(Originally published in the June, 2008 issue of Homeschool Horizons)
In George Orwell's 1946 essay Politics and the English Language, he complains about the misuse of language. One of his arguments, entitled, Meaningless Words, in which he draws attention to the practice of using certain words or phrases deliberately for their very lack of definition, he cites "democracy" as an example of such a practice, saying, "It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it." A shrewd writer may therefore not want to define the word "democracy" when he makes use of it. He may simply be using the word to evoke an emotional response in the reader. In fact, says Orwell, "…they [the writers] might have to stop using the word if it were tied down to any one meaning." In the homeschooling world, I would make that accusation about the expression "Love of Learning".
Like the word "democracy", we all agree that "Love of Learning" is something desirable; something we all want our children to have. I have heard the school system accused of not providing it; and it has been appealed to when suggesting new approaches to educational style. The expression becomes a problem, however, when it is used without any clear picture of what it must look like, and without instruction on how to achieve it.
When it is carelessly used, it can cause parents to unnecessarily panic. Suppose (and I speak from personal experience) a child is struggling in math because he doesn't know his multiplication facts very well. Flash cards are therefore produced, math drills begun, and the child balks, cries, and resists. If, under those circumstances, "love of learning" is invoked without explanation, the parent may give up. The child is unhappy, and so, it is believed, does not "love" his learning. Since "Love of Learning" (undefined), is considered vital, the math drills are stopped.
As homeschoolers, we have the luxury of focusing on a child's specific interests, rather than on the demands of curricula; or, to teach certain subjects with activities rather than textbooks. In these contexts, we can legitimately use the words "enjoy learning", and "eager to learn". The problem comes when the learning becomes a struggle, and we worry that it is no longer something the child "loves".
But, doesn't "to love our children" include a certain amount of frustration, firmness, and dismay? Perhaps a child, also, must be prepared to experience these things. If a parent persists, a child can overcome his math difficulties, and succeed. Could "love of learning" include the feeling of satisfaction the child receives when he finally understands his math?
In the case of my own children, I can't crawl into their minds and find out if their success in math gave them any feelings like "love" toward their schooling. It certainly brought peace. I can really only get into my own head, and look at my own response to learning experiences I was involved in as a child and youth.
My family attended an Anglican Church in Montreal which had a particularly exacting junior-choir director. Her goal was not "fun", it was "excellence". There was no attempt to make us enjoy choir; she simply wanted us to sing well. There were many practices where very little "love" was happening, and I would stamp home angrily in the cold and dark, vowing to never return. My parents always made me stick with my choir commitment until it ended in June; and by September, I was back singing in the stalls. Was it the summer weather that changed my mood? I think that I just started to love the beautiful sounds we were able to make, and the continuous accolades from Priests and congregation. I and my fellow choristers continued to sing under this director (even if only once a year when we came home for Christmas) until she retired and moved to Vancouver Island.
Crawling further into my own mind, my mother tells me that I used to complain, when I was in Kindergarten and Grade one, about being in French Immersion. I have no memory of this complaint, but I'm glad that there was no ill-considered attempt on the part of my parents to make me happy. I was in French Immersion until grade 6, and 35 years later I still love to read French literature (even if I am painfully slow).
In the aforementioned essay, George Orwell concludes that "When you think of something abstract [in our case, the feelings that are associated with learning] …choose—and not simply accept—the phrases that will best cover the meaning…" When the expression "Love of Learning" is used, it covers a wide variety of feelings and circumstances. These could be described with more specific words and greater clarity; and therefore less confusion. It's important that we care enough about what we're trying to say to keep our meaning precise.