Email This Page to a FriendEducating Stella — A Father’s Wish for His Daughter
February 21, 2015
Wild islands along the Maine coast provide an almost endless trail of playgrounds for camp-cruising in small boats with my kids.
Each summer, we load up the boats, hoist the sails, and head off to whichever island lies in the path of favorable winds and currents of the day. The experience of that day is pretty much shaped by the forces of nature.
Thanks to generous island owners and our friends at the Maine Island Trail and Maine Coast Heritage Trust, we have over 20 awe-inspiring islands in our backyard where we can roll the boats up on a beach, pitch the tent, and put something tasty on a make-shift grill.
We get to play the role of scoundrel-pirates (or privileged private island owners) all day, every day.
I see these photos and video clips and I'm swept away by the memories of all the good times we've had. Each moment is so unique — we'll never have another one like it.
We'll remember so many moments for the rest of our lives — like jumping off the ledge on Thrumcap Island this past summer, and the kids' annual camp-cruising tradition of painting papa's toe nails while he's asleep.
I take the kids camp-cruising for all the reasons you'd expect, and mostly just to have fun, but there’s a deeper reason as well — I do it for what I believe my kids will need two or three decades down the road, when they hit the prime of their lives and careers in about 2040.
NICE FAIL, DAD!
Stella's 14, and she's navigating the process of choosing a high school. She's exceptionally fortunate, because one of her grandparents set aside funds for her education, so she has choices that many kids don't, and we all feel exceptionally grateful for these educational opportunities she has.
And yet, while all the "right things" are being done to get Stella into a top-tier high school and onto elite sports teams, I've had a strong intuitive feeling that we're completely failing our daughter (and her twin brother Jack as well).
More and more, it's appearing to me that we may be thoughtlessly embracing an out-dated system that über-prepares our children to compete in a consumer-driven world that won’t likely exist when they reach the prime of their lives and careers in the year 2040.
I feel like we’re rushing our kids to
the front of the line for an unhappy life.
My sense of this pending parental failure comes from three big shifts that have changed the world (and the education system) in the last thirty years.
SHIFT #1. EDUCATION HAS BEEN SHANGHAI'd
For centuries, the sparse availability of a quality education assured a privileged place in society for those who could manage to secure an education. Over the past thirty years though, all that has changed, and a high-quality education (and elite team sports) are now readily available all around the globe to hundreds of millions of kids.
Here's a shot I took of a school I visited in China in 2008 — the Children's Palace — a prototype school created by the Chinese government to infuse arts and creative-thinking into the Chinese curriculum.
Education programs are so good now, in so many countries, that U.S. students don't even rank in the top 25 countries in performance on standardized tests. In math, for example, students in 28 countries perform better than U.S. students, and the U.S. recently lost seven spots in that ranking, dropping from 22nd to 29th.
Students in Singapore perform so much better than U.S. students on math tests, Stella's own math curriculum here in the U.S. has been replaced by a "Singapore Math" curriculum.
Here's a snapshot of the rankings in the last test in 2010:
As you can see, students in Shanghai, China tested highest. Yes, China. And the U.S. is nowhere on the list.
Yes, education is important, but high quality educations are so commonplace on kids’ resumes now, when Stella graduates from college in 2023, she'll be competing in a global marketplace against millions of young people who have equal or better educations.
When Stella reaches the prime of her life and career in 2040, for every good job available, there will likely be multiple applicants with diplomas from elite schools like Stanford, Harvard, The Children’s Palace, or the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi (IITD).
How will Stella compete? Or is there something I can do to make sure she doesn't end up in this situation?
SHIFT #2. THE SIXTH EXTINCTION
In their book The Responsible Company, Patagonia founder Yvon Choinard and co-author Vincent Stanley state that the human population is currently consuming the earth's limited resources at the rate of 1.5 times the level that the planet can support in a sustainable way.
In the U.S., they say we're consuming these limited resources at a rate of seven times that which the earth can support. Yes, you read that correctly — we Americans consume at a rate seven times what the earth can support. We have the distinction of being the "world leader" in this statistic, by far.
