I’m a scientist. I’ve published mathematical things, and wildly involved computer simulations of fiercely complex ecological and evolutionary processes. I’ve done field studies and theoretical studies. I’ve also published papers in philosophy and theology. What I lack in depth, I make up in wild eclecticism. My credentials for such wide sweeps of intellectual variability were forged from a bad case of ADD, unbounded curiosity, and a killer imagination. Some people are born to tunnel with predacious focus into the great stratigraphy of knowledge and follow the rich thin veins of precious facts deep into heart of narrow shafts of scientific discovery. Others, however, like me, are fashioned to skip singing over the entire landscape finding the broad-scale patterns scattered across multiple disciplines. Both are likely needed for knowledge to advance.
So I offer the way I was raised as a model for parents who want to raise a generalist rather than a specialist (The saying in the academy is: A specialist learns more and more about less and less until she knows everything about nothing; a generalist learns less and less about more and more until she knows nothing about everything). So I write against the trend in ‘Tiger Mothering.’ I call this in turn ‘Coyote Parenting.’ Coyotes eat almost anything (like I do). They are generalists in almost every way. Their ecological niches are wide. They are smart and savvy and have colonized almost all North America. People have poisoned them, shot them, trapped them, and run over them. But here they are. Still slinking through the night like ghosts. There is something to be said for generalists.
Sadly, in the U.S. generalists in academics are being, as it were, poisoned, shot, trapped, and being run over. I think this is why U.S. education is loosing ground. The way that we reward and fund science only recognizes the narrow, easy views of the specialist world. And so, the way we let people practice science is falling behind. Why? We’ve confused the economics of good business principles with the pursuit of knowledge.
Sorry. Intellectual pursuits are not a linear run up to productivity. The economy of thought is more akin to an ecology than an accountant’s notebook. Education is becoming a practice intense, homework heavy, and product driven enterprise. We ask our educators to show a product. To get results. Good business is good education. Nose to the grindstone and all that. A legislature in Texas wants to rank teachers on a ratio of teaching load to number of students processed such that the sole criteria as to whether they are productive is some nonsensical reduction into nothingness. America now ranks among the most mediocre countries in every area of education. Our edge is being lost.
The more America wants to turn education into a product, the more it will fall behind. What is being lost is the imaginative substructure that lies at the heart of every science. This loss seems exemplified by the recent claims that ‘Tiger Mothers’ are raising the cream of the crop children by giving them relentless homework demands, demanding non-stop practice sessions, and a relentless push to get ahead of the schoolyard packs. Such will drive children into becoming little automatons that will get into the right schools, but are damned from creating the innovation and breakthroughs that imagination brings. Education is being mechanized and entrained to the point that it looks like the tick-tock knowledge of a robot society doing a kind of robot science.
Whoops I got distracted in my diatribe—a common temptation for my species of generalist.
So, you want to be a Coyote Parent and rage against the Tiger Mothers? Here’s how I was raised—
Homework: I never did any homework. None. Well that’s not completely true. One time my Science teacher got me excited about a report on black holes. I did work on that at home so technically it was homework. But other than that I never did any schoolwork (How did I maintain my stunning 1.4 grade point average you must wonder). But I had a home chemistry set at home, and a wild river wetland below my house where I chased insects, played in the mud and discovered creatures both wondrous and terrible. I spent a lot to time skipping high school classes and hiking in the great outdoors. I read voraciously, but read only my own interests. This was also Darwin’s model of education. Not that I can compare my educational achievements with his, but I dare say our education methods did us no harm. I learned to let curiosity drive my questions and my explorations.
Play: I spent much of my childhood in play. I played and played. I honed my imagination in playing with imaginary friends and with real friends who pretended to be imaginary friends. Once in Jr. High, we got up at four in the mourning put on wax Pan horns we had made and danced in the copse of a river bend until dawn. Yes, I agree, that’s weird, but it was inventive and fun. There were not any games organized by adults. I never belonged to a sports team, my mom never took me to practice. But like a scene from some 1930 movie, we played games like kick-the-can until late (and this was from age like 10 to 17), our amusements were always invented or improvisations on well-known games. My parents would give no more thought to entertaining us or arranging our activities then they would for the widow next door. We learned to do things because they brought meaning to us. No one handed us our agenda. We were free agents. (As an undergraduate this continued as a friend and I played “Porpoise Ball” in the BYU pool, which consisted of bouncing a ball back and forth on our heads for hours. Yes hours.) I learned the skills of innovation by innovating for play. In a new graphic novel about the great physicist Faynman, he says, “You see, from the very beginning, I always fooled around with mathematics and physics. Played really . . ” Yes played. In fact, to this day some of my greatest science as come because I know how to play. I formally argued this in a philosophy paper—the importance of play in science. Not the kind of play we see with video games or box games where you are just following some program you’ve been handed like to shoot so many people or ski down some unworldly sled. No, we were at world making! Inventing. Improvising. That was how we played. We knew how to game in freedoms of our own devising.
Conversation: We were in constant dialogue. I remember me and my buddies staying up late (on a school night) building Tralfamadorians, creatures from Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse Five by sticking gloves with eyeballs painted on onto toilet plungers. We had no reason to do this, but we did it while discussing the book. We explored deep matters. There was no utility in making Tralfamadorians. They did not impress our girl friends (quite to the contrary). Our classmates, when we put them in our lockers, found them silly (as did we, mind you), but we did a lot of things without utility, apropos of nothing. It did not build character, or advance our chances of academic success, and may have harmed our future reproductive capabilities given our girlfriend’s reactions, but still. It all fed into this world of imagination that has been so invaluable to my scientific endeavors.
Lastly, I was given to asking questions about the world. I wanted to know how it all fit together. I could not even begin to understand something in isolation. This is why school bored me. I had to see the big picture first, then, and only then, could I study the details. In the world of specialists the details are learned first. I was lost in such a world.
So there is how to raise a Coyote child. Good luck. It takes way more patience and trust. Nothing is regulated or guided. But notice something: While tigers in the world are almost extinct, the howl of the coyote, while underappreciated can be heard from Maine to Southern California and from Alaska to Guatemala.