The Preferred Path

June 7th 2012

Sometimes a pattern chosen by default can become a path of preference.
-Mary Catherine Bateson, from Composing a Life

My first clay elephant made in kindergarten

I recently found an old manila envelope in which my mother had carefully saved what must have been some of her favorite things of my early childhood schoolwork. In preparation for parents back to school night my 1st grade teacher had asked us the provoking question: “What would you like to be when you grow up?” We were to write our answer down to the best of our ability, and make an accompanying drawing. On yellowed, blue lined paper was a crude drawing with my answer beneath. ”When I grow up I would like to be an elephant.” I find that a perfectly logical 6 year old response to a ridiculous question. The comedian Paula Poundstone said, “Adults are always asking little kids what they want to be when they grow up ’cause they’re looking for ideas.” I continued to draw and sculpt elephant-like shapes, I suppose in an attempt to solidify the form of my future self. During this early course of self-expression, I created a pattern of personal creative exploration that continues to this day. In her book Composing a Life, Mary Catherine Bateson describes her own quest to understand this process, viewing,”…life as an improvisatory art, about the ways we combine familiar and unfamiliar components in response to new situations…” The pervasive cross-cultural social ideal seems to dictate that the most certain way to achieve success and fulfillment in life is to choose a singular goal very early on, and follow that path to it’s conclusion. However, many of us have found that life, in its constantly changing complexity, offers richly rewarding alternatives—I did not become an elephant.

I did however, have the very rare privilege of exploring various choices, and believe that having a choice should not be a privilege but a matter of course. I realize now that growing up in California, especially in Los Angeles, the world capital of re-invention directly contributed to my feeling that change was a natural fact of life. I also had the great fortune to be in a school system that was well rounded and stressed the arts as equally as science and history. We had engaged and stimulating teachers for those of us that were eager to learn. I had a particularly passionate and magical art teacher, Lyle Suter, who in my case was directly responsible for my trajectory in life and helped put me firmly on my path. He saw my elephant. Even my friends, who were not as fortunate in many respects, were given the possibility of personal exploration, in that they were able to switch majors in college, switch schools, and basically test things out in an attempt to discern what path they might like to follow. Today, most young students are not that lucky, and so many factors go into this: social, cultural, racial and economic limitations to name a few. In the U.S. the cost of university tuition is so over-the- top prohibitive, that it basically excludes the possibility of experimentation that we were able to experience. In real-time, it prohibits young adults from taking their time to “find themselves” as they mature and try different things out, as in most cases the grace period before the loan repayments begin is much too short. When I discuss this topic with friends, many of whom have college age kids, we sit around lamenting the days when we had the freedom to be confused, uncertain and searching for the most fulfilling career/life choices. And even then, many of us with degrees in one area went on to choose something entirely different once we were in our 30’s.

I now see this troubling trend in Europe as well; whose economic instability has also dictated the tone of education. Things are slowly changing as universities have begun to resemble their American counterparts in becoming increasingly corporate driven. The way this has manifested is in the lower grades, the pre-university preparatory education. On a recent sunny Sunday I was sitting in the beautiful garden of a Dacha, or as they are called in North Germany, partzellen, small parcels of land with a little garden house, which people can rent for a very minimal fee, grow their own vegetables and garden to their hearts content. It belonged to a school administrator who explained that it was one of the only things that kept her sane, and was a necessary outlet for the intolerable workload and stress she experienced during the school week. This launched a rather passionate discussion between her and a male colleague who was a teacher at the same school. To my surprise, they were both lamenting the increasingly stressful situation in their school on both the students and teachers. She explained to me along with vigorous nods of accord from the teacher that the state schools have begun to push or aggregate students into a single school, which has had two very specific negative effects. The classrooms are becoming over-crowded and the curriculums have been condensed and distilled down to the minimums of required information in order to get through as quickly as possible. This has placed great stress on teachers and students, as they enter into a more rote-memorization process without the time or space to achieve creative learning, both of which make an outstanding education possible and memorable. When I asked why this was happening, they both replied in unison, “It’s the Corporations–– they need certain types of workers and are pushing schools and states into curriculums that directly link into the kinds of workers these corporations require to keep the intense manufacturing machine going which drives the German economy, simple.” Wow, I thought, that’s just like what happened back in California when school systems dropped art, dance and music, deeming them as inferior parts of a proper educations as compared with math and the sciences. This was all done under the aegis of empowering corporations in order to booster an economy in recession.

Then there is another equally disturbing factor, which is found exclusively in America, and not in Europe– yet; the cost of higher education. The tuition in the U.S. is so hyper-inflated that students are pressured to know and make a decision fairly early on, and move forward to achieve their career goals as soon as possible, as the debt they will drag behind them is practically impossible to overcome, especially in today’s job market. The banks are happy to keep lending at high rates, which seems to set up a form of indentured servitude. In speaking with friends in Hamburg about the cost of our son’s education at a very renowned art school in Pasadena, California we saw looks of horror cross their faces as we sat across the table and told them that after just two and one half semesters we were already in debt by over $48,000.00. He realized half way through his 3rd semester that the career he had chosen was just not for him, and wants to direct his attention elsewhere. Gasp! They almost choked on their beer, as they dared to whisper that their son was at one of the top business universities in Vienna for 18 euros a semester. Our turn to gag.

It is not all bad, there are those lucky few that know exactly what they want to do from a very young age, stick to it and achieve great personal and financial success. There are others of us that find joy and fulfillment in the process of discovery, change and creating things anew. Both paths are noble and in my mind equal and both should have the respect and support of societies that are interested in creative solutions to an increasingly shrinking and competitive world.

“It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.”
– Charles Darwin

Jeannie Winston Nogai
Owner / Winston Nogai Design /

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Filed under Education, Human Interest

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