Tuesday, September 4, 2012

At Cultural Attractions: Parents Don't Teach, Children Don't Learn

The Buffalo Zoo celebrated the traditionally-last weekend of summer by offering a ninety percent discount on admission on Labor Day. Since one dollar is something I can just about afford on a good week, I took a holiday-morning bike ride around Delaware Park and then queued up with the mass of people, mostly families with small children, who had just as readily sprung at the opportunity for a cheap cultural activity.

Considering the lines at the gate, I was surprised that the scene inside was not as claustrophobic as it could have been. It took a little jostling or waiting in the wings to get a proper angle, but everyone seemed to get their opportunity to look at the cute, or fearsome, or comic animals. I freely admit that I was mostly there just to take another look at some of my favorite creatures, to watch the polar bear swim in its artificial pond, far from the threatened environment of its natural-born fellows, to grin down on the docile capybaras lounging in the rainforest exhibit, to rediscover my respect for the vulture which I discovered when I wrote a report on the species in elementary school, to look for big cats pacing like in Rilke's description of the panther.

But even though this excursion wasn't exactly intended as a fact-finding field trip, I never go to a museum or zoo or aquarium without trying to learn something about the stuff I'm looking at. Not a heck of a lot changes at the Buffalo Zoo from year to year, and I think I had been there about a year ago, so it's not as if I could have expected to discover an animal the existence of which I was altogether unaware of. But there's only so much I can commit to memory, so naturally I find myself rediscovering things on subsequent visits to the same places of learning. I always seem to forget, for instance, that the Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep are capable of running at up to fifty miles per hour. The up-side of my disappointment at not retaining encyclopedic recollections – a failure that seems to become ever-worse as I age – is that I sometimes get to re-experience the joy of learning something interesting all over again.

Even if I don't read all of the wildlife facts, of which there aren't even that many at the Buffalo Zoo, I do at the very least try to get the names of the animals right. This is more than I can say of the vast majority of the other patrons that I encountered yesterday. It having been a year since my last visit, I found myself trying to actively identify each species, endeavoring to commit to memory the ones that escaped me this time around. This is natural to me, and I thought it was part of the essential purpose of going to the zoo. I always took it to be a place where you went not merely to look at animals as in a menagerie, but to find out something about the wider world by discovering what they are and from where they come. I especially thought that that was why parents took their children to the zoo. I'd always assumed that it was meant as a supplement to a child's primary education, a way to instantiate curiosity and gauge the direction of nascent scholarship. Apparently I was quite wrong about this as well.

Most any time that I go to places like zoos or museums and find myself crowded by children and their adult chaperones, I am downright shocked by the lack of interest that parents have in conveying any information whatsoever to their charges, or even in encouraging those children to learn anything on their own. I fear that my disdain paints me as a killjoy and that the average reader will see me as attaching far too much significance to the conduct of people who are on a simple, light-hearted family outing. But that's just the trouble. I worry that people attach entirely too little significance to such everyday opportunities to influence the character, values, and perspective of impressionable children.

As much as Americans today recognize and lament the widespread failure of education and the failure of modern children to live up to appropriate standards, I think commentators and individual parents are too much inclined to see that failure as institutional and too little inclined to consider it as social and cultural. If the behavior of parents at zoos and museums is indicative of their broader attitudes, it suggests that people have widely forfeited the recognition of personal responsibility for the education of their own children, instead handing that responsibility off to schools as if the process of raising an intellectually astute and ambitious child is something that can be consolidated into a specific set of hours in specific locales.

If that is indeed the view – if the need for education is recognized, but only recognized as being needed somewhere outside the home – then I can only conclude that people don't really value education at all. That is, they don't value education as it ought to be valued, for its own sake, as both a public and a personal good. You can't expect children to learn well and perform at a high level in school if the culture that they're coming up in is one that portrays education as a sort of obligation and something that brings good things to the learner, but is not good enough in its own right to be worth pursuing in absence of the social obligations of homework and exams.

What else can I conclude from regularly observing that perfectly middle class parents, far from exhibiting much intellectual curiosity of their own, don't even respond to the intellectual curiosities of their own children. But perhaps that's a little unfair. At the zoo yesterday I did find one or two adults expressing curiosity to the extent that they pressed their faces to the glass and perplexedly asked of no one in particular, “What is it?” They just didn't express a great deal of interest in actually doing anything to satisfy their curiosity. They just couldn't be bothered to walk back two feet in order to read the damn nameplate.

This is entirely their own affair when the adults are on their own and solely responsible for their own edification or ignorance. But it gets under my skin when their own lack of care for finding answers threatens to be transmitted to a child who is still blessed by wide-eyed eagerness to comprehend the world around him, whatever aspects of it should set itself before him.

Just a few exhibits down from where I heard one unresolved ejaculation of “What is it?” I found myself looking at another glass enclosure that housed three wallabies crouching at the back of their habitat, when a family walked around me to look at the same. It was comprised of a couple with a daughter just barely of speaking age and a son perhaps six years old. The parents looked, glassy-eyed, into the scene while the boy excitedly called out “kangaroos!” I had started moving away from the exhibit, but noticing the boy being met with silence, I said simply “wallabies,” partly in hopes that his parents would hear me and realize, if they did not realize it on their own, that their son had made a reasonable but slightly mistaken assumption about what they were looking at.

