Waiting For Superbaby
by Brenda Hamilton

While waiting for Superman, we are missing the boat.

The good news is that there’s currently a strong national focus on children
and the quality of their schooling.

The bad news is that there’s likely being spawned yet more national
programs that are more expensive, less effective and possibly even more
destructive to children’s actual well-being than what is currently being
done to them. “No Child Left Behind,” “The Race to the Top,” and the
“Waiting for Superman” movement are all about trying to fix a system that
is fatally flawed.

At $850 billion a year, shouldn’t we stop to think about what we’re doing?
The current national expenditure on schools tops a trillion dollars every two
years. Tragically, most of this is being spent to actually prevent learning.

Superman is big, strong and tough, and uses force to “save the day.”
Sounds impressive, but let’s examine force: *Force polarizes, causes conflict
and creates enemies. Force can be arrogant and offensive. It repels. It is
the universal substitute for truth. Instead of using force, how about power?
Power attracts, it is unlimited, it uses meaning, integrity, understanding
and the capacity for compassion. It requires wisdom. It is often subtle
and mysterious.

  • Force mandates. Power discovers and suggests.
  • Force takes expedient shortcuts. Power patiently lays deep foundations.
  • Force use blunt and often cruel instruments. Power uses delicate, precise
    and even invisible instruments.
  • Force threatens. Power quietly initiates.
  • Force seeks its own way. Power is open to new information.
  • Force is often met with counter-force. Power is greeted with awe and
  • Force is about harder and faster whether in the right direction or not.
    Power is about true progress and amazing outcomes.
When whale oil was in short supply for illuminating oil lamps, force went
out and bludgeoned the poor creatures to death by the thousands. On the
other hand, Edison, carefully and delicately experimenting with gossamer
carbon filaments, used his own inventive power to light the entire world.

America’s race to the top, just like America’s rush to war, is about force. It’s
about mandates: “It must be done this way and now.” It’s about throwing
lots of money at a broken system, hoping it will result in improvement.

Does anybody want to at least consider a better way? The subject of this
article is a proposal for a brand new setting for learning, an entirely different
approach to the whole matter. But first this:

Instead of waiting for Superman, let’s pay attention to “Superbaby.”

Superbaby is tiny, “weak,” and tender. It cannot be tended with force but
requires patience, understanding, compassion and wisdom. If I were a well-
meaning philanthropist, I’d put my money on Superbaby, because exquisite
and unheralded powers reside within the little thing.

To perceive this awesome power, as yet largely unnoticed, unappreciated
and unexplored, you must commit to quietly being in the presence of a baby
or two for at least an hour. (Make sure their tummies are full, their bottoms
are dry and they are well rested.) Find a way to unobtrusively observe them
at close range when they are encountering a challenging new environment.
Perhaps you’ll need to get down in the floor and crawl around a bit, even
getting a little dirty, if necessary. See the world through their eyes. No
interaction is called for. Just quietly observe.

If you take this challenge and endure this affront to your dignity, you will
discover some very subtle but awesome things, such as their ravenous
curiosity, their wide-eyed alertness and their ingenious inventiveness. You’ll
see a thirst to learn that is seemingly unquenchable. When allowed to
explore without restraint, they exhibit relentless drive, intense enthusiasm
and quick delight for seeking, discovering and experimenting. This drive is
totally insatiable and right up there with the drive to eat. And you will
notice that the baby prefers to do it mostly alone. They do not wish to be
prodded, “motivated,” or led.

This is how they start out. This is the original divine and fantastic plan.
This is how they are before they come under the control of society:
i.e., are schooled.

But now…what if, god forbid, we began to use force and made babies sit
still nearly all day? What if we confined them to one small space (their
assigned seat)? What if we insisted upon silence? What if we enforced a
curriculum such as:

  • Crawling 101
  • Pulling up 101
  • First words 102
  • Objects 103
  • Making sentences 201
What if we imposed a rigid schedule that allowed them to change subjects
only when a bell rang? What if we applied pressure? Gave them their bottles
only for mastery? Allowed them their “blankies” only if they fully cooperated?
(Oh my, how they would need those blankies!)

