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The ‘Love of Learning’ Pitfall

In his State of the Union Address last month, President Obama rightly highlighted the importance of education to the nation’s future, from college on down to preschool years in the home. He says at one point:

“Over the next 10 years, nearly half of all new jobs will require education that goes beyond a high-school education. And yet, as many as a quarter of our students aren’t even finishing high school. The quality of our math and science education lags behind many other nations.  America has fallen to ninth in the proportion of young people with a college degree.  And so the question is whether all of us—as citizens, and as parents—are willing to do what’s necessary to give every child a chance to succeed.

“That responsibility begins not in our classrooms, but in our homes and communities.  It’s family that first instills the love of learning in a child. Only parents can make sure the TV is turned off and homework gets done. We need to teach our kids that it’s not just the winner of the Super Bowl who deserves to be celebrated, but the winner of the science fair. We need to teach them that success is not a function of fame or PR, but of hard work and discipline.”

All true, and forcefully said—with one exception. It’s the “love of learning” assertion. It echoes in early-childhood education discussions all the time, but it’s a misdirected notion.  Yes, we want children to love learning, but to set the outcome up in this explicit way, to speak of it as a real goal, is a mistake.

There are two reasons why.

The first problem is sentimentality.  The phrase aligns learning too closely with the feeling motivating it. Feelings, especially in children, are wavering and inconsistent, and they don’t often correspond with the other terms in Obama’s counsel (“hard work and discipline”).  Also, too much of the material the president emphasizes, math and science, rarely inspires love. How many conscientious, education-conscious parents who limit TV time and monitor homework end up with children who declare, “I hate math!”? Furthermore, if the “love of learning” message is explicit, young children may extend it into a new and damaging corollary: “If I don’t like it, it isn’t worth learning.” (I’ve heard this termed the “Sesame Street effect.”) That is, an absence of love turns into a justification for blowing off homework.

The second problem is generality. That is, the phrase makes the object of love something too general, too abstract. But children don’t love learning per se. They love history and stories and cell biology. They want to know about what happened at Little Round Top, or to find out how Odysseus escapes from Polyphemus, or observe a cell divide. In fact, the same student might love to collect and classify tree leaves and hate to read a poem. Most children develop interests in different amounts, going from one subject to another with little consistency of response. We shouldn’t try to level their experience, then, with the general term “learning.” In emphasizing love of learning, the process of education, we under-appreciate the specific content that inspires the feeling. We should, instead, urge parents to instill a love of numbers and words and ideas and natural things and . . .

Or rather, we should substitute for “love” the word “meaningfulness.” What children need in the home are parents who impart the importance of knowledge and skills, and do so by example as well as tutoring. An abiding message should be, “You may not like them, but appreciating these materials, learning about them and learning how to handle them, is crucial to your well-being.”

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