Educating for Democracy: What Motivates Children to Learn?

05/20/2010 05:28 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

When I was in fifth grade, I was stricken with an illness -- glomerulonephritis -- a kidney disease that required me to stay in bed for almost three months. For some reason, which has never been clear to me since both my parents were educators, I was neither conventionally "home-schooled" nor given home instruction. Yet I probably learned more of what became the "core-knowledge" of my future academic career than at any comparable period in my life before or since. I became "self-schooled" and read over 2000 pages of books on history and culture, particularly H.G. Wells' Outline of History and the two-volume History of Western Europe by James Harvey Robinson.

I committed to memory the Royal succession of the monarchs of England and France and the important events of Western civilization from the time of the Pharaohs through World War l (which is when the books ended). No one gave me a grade or tested me to find out what I had "mastered"; no one paid me to read or to remember what I had read. Even my parents, who both were teachers, didn't feel they had to praise me for doing something I wanted to do: learn. When I returned to my school, having missed classes from late November through February, I was "behind" in a few grammatical terms but otherwise, I would say I was way ahead.

I didn't turn out to be a"genius" academically even though I had done so much reading and understood most of what I read by the time I was ten. In Junior High School I was an average student although in the SP's, "average" was probably considerably above average. In the High School of Music and Art, where I unsuccessfully studied the cello, I did not even have a 90 average and was never on the honor roll. In college I barely had a B average. Yet I have been told that I have an unusually broad knowledge of music, art, literature, history, philosophy, scientific concepts and other subjects that I did not consistently "study" formally even though my higher math skills are limited (With calculations, however, I can do most basic math in my head.)

What motivated me to learn and continue to do so, is, honestly, a mystery to me. But there are many "life-long learners" like I am who continue to take courses at Elder Hostels, college extension, and "Senior Education" programs all over the country. They are the ideal group that as young learners would have fit into the ideal school curriculum envisioned by E.D. Hirsch. They can come from a highly educated background, from poverty, or even a culture of illiteracy like Abraham Lincoln -- who had the one mentor in his step-mother -- and Richard Wright, whose thirst for knowledge overcame his fear of "hell-fire" for reading "the devil's books" which were not connected to Bible study.

But what motivates someone to spend hours of each day reading, writing, thinking -- when there are so many easy distractions in today's cyber-spaced-out world -- is a gift that can't be taught or learned in any conventional way. It can be inspired by a teacher or other mentor, but even inspiring teachers cannot motivate those students who are turned off to the bizarre notion of mass education which began in the mid-nineteenth century: the misguided idea that true learning can be done in a confining room, for arbitrarily limited periods of time, and with no connection to the students' everyday lives as the teachers jump from one subject to the next. In fact, I think that most young learners who really learn do so in spite of school rather than because of it.

What I believe motivates most young learners, and certainly motivates the immigrants who come to "the Land of Opportunity," is not just "learning for its own sake," as I always hope happens in my classes, but "learning to get ahead." There will always be those lovers of learning who will take a course in calculus for the intellectual challenge although they plan to be concert violinists, and the wise learners who will begin to study a foreign language -- as Cato the Elder studied Greek -- at an advanced age. But for real learning to occur, it has to be self-motivated. In a country where getting ahead, in terms of upward mobility, is almost as unlikely as winning the lottery, the necessary intellectual energy needed in order for someone to be educated means learning not only in school, but out of school, not just by doing homework, but understanding the homework and constantly applying the knowledge learned to everyday experiences. The time spent learning has to be in preference to the endless distractions of an increasingly frivolous and decadent culture in which being entertained is considered a substitute for thinking. To have that devotion to learning is much more difficult today than at any previous time in our nation's history.

The desire to learn is inherent in all children although some have learning disabilities that, if not too severe, can be corrected by the time they reach school age. But I think that this desire is finally knocked out of many of them because they do not live in an environment that really encourages learning. This problem has many causes which not only depend on economic well-being or lack of it. They include a need for "positive ethnic identity," teachers who know how to communicate in terms accessible and intelligible to the children they teach, and a curriculum that encourages empowerment instead of subservience.

I believe the most important factor that would motivate a larger number of young learners is if they felt they could move up on the socio-economic ladder as those immigrants of an earlier time were able to do. What they too often see around them are signs of failure: chronic unemployment, drug abuse, criminality, dysfunctional family life, incarceration of loved ones. Gone are the "striders," the successes that inspired young learners in the past as the minority middle-class disappeared from their segregated communities into more affluent neighborhoods and life styles.

There is a phenomenon noted occasionally by educators which can be described as the "fourth- grade learning decline." That for some reason, especially among poor children in Head Start programs, the rate of learning begins to level off and decline comparable to middle-class learners when the child reaches nine or ten years old. I believe that it is by that time that the child realizes, even if subconsciously, that no effort he or she makes in school is going to change their future lives. And that turns them from willing learners to reluctant learners. No matter how good the school, inspiring the teachers, effective the curriculum, that necessary "self-educating" spark where the real, life-long learning takes place can't be ignited in a society that is economically and socially geared to a politically elite segment of the population. But this lack of hope has, as we well know, its consequences. And are we prepared to face those consequences or re-examine the economic injustice that has now, it seems, become part of the fabric of American society?

A child without hope is the recipe for a dangerous adult.