What if a superintendent decided what the baby should learn, when, and
in what sequence? What if we removed all distractions, put him/her in a more
or less sterile environment, so they could focus just on the prescribed
curriculum. What if we put lots of them in one room, lined them up, made them
wait until a teacher began to give instructions, or until all the other kids did
their learning tasks?

What if we took away all interactive objects? (Show them a ball in a book, a
real one might distract them.) What if we provided deadly dull textbooks
created by the multi-billion dollar textbook industry? What if they couldn’t be
allowed to progress unless they had memorized all this stuff?

Ohmygawd! What would we produce? Zombies. We would have woefully
neurotic, stressed and unhappy creatures that function at a fraction of what
they were intended. Hello… Could it be that we are unwittingly producing
“mentally deficient” human beings by the millions and spending trillions to
do it? Could it be that we are (compared to what we could be) mostly a
society of neurotic, unhappy dullards because of this hateful process?

We are.

Humanity has long believed that there is something sacred about “education.”
It has always been easy to raise money to support it. In nearly all cultures, it
commands substantial budgets, facilities, teachers and teacher training. This
damaging, unnatural process of control and domination is anything but sacred.
The beautiful, joyful, unlimited potential of a human mind is what should
inspire our reverence.

The tragic drive to capture and control this unutterably holy power has led to “teaching” using coercion, pressure, fear, artificial schedules, tattletale report cards, hot competition, shame, and ridicule. In a word: force.

What is all this really about? For one thing, it is about the ancient, now
practically unconscious practices of creating submissive creatures that would
goose step to war or serve as automatons for the production of necessities.
It is about control of the individual for purposes of the state. The very subtle,
very deadly seed, the unquestioned control of innocent children for the
purposes of adults, was in there and is still with us to this day. It has to be
said: traditional education has a fatal flaw. That flaw is compulsion, force,
loss of freedom and thus the inability to learn as we were created to do.

It has already been determined that either war is obsolete or man is. With
28,000 tons of explosives for every person on earth and our stockpile of
10,600 nuclear warheads, surely continuous war preparations can be called
into question. And as jobs are continually being made obsolete by our
machinery, it is no longer necessary to continue cranking out industrial slaves.

The end result of all this control and unconscious perpetuation of custom is
a tragic damming up and twisted perversion of the most wondrous and
magical power in the universe: the inborn drive to learn and the creative
abilities of the human mind.

Weary mankind throughout the world has unquestioningly accepted a
gloomy, tedious, narrow road to mental dullness. There is a blind spot of
global proportions, spanning thirty centuries of time, affecting billions and
billions of human lives. Like the ancient Chinese practice of foot binding,
commonly accepted for 600 years, shaping an entire culture and creating
grotesque subservience, compulsory schooling also involves pain, torture,
stoppage of growth, numbness, lifelong disabilities and deformities we think
of as “normal.”

Traditional education is based on loss of personal freedom with totally
unnatural constraint. This is the fatal flaw, which all the tinkering in the world
will not correct. The traditional school’s very organization creates a resistance
to learning. Sitting in one position for long periods of time in a monotonous
atmosphere controlled by shame, pressure and fear is cruel and unusual
punishment. It must be stopped.

Essential freedoms surrendered at the steps of the schoolhouse are:

  • The freedom to set one’s own direction, design one’s own route.
  • The freedom to have intentions and to carry them out.
  • The freedom from boredom, confusion, compulsion, coercion, guilt and fear.
  • The freedom to choose, to pursue special interests, to satisfy curiosity.
  • The freedom to enjoy choices and learn from them.
  • The freedom to fail, and fail and fail without even a trace of shame.
In fact, the freedom to fail may be one of the greatest freedoms of all.
We need to be able to fail with enthusiasm knowing that we have found
another way something won’t work and to rejoice that we’ve discovered a
significant gap in our knowledge and can now fill it. Babies fail and fail and
fail and fail and fail. That’s why they learn so fast! They don’t receive “F”
when they fail, so they don’t lose the courage to keep on trying over and
over again, each time a little differently until they’ve got it.

