On the Wisdom of Children, the Immaturity of Adults, and the Folly of Schools

Adults often tease children for having an imaginary friend or special stuffed animal.  “Aww, isn’t that cute,” we say, believing they’ll grow out of it

Yet that imaginary friend or stuffed animal is teaching that child to interact, learn language, exercise imagination, and engage a host of important life challenges.

Children are recognizing, rehearsing, and developing real life skills and values through play, and they are not that concerned about how it looks to the outside. Let’s hope they don’t grow out of that.

Now, let’s turn a keen eye on adults.  We use a large part of our alleged intelligence to deny rather than engage the reality around us.  We ignore global warming, personal deficiencies, racial, gender, and class inequality, and the list goes on.

Ironically, we often use a pragmatic “realism” to excuse away pertinent facts which seriously impact the survival of the present and future human race.

Who is mature, and who is immature in these situations?

The wisdom of children

A child sees a homeless person on a street, asks about that homeless person, and wants to intervene.

“Why are there homeless people? Is there something we can do?”

“I know… it’s sad.  I wish we could,” adults typically reply, copping out of a long explanation and hiding behind a self-motivated desire to avoid grim truths.  Instead, we attempt to protect children from the ugliness of the world by denying them compassion.

Why couldn’t we simply say, “That’s important to know.  Let’s find out.  We don’t want people to be without community, food, shelter and someone to love.” Why couldn’t schools make this problem and other concrete social problems and opportunities the core of their curricula?

Is there anything more important and immediate to learning than addressing suffering—the suffering of the earth and its inhabitants?

Who is immature?  We adults are.  We do not face reality.  We are the ones playing peekaboo with our denial and fantasy. We are the ones providing excuses for our irresponsible behavior and inaction.

It is children who seem to understand the higher value of essential non-material virtues—love, care, truth, courage, honesty.  On a visceral level they “get” that loving presence is more valuable than an expensive toy substituting for an absent parent. We adults don’t.

The immaturity of adults

So we confirm that children are collectively wise in their actions, rather than innocent, and that we adults are collectively immature, rather than wise.

Yes, an individual child may throw a temper tantrum, and an individual adult may care for the poor, but wisdom or immaturity is most evident in the sum effects of the observed groups.  By my accounting, adults as a group are doing far more damage.

We adults are polluting the world, extracting natural resources at an alarming rate, and loading debt on future generations.  And we are effectively taking responsibility for none of it.

We adults like to take kids to task for failing to clean their rooms.  Yet, we fail to clean the planet.  In fact, we leave it messier every day, adding junk not only to the earth’s surface but its atmosphere and its orbit.

We adults like to criticize adolescents for being egocentric and materialistic, yet we aim for five-bedroom McMansions in the suburbs with three- and four-car garages filled with titanium golf clubs, jet skis, and that hot tub we ordered but never quite got installed.

We rant about teens who irresponsibly charge three hundred dollar electronic gadgets to their parents’ credit cards.  Then we turn around and rack up trillions of dollars of national debt (in just a few years) and put that on our children’s credit card.

We bemoan the cyber-bullying among youth that may cause suicides numbering in tens or hundreds, but promote large scale geo-political bullying, in the form of pointless and violent wars, costing hundreds of thousands of innocent lives.

We like to counsel our kids about being financially literate, deferring gratification, and investing in their future—saving for college, a down payment for a house— but we’ve let our community and national infrastructure go to pot in the mad rush to lower taxes and fund cushy individual retirements.

The folly of schools

And of course we build schools to perpetuate and reproduce this insanity.

“Get yours” is the implicit rallying cry of schools toiling under the legacy of industrial education.

“Be compassionate and excel!” does not appear to be the operating motto.

We look in most schools at the continued relentless emphasis on competition, on testing, on preparation for individual jobs, on singular achievement, and we see a main theme emerging, “Nobody matters but you,” quite at odds with official mission statements.

