And yet, again and again, I meet young women and men who seem to be dwelling in exactly this space. Over the last 18 months, I have had numerous chats with college students (many of my former high school students) who tearfully tell me that their parents refuse to pay for college if they pursue anything other than a degree they approve of. College, for these parents, seems to be nothing other than a 4-year pre-professional training program gearing students toward entering the workforce. The teddy bear mom and dad put into the cradle is taken away and replaced with an empty cashbox: find a way to fill it or else.

I don't know how to help these students. The advice I want to give is, "Do your parents order for you when you go out to dinner? You know what you like. Take a risk - it's your life." Yet I know that many other adults - and I am an adult - would regard my advice as coming from a person out of touch, a bit of an idealist, but a person who has few of the "benchmarks" of worldly success. I don't have a 401k, a second house, a car, and I sleep in an extra-long twin bed. These are not the markers of success in society.

Years back, my dad gave me great advice: "I don't care what you study, so long as you love it enough to teach it." I am eternally grateful for this because this freedom to follow my passions has made all the difference: I have a wonderful life. I don't have an empty cash box in my room and, I suspect, my parents can't really regard me as a supplement to their 401k. No, instead of a cashbox I still have a teddy bear up on my shelf. He is the replacement for the Paddington Bear put into my crib 34 years ago by Grandma Duns, but he sits on my self keeping vigil reminding me of the importance of childhood dreams, of the power of imagination, and feeling the freedom and courage to risk one's life on one's passion.

Again, I'm not a parent. I have been, and desire to be, a teacher and I think I know young people pretty well. That they deserve to have the freedom to make a risk of themselves, that they should be encouraged to be who they feel called to be...I don't need to be a parent to recognize this for, well, to my eye it's simply apparent.

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