Bicycles, Oracles and Today’s Education Riddle

Exploring the power of experiential learning, let's challenge over-reliance on protective parenting and therapy. We advocate for a vibrant mix of physical and intellectual activities to enrich children's lives.

May 08, 2024 04:13 EDT

Dear FO° Reader,

Remember that ancient Greek adage, “Know thyself”? I was flabbergasted when I heard it for the first time in my teens. “Oh wow! Now I get it — I can’t function in the world because I don’t know myself.” Needless to say, the adage directed my focus inward.

These were not times when mindfulness and meditation were the rage. Looking inward was not such a fashionable idea. My new focus led some schoolmates to suggest that I get therapy. I did. Yet instead of therapy benefiting me, I felt I was being subjected to it. And I kept questioning the idea of focusing inward to function in the world — which is, by definition, outside my “self.” How do we learn about ourselves if not by engaging with people, activities, issues and the world around us?

Life is hazardous, but navigating hazards is magical

Learning to ride a bicycle, for instance, is a challenge to our perceptions and abilities. Consider a child who is learning to ride for the first time. What could motivate a child, or even an adult, to learn to do something at first sight at least a little dangerous? Kids scrape their knees and elbows and bump their heads. I probably did when I was learning. Innumerable falls precede the final mastery of the bicycle — but once we learn to ride, we can go where the wind takes us. Learning to handle a machine of cogs and tubes gives us the next level of freedom.

I do love to wave my hand (only one of course) and smile snarkily at people stuck in cars in traffic jams while passing them by.

Compare this liberating kind of learning to a modern approach to growth — therapy. Many kids have a therapist. Children seem to grow up to be unable to fend for themselves. They are followed and scrutinized, but not necessarily given direction. They have a lot less freedom to play than I did growing up. We don’t let them make mistakes. After all, it’s expensive to fix a broken bone. So why let your kids climb trees? It seems much better to avoid a potential fall.

Thus, the fruits stay on the branches for squirrels and little kids do not gain that childlike happiness by grabbing them.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with safety. I’m glad that we have seatbelts now and that you cannot smoke in public places. But there seems to be something deeply wrong with the way we are raising children. Teachers and therapists complain that parents are not doing their job. Parents complain that raising kids to face a volatile world seems an impossible task. An anxiety epidemic amongst young people has spread around the world.

A friend recently suggested I read the book Bad Therapy: Why Kids Aren’t Growing Up, by Abigail Schreier. Schreier doesn’t reject therapy, but she counsels us to watch out and to use it sparingly, not to impose it as a lifestyle. Schreier warns against over-pathologizing children’s behaviors. She critiques school personnel who often do not have a therapist’s training and nevertheless insist on submitting children to insinuating questions: “How often do you have sex, how often do you think about harming yourself?” This kind of scrutiny is a breach of privacy. 

A question of balance and the fault of the oracles

Schreier makes some invaluable points, but she lets her ideology get in the way of her arguments. At times, the book feels like an anti-woke crusade, and I did have a hard time finishing it. 

I take a more nuanced view. The fixation with speech-based psychotherapy is excessive today. Yet we should not go too far in the other direction, lest we end up neglecting kids who really do need different kinds of support, be it ergo-therapy, social-support, art and drama therapy, etc. They all have their place in society.

Speech-based therapy insists on sharing one’s emotions. And there is a place and a time to do so. But we can’t spend all our time and energy gazing inward and becoming overly conscious of every bubble in our bellies, or we won’t be able to go out and plant crops, change tires or flirt with the bartender. Living is about being able to flit from the outward to the inward and back. It is about balance and flexibility as all good skiers, yogis and ballerinas will tell you.

What if I ask a daring question: Is today’s dazzlement with the world going in all directions, climate warming, business disruption, the clash of cultures and even the decadence of education all the oracles’ fault? Remember the inscription on the Apollo’s temple at Delphi: “Know thyself.” Was it a suggestion or an injunction? What did those two words set in motion? 