By contrast, most students give their most energetic efforts to self-
protectively concealing every shortcoming, not daring to actually commit
“failure,” and not sticking their necks out or risking anything to begin with.
The result is a bizarre but defensive array of behaviors to avoid being
pronounced “a failure.” These include silence, withdrawal, passivity, lying,
pretending to understand, cheating, secrecy, putting others down, “brown-
nosing,” acting out, or becoming tough and cynical. All of these are
antithetical to true learning, which admits ignorance or failure, and then
backs up and tries again.

We actually learn most from failure because it goes right to our hearts. It’s
emotional and it sticks. We are not likely to do it again, and can finally make
good forward progress, which then gives us passionate exuberance. If we
stay in the “safe” zone and do only what we’re sure we can already do, we
have stunted our own growth. If the unschooled, self-educated Mr. Edison
had been scrutinized, embarrassed, made to feel ashamed, and called a
failure, you might be reading this by candlelight.

You may notice that QUITE A LOT has been taken from us: our time (twelve
years worth of our most formative years), our vital growth energies, our
naturalness, our drive, our powers to invent, imagine and intuit, our clear
purpose, our immense creativity, our joy. Yet many people freak when they
hear the word freedom in conjunction with schools. They picture chaos,
confusion, and mayhem. Yet models, such as the Montessori school, already
exist in which freedom within a prepared environment is simply the accepted
norm. Another example of orderly freedom we use everyday is the car. All
drivers are free, using the prepared environments provided (the roads and
highways) within the parameters of the clear rules of the road, to come and go
at will. A shopping mall is another prepared environment in which most people
seem to function quite well and happily without surrendering their freedom.

What are we doing to humanity? Why? It’s not just about the kids in schools.
It’s about all people who spend their lives on dreary work-a-day treadmills
that sap their vitality and essential happiness in life. It’s about all who never
come to recognize their immense potential and find their unique and joyful
paths. It is about the millions upon millions of discoveries, inventions,
insights, breakthroughs and creative works than never come forth.

Oh, you’re not sure about your own potential and that of the rest of the
human race? Consider this: It has recently been estimated that the human
brain has 100 billion neurons, with the capacity to memorize some ten billion
bits of information during the average human lifetime. This is equal to five
sets of the Encyclopedia Britannica. In addition, the brain is able to make
over 100 trillion connections on various subjects, more than the sum of all
the atoms in the universe. Thus, our brains are like a one billion gigabyte
computer, and so far we’re only using one gigabyte. With 500 terabytes, we
have the equivalent of 10,000 disk drives!

So what’s keeping us from getting at it? One guess...

A fascinating and deeply significant aspect of the brain has been recently
uncovered by Dr. Jaak Panksepp of Bowling Green University. He found that
when one is fully engaged in high anticipation, intense interest or insatiable
curiosity, brain circuits are totally activated. TOTALLY ACTIVATED. Did you get
that? Keep that in mind, please. This helps explain why cats kill birds they
don’t intend to eat. It’s the hunt, not the catch. Strong mental activity when
in “seeking mode” activates the “nucleus accumbens,” flooding the brain with
dopamine (which some call happiness juice) that is a key neurotransmitter.

Thus, it is apparently not the pursuit of happiness that really fulfills us, but
instead, the happiness of pursuit. How often in the typical classroom is a
student engaged in “high anticipation, intense interest or insatiable curiosity,”
and in seeking mode?

According to Dr. Daniel G. Amen, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of
California, knowledge is not transferred, it is constructed. Read that again
slowly and let it sink in. Not transferred. Knowledge does not go from the
textbook into the deep memory recesses of the brain. Do you think that our
“race to the top” gives children time to understand all the information that is
being crammed into their heads to increase their scores? I can personally
attest to the fact that 99.9% of the material I “learned” this way never stuck.

It has also been discovered that the mind “thinks” with the body itself. There
is “muscle memory” linked to such activities as driving a car, learning to type,
dancing or playing a musical instrument. Much of this kind of knowledge seems
to reside outside the brain itself and encodes and sticks in the very muscle
tissues of our bodies, perhaps only peripherally involving the brain, according
to Dr. Julian Dow of Glasgow University.

