Home > Uncategorized > Adam Gopnik’s New Yorker Article on Prodigies Offers Key Distinction that Public Schools Miss

Adam Gopnik’s New Yorker Article on Prodigies Offers Key Distinction that Public Schools Miss

I just finished reading Adam Gopnik’s January 29 New Yorker article titled “How to Raise a Prodigy” on line and “The Parenting Paradox” in print. It is well worth a read for anyone who wants an insight into parenting, the underlying forces in public education, and the underlying forces of our consumer-driven economy. Mr. Gopnik’s  article is in the book review section of the magazine because it focuses on three recent books on the general subject of raising children who are prodigies of one kind or another: Sara Zaske’s “Achtung Baby: An American Mom on the German Art of Raising Self-Reliant Children” (Picador); “Off the Charts: The Hidden Lives and Lessons of American Child Prodigies” (Knopf) by Ann Hulbert; and “Norwich: One Tiny Vermont Town’s Secret to Happiness and Excellence” (Simon & Schuster) by Karen Crouse***.

Mr. Gopnik’s essay provides a brief overview of each book and is interwoven with his own observations about child rearing and our parents’ and public schools’ efforts to identify and nurture prodigies of one form or another. His meta-observation is offered at the end of his critique of Ms. Zaske’s book that idealizes the German method of raising children:

And here we arrive at the real ghost that haunts these books, the one that sends us to Paris or Berlin for help: the sense that American parents have gone radically wrong, making themselves and their kids miserable in the process, by hovering over them like helicopters instead of observing them from a watchtower, at a safe distance.

Having worked with parents of the best and brightest and observed the interactions of parents on playgrounds in Brooklyn where my daughters both live, I can attest to the accuracy of the “helicopter” metaphor. Mr. Gopnik offers the “cooperative spirit” that Ms. Crouse witnessed in Norwich, Vermont, as the antidote to helicopter parenting:

What we don’t get to see, in Crouse’s account, is the little town nearby, where, as must be the case, everyone coöperates and yet no one is a champion. (And there must also be, in Norwich, at least one Holden Caulfield type who thinks the whole Norwich thing is phony.) Looking at Norwich, we’re told that the non-competitive, non-pressuring approach is best because it gets us to the medal stand, or close. But what if it didn’t? If Norwich values matter, it’s because they’re good, not because they’re shortcuts to victory. The point of a non-competitive attitude can’t be that it makes us better able to compete; the value of an unpressured approach can’t be that it creates a more effective kind of pressure. In any case, one has the sense that what Crouse has found is not a “secret” but a well-known effect: unusual excellence emerges within tightly structured local traditions, whether they are in fifteenth-century Florence, in painting, or in San Pedro de Macorís, the “cradle of shortstops.” One good painter with an apprentice produces a Renaissance, just as one good coach with willing kids supplies the major leagues.

As noted below, I am familiar with Norwich and its surrounding communities and Mr. Gopnik’s assessment that there is “..a little town nearby where everyone cooperates and yet no one is a champion” could describe any number of nearby communities in Vermont… and the values Ms. Crouse ascribes to Norwich are good in and of themselves. Too, Mr. Gopnik’s insight that “unusual excellence emerges within tightly structured local traditions” captures the notion that who children associate with outside of school is more important than what they learn in school and underscores the importance of the values of the community where a child is raised.

Mr. Gopnik’s best insights come near the conclusion of his article where he describes the importance of mastery as opposed to achievement and the futility of trying to be a perfect parent:

What typically emerges from looking at kids, gifted and ordinary, is that, from the kids’ point of view, accomplishment, that is, the private sense of mastery, the hard thing suddenly made easy, counts for far more in their inner lives than does the achievement—the competition won, the reward secured. The mystery of mastery, felt in the child’s mind or muscles, is more compelling than the concreteness of achievement, the trophy pressed in her hands. What sustains us in any competition are the moments of interiority when the competition vanishes; what sustains us in any struggle are the moments when we forget the struggle…

Accomplishment, the feeling of absorption in the flow, of mastery for its own sake, of knowing how to do this thing, is what keeps all of us doing what we do, if we like what we do at all. The prizes are inevitably disappointing, even when we get them (as the life of Bob Dylan, prize-getter and grump extraordinaire, suggests).

What really helicopters over these books is what one might call the Causal Catastrophe: the belief that the proof of the rightness or wrongness of some way of bringing up children is in the kinds of adults it produces. This appears, on the surface, so uncontroversial a position—what other standard would you use?—that to question it seems a little crazy. But, after all, chains of human causality are, if not infinite, very long; in every life, some bad consequence of your upbringing will eventually emerge. We disapprove of parental hovering not because it won’t pay off later—it might; it does!—but because it’s obnoxious now. Strenuously competitive parents may indeed produce high-achieving grownups, but it’s in the nature of things that high-achieving adults are likely to become frustrated and embittered old people, once the rug is pulled out from under their occupation. If a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, then all chains are infinitely weak, since everybody ends up broken.

Mr. Gopnik’s advice should be heeded by parents and public educators. If Mr. Gopnik’s assessment that a “private sense of mastery” is more important than “the competition won, the reward secured“— then parents and schools should strive to gain an understanding of each child’s gifts and talents and cultivate them instead of forcing a child to compare his or her talents in academics to other children that are his or her same age. Moreover, parents and schools should strive to help each child develop the self-awareness that is implicit in cultivating a private sense of mastery. The best writers and artists do not live to get favorable reviews: they live to develop an essay or story that captures their ideas in print, to develop a piece of artwork or music score that captures a spirit they possess, or to transfer something internal into something to share with the world at large. I think in the end, prodigious athletes, musicians, writers, and individuals in the world of work do not compare themselves to any external standard: they possess an internal standard of excellence that drives them to do the best they can and an attitude that so long as they are doing the best they can they are indifferent to winning a competition or securing a reward. If schools want to develop happy and healthy prodigies— or happy and healthy citizens, they need to stop focussing on competition and rewards and begin helping students develop their private sense of mastery.

 

***In the spirit of full disclosure, I served as Superintendent of Schools in Norwich for seven years, so I have some understanding of the dynamics in that community which, in Mr. Gopnik’s words, “…continually sends athletes to the Olympics and other competitions in numbers ridiculously disproportionate to its size.” It is not quite as perfect as Ms. Crouse describes, but it IS a wonderful place to raise children… and Mr. Gopnik is correct in assuming that there is “at least one Holden Caulfield type” in that town.

 

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