06/10/2008 By Shawn Burns

Something MereCat said in response to my sign language post has really stuck with me for the last couple of days.

My kids will know some French and they will know some of a lot of other things. I’m going for well-rounded here.

I think I agree with the idea that knowing "some of a lot of other things" is good. But in looking back at my own life I really worry about finding the right combination of focus and breadth for Erin. She’s bound to find her own balance, but if she is too much like her father then she won’t find it until she is an adult.

Actually, even then she might not find it.

You see, I’m a dilettante. I really do know some of a lot of other things. I know some French, but grew bored and didn’t stick with it in high school. I fence, but sporadically. I ride my bike, again sporadically. I had to get two BA’s because I couldn’t stand the idea of using all of my classes for a single major. I bounce from minor-obsession to minor-obsession, hobby to hobby, job to job, and place to place. I win at trivia games, because I know a lot of trivial things.

I may be well-rounded, but so is a superball.

I’ll let the historian side of me take over for a second (one of my two BA’s): back in the olden days, kids were shackled to a livelihood very early on, and apprenticeships, if they could be found, lasted for years from before puberty to long after. Broader, liberal education was a luxury (for the rich) or a necessity (for the clergy), and was nowhere to be found for anyone else.

Now, here comes the philosopher: Few would argue, I think, that we ought to end formal public liberal education early and send kids off to apprentice somewhere. We like the cuddly idea of letting our children grow up and then decide what they want to do. That order is pretty significant, I think, since it dictates how kids are educated: they are taught about as many different subjects as possible early on, continue to fill breadth requirements in college if they continue their education, and it isn’t even really until graduate school that education becomes almost singularly focused instead of general.

We are preparing our kids for the World, we say; the world is huge, and so too must their knowledge base be. As I typed that sentence I reflected again on my own knowledge base: I’m smart, but clearly unfocused. I don’t know how much that has to do with the program of education I’ve had (and shared with everyone else) and how much of it has to do with my parents just letting me hold off figuring out what I was going to do until I was old enough to make that decision on my own.

When I think about the people I know who are focused, I have the distinct intuition that these are the people who felt, figured out, or were pressured into, their callings really early on in life. The Geeks, Artists, and Athletes, who felt in their hearts what they wanted to do with their lives and who treated general education like  a necessary evil rather than preparation. Because they were preparing themselves, even in high school; even younger than that: always tinkering with code, drawing and writing, outrunning everyone else.

Is their focus a result of pressure from their parents? Is it a reaction against their parents and peers? Is it part of a desire to ‘show everyone’ what they could do?

So, as a parent, I know I have an obligation to worry about this stuff. I get to wonder if focus or breadth is best, and if encouraging Erin in whatever she shows an early interest in ("Marine biology, guys.") will have the effect I want or the effect she needs. I get to wonder if, when I find myself in one of those "I know best" moments if I really do know best.

Do I want to raise her as a dilettante, like her old man? Is there anything wrong with that? Will it matter what I do?

I wish I were already a world renowned marine biologist, living on Nim’s Island with Emily and Erin, so that she could be apprenticed to someone who was an expert in what she liked and who also had the benefit of a general, liberal education, and whose vocation was teaching. Instead, the best I can do for her in that regard is to teach her some history and philosophy early on and hope she doesn’t piss off her teachers too much.

Because with me as her father, and Emily as her mother, she is going to grow up absolutely certain she is right all the time, and consider it her duty to stand up to those petty injustices students have to endure for the benefit of the group.

I guess I ought to just hope for now that she doesn’t get kicked out of school. Because she needs to be in school first for me to get to worry about all the other things.

Like boys. Argh argh argh.