Even though present schools exist in an age well beyond the Industrial Era, schools continue to retain and enact industrial habits.  They still largely treat the learner as a product to be processed, quality controlled, and prepared for material consumption and production.

The goals of most schools are typically not chosen from the grass-roots concerns of the learning community but rather adapted from predetermined standards decided by experts. Learners and their experience are apparently not to be trusted in an industrial system.

This framework requires stripping away imagination, genius, and difference, and replacing it with “civilized” obedience and homogenized delivery.   The person gets lost in the process.  Curiosity, inquiry, and engagement are met with formulas.  Education splits from learning.  Learners become objectified “students.”

Here is the catch, though.  Industrial education no longer works.  In fact, it concretely makes matter worse.  You cannot just blindly advocate for more of the same, more jobs, jobs, jobs and more manufacturing and consumption in a shrinking world, and expect to solve global pollution and resource scarcity.

Despite this, educational authorities, if anything, have regressed more deeply into an industrial mode of thinking.  They’ve responded to uncertainty with the same top-down control that gave rise to our current uncertainties and challenges in the first place.

You notice this impulse in the latest pushes to increase testing in schools, “get back to basics,” and increase academic standards.   These do have valid learning uses but not when applied to mistaken notions about the nature of reality and the purposes of learning.

Current education tells us to ignore suffering, to box it up, and delegate it to some abstract authority somewhere else:  “Social responsibility is not our department.  Just study and get that high-paying job, raise a family, and let everyone else fend for themselves.”

Why do we keep trying to be Dr. Frankenstein, imposing our compartmentalized will on life rather than learning from the billions of years of holistic wisdom inherent in the life around us?  Why do we insist on reproducing obsolete knowledge in our world and in our children (and paying for our stubbornness)?  I don’t have a good answer.

We simply need to value effective transformative learning above obsolete reproductive education.

Developing people’s unique genius and ability to contribute and collaborate in an interconnected world is no longer a luxury.  Critical, creative democratic, grass-roots education is an urgent necessity in a changing world.

A new vision of democratic, grass-roots education

“Learning originates with people, and [yet] schooling has very little to do with people, but rather processes.  I’ve long wondered why we don’t simply make a school based on people, and their problems and opportunities, and simply directly teach to that.” (Zeus Yiamouyiannis in Oct. 24, 2012 conversation with Kirsten Olson)

Now imagine a school that wasn’t simply built on competitive self-promotion and ignoring the well-being of others.  When a child says, “Can we help that homeless person?,” we might actually say “yes” in a fuller way.

Imagine a school based in an aware community, digging up the roots of the homelessness (or pollution, or bullying, or debt, or intolerance) in a way that goes beyond personal charity or coping to unearth the structures that gives rise to injustices.

Imagine a school where active empathy, art, creativity, entrepreneurialism, critical social thinking, and problem-solving organize the curriculum.  Where pressing needs like non-violence, environmental care, and multicultural, economic, and political literacy become the centers of an enterprise we learn to engage together.

Imagine, actually asking and answering the non-rhetorical questions, “What are we to learn in this life?  What is a high quality life for us and others?”

Imagine a school centered in community where “just being a good person” is not enough, where trying to keep your nose clean, obey the rules, and get into heaven are simply motives too selfish to serve as standards of good citizenship.

If we pursue this community option, we will uncover key anti-democratic myths, like “selfishness is human nature”.  We will discover how this myth has been used to naturalize industrial era exploitation, colonialism, inequity, and abuse, and we will hopefully choose to veer from that precedent.

We will learn that it is simply a bad deal to trade integrity and health for “stuff.”

We will learn that “smart” people don’t destroy the world.  They heal and co-create it.

It will be the task of new schools to reconnect self-awareness to others and to the world.  It is my belief, that youth will lead this new connected awareness into practice.  They have the most at stake.  They are young enough to carry that commitment into the future.  They have not epically failed as their forebears have.  They deserve their shot.

Youth know that taking from others, “getting yours” at the expense of others is a failed vision. It doesn’t work in the larger global village, and it destroys individual virtue.