As I write this, billions of people in China and India are in the process of transitioning into the middle-class, and they're mimicking Americans' consumption patterns. But it’s worse — unlike the U.S. population, which slowly adopted new products such as cars, cigarettes and cell phones over the course of 100 years, the Chinese and Indian populations are getting access to all these seductive new products in less than ten years time, with no warning labels and without the benefit of knowing how the products fared for other people elsewhere in the world.
I saw this first hand in Bejing while at a dinner party of 14 people — of the 14 guests, 9 were talking on their cell phone and smoking cigarettes, simultaneously, while sitting at the dinner table together.
When I was young, there was a saying that was so popular that it was on t-shirts everywhere:
"He who dies with the most toys, wins."
Back then, it was cool to smoke cigarettes and over-consume. We now know that smoking kills humans. As billions of humans begin to follow American's example in over-consuming, it doesn't take a PhD from IIT-D to calculate that we humans are consuming our way to extinction.
If you haven't heard about the new #1 Best Seller The Sixth Extinction, you soon will.
If the guys at Patagonia are right, perhaps THE primary issue of our generation is over-consumption. Yet, the entire world economy and all of its stock markets are based upon growth —— growth that the earth's limited resources cannot support.
Common sense tells me that someday there will be a tipping point when the human population realizes that it must purchase and consume less. At that point, when it becomes uncool, unseemly, and perhaps even illegal to over-consume, wouldn't a global economic bubble burst?
Are we seeing the first signs of this with students banding together to successfully force universities to divest from fossil fuels? Won't jobs be lost in mass from companies that make the 50-plus percent of the products that people stop purchasing because they're not really needed?
When there are suddenly millions of less jobs at the same moment there are millions more highly qualified applicants with great educations, what will that mean for the millions of people who all have the same "quality education"?
My sense is that Stella will need skills in 2040 that are dramatically different than what she's being taught in her 16 to 20 years of formal “education”, and she'll need something special to go along with that education.
She'll need something very special. I can't say that I know what that something special is, but I know it's something that she already has inside her.
It feels like my job to help make sure she finds that something special.
SHIFT #3. BRAIN MATTER
One week after I toured the impressive Childrens’ Palace in China, I spent some time on Capital Hill in Washington, D.C. in discussions with members of Congress and their staffs who were rewriting legislation for the U.S.'s education system.
During this time, I was also on a board of leading thinkers in the education field from places like Apple, LEGO and Ford — The Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21). I was not an expert in education myself, so I felt very lucky to be there.
What I saw on Capital Hill and at P21 meetings convinced me that the U.S. education system was going to continue to narrow the subjects being taught in schools to the few basic subjects like reading and math that could be tested with standardized exams. Critical subjects that are key to the broader personal growth of our kids — like history, art, wood shop and entrepreneurship — would be cut out of the curriculum entirely. And matters of the heart would likely never be addressed in schools.
All schools, public or private, now face a very competitive landscape. Public schools must perpetually increase their performance on standardized tests to prevent punishments or closures, and private schools must maintain their rankings among their elite peers to compete for students and fundraising.
Meanwhile, my kids will be forced to do four to six hours of homework each evening just to “keep up”. Every evening they’ll be studying lots of topics and details that they’ll quickly forget or never use in their life. The pressure to keep up will be so engrained that any passions or interests they have outside of their schoolwork and team sports will have to fall away by necessity.
All of this will be oddly justified, and even revered, when Stella gets an “A” on her report card.
I'm extremely proud of her hard work and the near straight A's she received last semester, and at the same time I feel there are more important things for her development that I'm not providing.
Without exception, every kid I've ever met who is cruising with their parents has been exceptional — grounded, mature, patient, and smart beyond their years. How is it that a kid who's home-schooled on a boat is more capable in the world than almost any kid who graduates from the most elite prep school?
MY GREATEST RESPONSIBILITY AS A PARENT
I'm growing to believe that my greatest responsibility as a parent is to be present with Stella, in the moment, watching her closely and listening to her a lot, and recognizing her inherent passions and basic nature.
