A question that children frequently get asked is, ‘What do you want to be?’ This is an abbreviated version of the full question, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ It seems a harmless enough question, and it is undoubtedly one that as children grow up they need to give some thought to. However, I wonder if it is quite so harmless a question as at first it might seem.
The question makes two assumptions. The first is that a child is not fully whole now and will only be so when they grow up, and, secondly, that that their identity when they do grow up will be defined by what they do for a job rather by who they are as a person.
This is, perhaps, why so many parents in Hong Kong want their child to be a doctor or lawyer. Both professions are not only high earning, they are also high status. There is, of course, nothing wrong with having hopes and ambitions for our children, but shouldn’t we be hoping for more for our children than that they achieve social approval and acclaim? I don’t mean simply that they should be looking at other jobs apart from high status ones or that other jobs should be given a higher status than the ones we normally value – although that’s true as well – but that we need to be thinking about who we want our children to be and become as a person when they grow up as well as what we want them to do.
A book that has had a major impact on my own thinking is an old one: Deschooling Society by Ivan Illich. Illich distinguishes between education and schooling. Schooling is about a child getting qualifications; education is about the child. A narrow focus on what they are going to do in the future inevitably leads to a narrow focus on what they need to do it. Going to school thus becomes about academic outcomes, that is, passing exams and getting qualifications at the expense of the spiritual and emotional development of the child holistically.
I doubt if many would disagree with what I am saying about how today we emphasise academic outcomes, but the question is, ‘Does it matter?’ Perhaps not so much to those who achieve their ambitions and gain the jobs they aspire to. But what of those who don’t? And what of those who can’t? And what about those who have a disability, physical or intellectual, or who are simply different?
Thankfully, we are now doing more as a society to be inclusive in our approach to education. If, however, every child is to be included, then not only must what we do in school be inclusive, it must also have an inclusive outcome. We need to ensure that when children leave school, it is not only the few who benefit from their schooling. It should not only be the fastest and fittest who win the prize.
In a previous blog, I wrote about being happy. I am not so naïve as to think that being happy has nothing to do with our material well-being. It is not easy to be happy when you don’t know where your next meal is coming from or how you are going to make the next rent or mortgage payment. But equally, many get their high status, high earning jobs only to find they don’t bring happiness. However, because getting there is all they have been encouraged to think about since the age of 3, they often lack the character and resources to know how to find happiness once they have arrived.
The Vatican in a recent policy document on education – which I would enthusiastically recommend to all educators and not just Christians – quotes Pope John Paul II, who spoke of humanity acquiring its full identity in obedience to 'transcendent truth'. Realising that there is ‘transcendent truth’ enables us to transcend the purely functional values of a materialistic worldview. It makes it possible for us to gain a broader perspective on life in general and to see education as being about human growth and potential and not simply gaining qualifications. It also encourages us to ensure that what a child studies in school is an integral part of their development as an individual.
The philosopher Simone Weil said, ‘The joy of learning is as indispensable in study as breathing is in running.’ Children will only know that joy when learning is about more than providing a gateway to economic success for the fortunate few. So, by all means, let’s ask children what they want to do, but let’s value them for who they are and, with our encouragement, for the person they can become.
Winnie went to school at DGS and a boarding school in England before studying law at the London School of Economics. She then studied for a master’s degree in law at New York University. After qualifying as a lawyer, she worked as a tax attorney in New York.
She qualified as a teacher at HKU and has been an early childhood teacher for over twenty years. She has also obtained a Postgraduate Diploma in Early Childhood Education, again from HKU, and several qualifications in music and education.
She is currently the Principal of Christ Church Kindergarten.