Mastery, Part 3

2009 October 27
by Evan Lenz

See also Part 1 and Part 2.

How do we ensure that kids don’t lose touch with their natural state of being fully engaged, playful, free, and having endless reserves of energy?

One way to approach this question is to identify how kids do lose touch with this natural state of being. Or more specifically, identify what we as a society do to contribute to this loss.

Don’t get me wrong. Growing up is at its very nature a loss of childhood. The idea here isn’t to pretend that kids don’t have to grow up or that they should stay kids forever. On the contrary, kids would never allow such a thing. From the moment they’re born, they’re constantly striving to figure out how to function in this world, and as they grow, their drive to become highly functioning adults only grows. We shouldn’t try to work against that drive or try to “keep them children”.

So the question is not: how can we help them remain childlike? Instead, how can we help them become engaged, playful, free adults? And then—once we observe that they are already engaged, playful, and free as children—how can we ensure that they don’t lose that ability as they grow into adulthood?

The simplest answer that I can think of is this: get out of the way. Our society has shown in general that we don’t know how to do this. Instead, we intervene endlessly.


This is nowhere more evident than in that orphan of industrialization we call traditional schooling. We put our kids into environments—for extended periods of time—in which their freedom, and their ability to play and converse with each other, are severely restricted. We tell them what we think is important to learn and thereby devalue anything they might have otherwise been interested in. We act as if they won’t learn or won’t want to learn anything unless we make them do it. It’s incredibly antithetical to and ignorant of the actual nature of children.

Schools are obsolete, but we as a society don’t realize this. We forget, or never realized, that schools were designed by social engineers at the height of the Industrial Revolution to create a docile, massive workforce in which people aren’t burdened by curiosity and instead are satisfied to do exactly as they are told, day in and day out, making widgets or helping machines make widgets.


People are resilient. While school destroys some, most of us get through it okay, and a number of us go on to live happy, fulfilled lives. But my strong suspicion is that we do so in spite of, not because of, our experience of being traditionally schooled, of having our freedom and play severely restricted for large segments of time during our most formative years. We survive; we don’t thrive as we might have. We conform to the contours imposed by the sliced-up world of academic subjects, and we don’t grow into the actual contours of our abilities and interests—the actual contours of our potential.

When I see a person who is a master at their art or craft, I see a person who has grown into the contours of their potential, a person who has either escaped or overcome the cookie-cutter stamp of traditional schooling.

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