If I’m on the right path about this, my job will be to help provide opportunities for her to do things where her inherent interests and her basic nature will shine and propel her into a full, meaningful life within a community that fits her.
If I were successful, Stella would end up in a place where her true nature pulls her into a proverbial river that flows her right where she wants to be. I’m old enough now to recognize that this is how the Universe works, and the alternative of earning a living by doing things you don’t really enjoy, isn’t so grand and provides a life of swimming upstream.
While Stella’s high school packs her brain with more and more knowledge, it seems that my work is to pay close attention to Stella’s heart.
WHO IS STELLA?
Since her earliest days, Stella has been a climber. Before she could walk, she climbed high up onto things. She's loved being in nature and with animals since her early days. She’s a natural athlete and she seems to have the basic nature of many of the people I've known who are climbers and into being outdoors.
I recall the moment that I realized that she had an inherent passion to climb. She was five, and I was trying on shoes at an REI store. Stella walked over to the shoe display wall, and scurried up and across the wall in seconds, using the shoe display pedestals for foot-holds and grips. She looked over at me, high up on the wall, and beamed a huge smile with radiant eyes.
We headed to the rock gym the next day. On her first try, she sailed up the 40' wall in about ten seconds, and rang the bell. Again, beaming with a huge smile. We enrolled in her in weekly classes, and she was off.
Then life got “too busy” with school, homework, and team sports, and it became "too much effort" to get Stella to the climbing gym. Climbing became a distant memory in her life.
On the surface, it seemed like a completely rational decision to favor homework and elite-team lacrosse over climbing, but it also felt like Stella’s parents completely failed her.
I’m the first to acknowledge the value of a formal education and organized team sports, but when the education and team sports become so dominate in Stella’s life that it crowds out other things that are important to her development, including the things that speak to her passions and true nature — her heart — then formal education becomes the thing preventing my child from discovering who she is and following the path to become her true self.
When the last lacrosse season ends, and when she crosses the stage on graduation day, the safe haven of classrooms and team sports will be gone. All those things will be reduced to activities in Stella's past, and she'll be on her own to make a living and carve out a life for herself.
When she reaches the bottom of the stairs on the other side of the graduation stage, she'll need to know who she is and be good at something that sparks her passions.
CLIMBING AND WILDNESS
Last summer, for her birthday, I called the Atlantic Climbing School in Acadia and got Stella hooked up with Hanna Lucy, an inspiring young female climber, for a day of climbing in Acadia National Park. Off she went, on her own, with an experienced climber, for a day of real climbing.
When I picked her up, Stella was beaming with excitement and self-confidence. She said: "Papa we climbed cliffs over the ocean!" There it was again, that same swagger I saw years earlier when she was perched atop the shoe wall at REI.
Stella was back! She was alive again in a way that I hadn't seen in awhile.
This day felt like I was giving Stella a peak into herself, and her potential life ahead. She had a bounce-skip in her step for a week after that day of climbing.
Moments of parenthood that feel like a success are rare, but this was definitely one.
PHOTOGRAPHY AND STORYTELLING
Stella's also had a gift for photography since she was very young — always taking my camera or phone and snapping photos just at the right moment with a natural sense of style and composition.
So last summer I suggested to her that it might be time for a real camera, and I had her get advice from photographers Ben Mendlowitz and Alison Langley on what camera she should get to start playing with photography (How lucky are we to have Ben and Alison as friends?).
She did the research, chose the Nikon 3300, and she paid half from her savings.
I haven’t seen her so excited about anything, ever, and Stella carried her new camera all summer and took photos everywhere we went.
ROLE MODELS & POSSIBILITIES
While I don’t know for sure what Stella’s future may bring, I feel the need to be proactive in showing her things that inspire her to dream about possible futures for herself.
She might end up doing anything, or a number of things, but for now, my best guess is that Stella might combine her passions of climbing, outdoors, and photography into storytelling within the outdoor, adventure or conservation fields.
With this in mind, I've been exploring to find videos and role models for Stella, so she can get a glimpse of life beyond the bubble of the classroom, and a career out in nature beyond air-conditioned offices.