However, I was essentially met with silence, too, except in that the boy, perhaps hearing me or perhaps just seeking acknowledgment from his parents, repeated “kangaroos.” Noticing that they weren't going to say anything and that their eyes had apparently still not passed over the signs that clearly stated the name of the species, I repeated, with the boy more specifically in mind, “wallabies.” Now looking squarely at me, and inquisitively, the boy again said “kangaroos.” It could not have been more obvious that the child was interested in being corrected. He wanted to learn, as most children do when simply presented with the opportunity. This child was young, but most likely old enough to sound out the word “wall – a – bye” if he knew where to look, and if he was made to realize that he didn't know the answer without looking. But to do that, he would need an example to follow, a pair of parents who had the tools to find out answers for themselves, and cared to give their children the same.

The child looking to me instead of his parents for that meager bit of instruction, I addressed him directly, explaining, “No, these are wallabies. Kangaroos are big; these are smaller.” And at that he turned to his parents and his younger sibling to repeat it to them: “These aren't kangaroos, the man says.” At that I was walking away, and I can only hope that their son's claim finally prompted them to look at the sign and sound out “wall – a – bees.” It was up to them to take an interest on their own, but it seemed to me that the child, being a child, not only wanted to know about these things in the zoo, but wanted others to know about them to.

I experienced the same thing elsewhere. In the crowded rainforest exhibit, I, being a nerd, spoke straight to the capybaras, telling them that I just wanted them to know that they are the largest rodents on Earth, and that that's awesome and they should be proud. A young girl just beside me asked, seemingly of no one in particular, "What are those called?" It could be that she heard me demonstrating some knowledge of them and figured that I had the answer, or it could be that she, like so many young children, thought her parents would have all the answers she sought.

She had not spoken straight to me, and that being the case, I would think that a scientifically interested parent, one familiar with zoos, would say something like, “I don't know, let me look at this information card over here so we can find out.” The parents did not move, of course, so I turned to the child and told her, “Those are called capybaras.” Naturally, she then looked back to her parents and sought to inform them of what they did not inform themselves: “They're called capee-bears.” The parents did not repeat the information; they did not move to confirm it or commit it to memory; they did not give her any indication that she should feel proud of having learned something, that she should be thankful for the knowledge, or that she should seek to learn other things as well.

The desire to learn is so natural and so passionate among children. How poorly we must regard it as a society that students evidently end up so thoroughly dissuaded from eager learning long before reaching the lower threshold of adulthood. What standards can we possibly expect students to meet if we handicap them in all the faculties that might prompt them to aim above the mark. If this culture persists, the most likely solution is simply to expect less of students, as has already become the defining feature of decades in the devolution of higher education.

In the future of this culture, we may as well just rename familiar animals to match the absent understandings of parents and their children. Having been to a couple of zoos and aquariums in recent years I've found that as far as doting children and intellectually incurious parents are concerned, every lemur is called King Julian and every clownfish is Nemo. This really aggravates me. My best friend is terrifically fond of the Niagara Aquarium, so I have gone there with her on several occasions. Upon every visit, without fail, one can hear at least half a dozen parents exclaiming, “All right, let's find Nemo,” or, “There's Nemo.” I think I've heard the word “clownfish” used by a parent to a child exactly once.

I have no doubt that some of these parents are just lazy and find “Nemo” easy to remember, but I warrant that a number of them may have good intentions. They're probably trying to use pop culture as a way to facilitate their children's interest in the natural world. But there's more than one reason why this is misguided. For one thing, having been to the aquarium several times, it's clear that children don't need some secondary point of reference in order to take an interest in the natural world, because the natural world is terrifically fascinating. And that's especially obvious when you're a child.

So using an animated film as a way of connecting with an aquatic exhibit is extraneous, but far worse than that it obfuscates children's understanding of what they're actually looking at. It disregards the separation between fantasy and reality, it suppresses knowledge of the actual species name, and it encourages children to understand the creature through an individual depiction and not through objective facts. And then on top of all of this, for many families the fixation on something that is recognizable from fiction overrides the significance of everything else that's on display. People walk in the door and say, “Find Nemo!” and they breeze through ninety percent of the aquarium to get to something that won't teach a child very much that he doesn't already know. If they didn't immediately put that idea in his head, they might be astonished by how much he doesn't care about the clownfish once he's seen the solitary-social penguins, the balloonfish with their glittering eyes, the sharks skulking past viewing windows, the challengingly camouflaged rockfish, and so on and so on.

When parents almost thoughtlessly constrain the purpose of visits to zoos and aquariums and museums, they probably think, more often than not, that they are doing it for the benefit of their children, that they are moving to retain a young attention span and provide its owner a quick shot of enrichment while they can. In fact, I think such parents and caregivers should consider that they might have it all backwards and that the feelings of stress and impatience are all their own, and merely projected onto their children. They should concern themselves less with what their children are looking to get out of the experience, and more with what they themselves are after. If the answer isn't “knowledge, and lots of it,” they can probably expect much more of their children's interest in the moment. But they likely won't be able to go on expecting it as those children age in the presence of a society that doesn't care particularly much for learning.

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