At the time of Heraclitus, around the 5th century BC, when the temple was built and the phrase began being quoted in writing, it meant that one should be aware of one’s limitations. Plato made the phrase to be about the soul. Augustine of Hippo, his later Christian admirer, wrote in his Soliloquies, “God and the soul, this I desire to know; nothing more.” His Confessions, the first autobiography, gave us all a treasure trove of self-awareness tools.

Two thousand years of wars, plagues, schisms and revolutions separate us from the civilization of Heraclitus, Plato and Augustine. Yet, in the midst of the Industrial Revolution, Western people were still asking: Who am I? Johann Wolfgang von Goethe inaugurated the Bildungsroman genre in 1795 with Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, and Emmanuel Kant, building on René Descartes, ushered in the “turn to the self” in philosophy. With Napoleon Bonaparte, the spirit of individualism rode on horseback all the way across Europe.

I prefer to imagine him on a bicycle. If he had not been exiled to St. Helena the prior year, he would have been around for the invention of the draisienne, or dandy-horse. 

The light of the Enlightenment has dimmed over the years

Yet today, the Enlightenment seems to have somewhat dimmed. The advancement of the physical sciences makes our knowledge of the outside world seem much more solid than our knowledge of ourselves. Few today would attempt, like Descartes, to build up the “palace of reason” from self-knowledge.

When we do try to understand ourselves, we do so through the lens of the physical sciences. So psychiatry turns into pharmacology. For those of us who find psychiatry too expensive, there is a whole cottage industry ready to make up for the shortfall. It is the booming self-help industry, which was worth $13.2 billion in 2022 only in the US. This self-help industry, which you can experience on YouTube — or TikTok if you are younger — gives quick and easy answers to life’s deep and difficult questions. In truth, most self-help gurus are peddling pseudoscience, or at best poorly applied real science, not any kind of authentic philosophical self-understanding.

For all this focus on ourselves, we understand ourselves less than ever. I think that we’ve put too much of the focus onto “scientific” therapy and away from life as it is actually lived. Plato went to the gymnasium every day, and Kant unfailingly took his daily strolls in Königsberg. What we and our children need is that daily stroll, a bicycle ride, plucking fruits from trees, unending conversations over kitchen tables and doing the dishes together afterwards. Getting out and about, having to ask for directions from complete strangers and solving unforeseen problems makes us who we are. After all, there is no escape from both the exhilaration and magic as well the despair, dirt and drudgery of life. By getting out there, children learn that troubles are real, but also that they can be overcome. This gives them strength.

The Palaestra – Ancient Olympic Gymnasium where the likes of Plato trained daily

Just as experiencing the world is essential, so is making sense of our experiences. Hurtling from one activity to another is the prerogative of a rich socialite. For the rest of us mere mortals, we need to have an inner life. What is this inner life? It is our thoughts, wishes, desires, memories, feelings and more. Reading gives us a window into the inner life of authors, writing enables us to share our inner life with others, enabling us to learn empathy, expression and more.

As a parent, I advocate both more physical spaces where children can roam freely as well as libraries, classrooms and quiet corners where they lose themselves into the pages of a book. Only a child who observes spring or autumn and then thinks deeply about it will be able to write like Percy Bysshe Shelley or John Keats.

If the youth seem lost today, it may be because they are neither spending enough time with nature or with books. Screens are ubiquitous, parents are busy, communities are broken, safe spaces are at a premium and a fixation with safety means life itself has become sanitized. We do not necessarily need more therapy, or self-help or medication but more opportunities to live, learn and share.

As I end this piece, I have a suggestion. If you have resonated with my words, start a bicycle and book club. Take your children for a long ride and sit down with them under a tree to read a chapter in a book before you return. You might just find both you and your children to become a bit happier even if you have to walk back hungry and tired with a flat tire.

Ciao ciao from Geneva,

Roberta Campani 
Communication and Outreach 

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