All the realism and “hard skills” in the world cannot trump the fact that “soft” human capacities drive accomplishment. Academic literacy is only a part of educational success.  So-called “soft factors”—organization ability, work ethic, support network, etc.—end up exerting a stronger influence.

Good schooling and world citizenship is based on giving—contribution, concern, care, service.  To support these purposes, education must include personal awareness and excellence, interpersonal respect, community advocacy, and global understanding.

We need an education that does not say, “There, but for the grace of God, go I,” but rather, “There by the grace of God am I”


Real democratic, compassionate education is founded upon an intimate sharing of the human condition, a high sensitivity to the suffering of others, and a high desire to do something about it.  It involves learning to listen and design, rather than assume and impose.

The world’s problems cannot be solved by doubling down on failed habits and purposes.  Comprehensive, complex, collective problems are solved when the genius in every heart, soul, body, and mind is unleashed and powerfully connected.  This is the promise of true pluralism.

What is stopping us from directly devoting ourselves to the cherished non-material values and skills of love, creativity, solidarity, critical challenge, mindfulness, and community?  What is stopping us from letting money, work, education, and social organization serve these aims and capacities?


There is no shortcut.  We cannot have elite scientists or technology engineer from the top down what is inherently a bottom up human enterprise.  We’ve already tried the top-down shortcut to “perfection,” and we got eugenics, religious fundamentalism, and dictatorships.

We are called to embrace in unity a world of intriguing imperfection and difference, without which there is nothing to learn, nothing to accomplish, and nothing to appreciate and respect.

We need an education that takes the world as it is, in all its beautiful promise and difficult problems, rather than what we might tell it to be.  We need to engage that promise and confront our problems rather than delete them from our consciousness and dump them on the least powerful.

Let us then borrow wisdom rather than money from our children.  Let us listen to that emerging and powerful wisdom in developing our capacities to meet what is in front of us.  May we then craft a universe together with a place for all of us.

If you like this essay, please subscribe for free up at the top of the Citizen Zeus home page. I will notify you about upcoming essays on transformative learning and give sneak peeks into my upcoming book, “Mindflexing: Unleashing the Power of Transformative Learning”. Thanks!

by Zeus Yiamouyiannis, Ph.D. November 21, 2012, copyright 2012 (please feel free to share for educational or personal purposes)

  • Bill Oldread says:

    Very thought-provoking article. Thanks Zeus. We recently confirmed Kirsten Olson as a keynote speaker at our EARCOS leadership conference in Bangkok next November.

    • Thanks Bill. It was a conversation with Kirsten Olson over email that inspired the initial germ of an idea for this the post, and her encouragement to write something got me motivated. The world is a small place. Keep me in the loop if that EARCOS conference is open to the public (or independent educational professionals).

  • Fabio says:

    Very insightful..there is always an innate level of sacredness in children that we as a society somehow seem to take away om them! We as adults are probably too scare to take that responsibility our children would only love to assume if we were to let them!

    • Fabio, I agree very strongly. I think you have done a good job identifying the possible reasons why we deny sacredness in children and in ourselves.

      We adults as a group ARE too scared to take on the responsibility of this changing world, a responsibility too big for individuals alone and one requiring the sacred.

      I think we have become so invested in our clever formulas and creature comforts that we are intimidated to open to learning to change.

      I love your last line (right on target): “We as adults are probably too scared to take that responsibility our children would only love to assume if we were to let them!”

  • Sunil says:

    Dear Zeus,

    You have presented an intense article to understand and synthesize the concepts around the life cycle of the most complex entity on earth, humans.

    The title of your article says it all “On the Wisdom of Children, the Immaturity of Adults, and the Folly of Schools”. The unadulterated (literally, without the affect of ADULTS) children are truly a “gift of god” as we all say, but hardly know why? It is because their hearts, mind, intellect and the supreme SELF is not altered by the adults to make them so called “fit” for the world in order to “materially succeed” in life, which the adults themselves have not been able to accomplish in the first place. It is the void and the inadequacy of the adults that destroys the genius in the child.