As children are made to sit in one spot most of the day, using pencil and
paper, countless opportunities for muscle memory are forever lost with every
minute that passes.

Traditional education was put in place long before any of this information
came along, and it has been unable to transform itself. At a deep level, we
know, and nearly all will agree, that profound changes are called for, but
most are left wondering why the “reforms” are all so ineffective. I remind
you that it takes freedom to seek, freedom to construct and freedom to
move one's muscles.

The fact is, the old institution of “education” is cracking around the edges
anyway, in light of more interesting ways of learning, including worldwide
travel, wonderful museums and libraries, automated programmed mastery
machines and the endless resources of the Internet. But if we are going to
provide a safe, excellent place for children and young people to spend their
early years, what must be done?

For one thing, we must think out of the box. “If you think inside the box, it
puts a lid on your thoughts,” said my 92-year-old mother. So we must knock
the lid off and step far enough away to gain true perspective.

For another thing, trying to really change the old system is like trying to
change the wings of an airplane in flight. It simply can’t be done without
crashing. (Move over, Superman!) Corporations needing to reinvent them-
selves often must simply create new spin-off companies with all new rules.

It is high time we construct a brand new type of place, where children and
adults alike may go to learn in the style of the baby. I’m not just talking
about building “a school.” No, this new way of learning represents a
monumental shift for humanity. It is a world-changing project that has the
potential to elevate mankind to never before seen levels of understanding,
mastery, skill, invention, creativity, solid achievement and above all,

This new learning environment is now on the drawing board, awaiting
financial backing, with both detailed physical and financial plans in place.

“Isn’t attendance at a public school (and thus loss of freedom) compulsory
in this country?” you may ask. Thankfully, home schooling has broken
through that impasse. This will be an extension of home schooling, using
this center as resource just like homeschoolers use libraries, museums
and field trips.

Won’t it be just for the wealthy? No, meaningful work-study programs and
scholarships will put it within the reach of all.

How will such a facility be financially possible? A creative new partnership of
capitalism and philanthropy is being called for, to bring just one prototype
model into being. Once it is experienced, everyone will be clamoring for more
of it. All sorts of creative ways will be found to bring it into the mainstream,
including franchises, community co-ops and reconfiguring existing community
facilities. It will convince by being something simply irresistible, not by
demanding impossible changes. Spawning enormous wealth of know-how
and excellent emotional health, it will be seen to be a terrific investment.

It will be a center of activity that begins to change the daily patterns of
all people, transitioning from empty, frustrating or boxed-in lives to fresh
new lifestyles that are rich, exciting, self-determined and fulfilling.

It will be a totally safe microcosm of the world that will provide for joyfully
seeking, discovering, following curiosities, exploring environments and
being allowed to simply marinate in and absorb knowledge the way nature
intended, the way already proven to be miraculously effective in the tiny
little ones.

Eventually, people will begin to see in themselves enormous untapped
potential, and will discover countless new career paths and doors of
opportunity opening as they experience undreamed of success along
fascinating paths of their own choosing. “Jobs” will become the learning
stepping stones by which one advances, not the tight, constrictive boxes
that produce poor mental health at epidemic levels.

It will be a place where teachers have transformed themselves into caring
mentors and preparers of the learning environment. They will no longer
squander their energies struggling to control by force. In addition to the
mentors, there will be masters in many different subject areas who will
demonstrate their knowledge and skills, and offer apprenticeship
opportunities for deep and unforgettable learning experiences.

It will be a mall for the mind, where rich, interactive, intuitive and sequential
pieces of knowledge have been so carefully configured that learners will
learn, not because of force and fear, but because they are compelled by the
powers at work within themselves: powers of curiosity, creativity, a desire
for mastery and the urge to invent.

Power gives life and energy. Force takes them away.

The thoughts and ideas you have been reading are excerpts of a soon-to-be
published full-length book, BREAKTHROUGH TO BRILLIANCE: Changing the World by Changing The Way We Learn. It not only provides the rationale for these changes, but also offers a blueprint, detailed plans and possible financial

Brenda Hamilton is founder and president
of the Hamilton Learning Foundation.