While looking for role models, I came across Celine Costeau, a photographer and filmmaker. Like Celine's grandfather — pioneer ocean activist Jacques Costeau — Celine's work focuses on ocean conservation.
Here's an image of Celine from her website:
As I was asking friends for women climbers who might inspire Stella, I kept hearing the name Lynn Hill. Lynn is famous for making the first free ascent of the sheer rock face of The Nose on El Capitan in Yosemite Valley (and for repeating it the next year in less than 24 hours). The "free" means "free climbing" — using equipment for protection only, not for climbing itself.
For reference, here's The Nose:
Ya, seriously, she was the first person to free-climb it (man or woman). Here's a few video clips of her free-climbing The Nose:
For Christmas, I got Stella a slackline and the movie Valley Uprising, a brilliant documentary of the early climbers of Yosemite National Park.
I'm hoping that the concept of climbing The Nose on acid went over her head, but I'm gobsmacked at how close these guys were to both the earth and their friends in Yosemite during those years. That level of intimacy with the natural world and her friends is something I hope Stella learns how to create.
For Stella's generation, I hope that old saying about "He who dies with the most toys wins" is replaced by something like:
"She who dies closest to the
earth and her friends wins".
The more I looked, the more I found talented women doing remarkable things to earn a living outdoors. Here's a few:
Liz Clark (Nominated as National Geographic's Adventurer of the Year in 2014)
Kristine McDivitt Tompkins (Founded Patagonia National Park, etc. etc. etc.)
Haley Ashburn (ya gotta see her epic slackline video here)
If we think that the climb up the corporate ladder is tough, I suspect these women have chosen paths that have huge tradeoffs and can be devistatingly difficult at times.
If the guys at Patagonia are correct in their suggestion that over-consumption is the biggest issue that faces the human race in the next 50, it seems that these women may be at the forefront of a field that may provide a great future for my daughter — inspiring people to get outdoors, live more simply, and buy less.
On Christmas Eve, we watched Valley Uprising. Then Stella opened the Slackline I gave her. The slackline was so cool, she didn't even know what it was (another rare parenting success).
We set up the slackline between two trees on the town green here in Brooklin, and within a couple hours...
Notice the bounce-skip in her step?
Everywhere I turn these days I hear people saying they're too busy. We readily admit that our lives are too fast and too complicated. Too stressful. The concepts of "growth" and "progress" and "development" are causing us to live beyond our means, on many levels.
In "developed" countries, we have become disconnected from the wildness within us, and distant from the wildness outside our doors.
I recognize this in myself, and in my own life. And yet, it feels to me like I'm blindly forcing my kids right into the same world that we're all finding unacceptable for ourselves.
I have to believe there is a
better way ahead for my kids.
If it were totally up to me, I'd ratchet back Stella’s formal education about 40 percent and fill that time with learning matters of the heart and doing things outside in the natural world that help her feel her true nature, and help her become independent and self-reliant.
Camp-cruising in small boats among islands on the coast of Maine is one of my ways of doing this for her, and maybe someday we'll cruise in a bigger boat to distant cultures.
As you've seen in these short clips, Stella has a remarkably bright spirit. I am hopeful that once Stella experiences who she really is, over and over again, she'll feel her spirit shine. After enough of those experiences, she'll feel it in her heart when she's on the right path in life, and she'll feel it regardless of which school she went to and what grade she got on the AP Calculus test on derivatives.
These days, as a father, I'm after things that bring Stella's bright spirit out — things that put a bounce-skip in her step and make her smile like this:
UPDATE: August 17, 2017 — STELLA AGE 16
As a teenager, Stella makes it clear to me: "Dad (eyes rolling), I'm NOT into hiking!", and the combination of lacrosse and academics at school continues to dominate Stella's time and focus. She's starting to look at colleges with hopes of playing lacrosse at that level, and while all that's good, there's the little voice in my head that keeps nudging her to not lose sight of things that suit her deeper nature. Last year she sought out a year-long independent study in "marine sciences", and this year she'll be taking her first photography class. This summer she took a service/adventure trip to Peru, and I just received this photo from her — can you see that little bounce-skip in her step?
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