    At present, we are living at a point in time where the powers that be have deluded society to such an extent where we are living a Stockholm Syndrome. Literally, we are in love with our captors who have imprisoned our lives – from cradle to grave, they are in total control.

    Two millennium ago the rhetoric was limited to “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears”. With the power of technology available today, the same powers that be, ask additionally to lend our eyes – thus creating a powerful cocktail of mind control and cravings to be servitude to their empire built upon corporations to enslave every aspect of our lives, including the biggest commodity ever made by the powers, the fiat money. This has led today’s society into the enslavement it so likes and desire.

    Unless we adults get out of this bondage, there is little hope for humans, collectively, to prosper for the true purpose we are born on this planet in the first place. Today’s society is blinded by greed, indulgence, indolence and ignorance. Deception and myths rule the hearts and minds of masses; in a perfect Orwellian copy-book fashion. As you have rightly put it, the few of us who actually try to use our intelligence, “We use a large part of our alleged intelligence to deny rather than engage the reality around us”.

    Trying to make a decent living, when one learns the hard way that success and rewards do not come by “who you are” rather than “who you know”. This experience of the world is brought back from professional life to our children to prepare them and thus corrupt the virtues. It is the “materialistic selfish” nature of humans which is the problem. Else, being selfish is a virtue, if you cannot think for yourself, you can never for others, but the self oriented thinking needs to be guided by virtues and not hoarding to inflate ego. Like you have very beautifully put it “We will learn that it is simply a bad deal to trade integrity and health for “stuff.””

    • Sunil, Yes, this thrust to replace integrity and creativity and openness with packaged thinking and misplaced value is strong. It is also amplified by technology. And it baffles me how many times people double down on the same method when it fails. (“What fools these adults be,” the kids must be thinking. “They do something wrong, and instead of giving themselves a timeout, they do it all over again except with more energy.”)

      But here is my hope. Technology is a two-edged sword. Just as it can confuse and mislead, it can also inspire and inform. You are reading my words through a committed use of technology. Good ideas and stories can resonate and become viral and lend a kind of weight by their shared popularity to the possibility that these ideas might be taken up. Good critical thinking helps to crystallize people’s concerns and accelerate them toward an alternative.

      So I have faith that concerned people will begin to congregate around good writing and begin the process of building the practices, principles, and leadership we all need to not only save this sinking ship, but sail it forward.

      Thanks for your comment.

  • Great message! Shortly after reading this, I came across this TED talk. Wondered if you’d seen it? http://youtu.be/V-bjOJzB7LY

  • Tea, Good link.

    I have seen it now. There is a huge crisis and missed opportunity in learning from and taking direction from the younger generation. We are ensconsed in a notion of children that is tied to an industrial conception of knowledge as accumulation/possession vs. wise use/application.

    You can have a lot of knowledge and not know how to use it. Or have the wrong premises and destructive habits and apply knowledge in the wrong direction, making things worse than if you had done nothing.

    We need the leadership of the young, for these reasons, and for reasons of radical equality unleashed. We need every heart, soul, and mind unleashed and connected. All hands on deck working together! Love the line in the video, “The goal is not to make kids just like you, but better than you.”

    I had an almost identical line in an article I wrote for an alternative newsweekly in criticizing William A. Henry’s book, “In Defense of Elitism:”

    “‘The best’ go beyond current standards. Improvement may be gained by emulating your ‘betters,’ as Henry like to say, but excellence is certainly achieved by surpassing them. This is not a sad moment, but a triumphant one. It should be a teacher’s greatest wish that her students become smarter than she. It should be parents’ greatest wish that their support and guidance produce happier, more successful children. On the other hand, how many times do you see and elitist, like Henry, openly wishing for others to be greater than he. That alone speaks volumes.”

    And that is where we are. We have a decision to make. Entrust our future to our children and lend our utmost support,or retrench in our vanities and make things worse for future generations. It does not get much clearer.

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