Well-roundedness is for the poorly educated

What strikes me about the conversation on my post about Cave of the Mounds is how all conversations about homeschooling seem to lead back to the argument over the well-rounded kid.

I feel that I have provided tons of conclusive evidence that the very people who supposedly promote well-roundedness—the academics—are selecting for specialists rather than well-rounded, so the idea that we value well-roundedness in education is largely a myth, propagated by people who fail to specialize and want to justify it. For many reasons, aiming for well-roundedness is useless in today’s world.

The very idea of well-rounded presupposes that we have an agreed-upon set of ideas that create a well-rounded person. I think that went out of fashion when Allan Bloom  went out of fashion. (He’s an incredibly annoying cheerleader for the white male canon.)

Anyway, Daniel Baskin, someone who has routinely great comments on this blog and sends routinely great emails to me, sent me this link about how Finland educates their kids. And it strikes me that Finland can do so much more with their students because the students are relatively homogenous: Finland’s no melting pot.

Well-rounded requires a common culture, and a common culture requires a stagnant population, not the continuous influx from other cultures we experience in the US.

So the idea of a well-rounded education is just so inappropriate for the US that I can’t believe we are still talking about it. And it’s revealing that the discussion is among people who did not go to high-end schools, where the idea of well-roundedness is long past. The people who did not succeed wildly in academia are telling everyone how to succeed in academia. It’s absurd.

Well-roundedness is dead. Long-live inquisitiveness.

35 replies
  1. Becky Castle Miller
    Becky Castle Miller says:

    I’ve been eagerly gobbling up your homeschooling posts. I was homeschooled all the way through school, though it was a traditional-school-type-of-homeschooling. Still, I had opportunities to explore the things I was interested in and excelled at, like being a teen staff member of the local newspaper and helping with their new weekly teens page (whoa, way back when print media still existed!).

    That was in the US. Now I’m living in the Netherlands with my also-American husband and three small children. The oldest is 6 and just started attending a Dutch school. The population and culture here is more steady than in the US, but not as much as in Finland. I generally find the schools here to be better than US schools, and the two elementary schools we visited take a Montessori style approach and do a lot of child-directed play-learning (for example, the kids get tags with their names on them and they get to hang them on the board of available activity stations, choosing what they want to do next).

    Still, it’s not going to be as good of an education as homeschooling. I appreciate the renewed interest your blog has given me in homeschooling. You’ve also given me the insight and guts to say that right now I am unabashedly using public school for the free babysitting at which my daughter learns a second language. And when she gets a little older and more grounded in Dutch, I am looking forward to unschooling her.

    Though I am not looking forward to fighting with the Dutch government for the right to pull her out of school. The only way homeschooling is legal here is for the parents to submit a very narrow statement of religious disagreement with the schools. Do you have any advice for parents living in countries like Germany and the Netherlands, where homeschooling is basically illegal?

  2. Mark Kenski
    Mark Kenski says:

    If well roundedness is having been taught an arbitrary amount of many subjects one has no interest in and forgets as soon as tests are taken, then well-roundedness–my dear straw man–rest in peace.

    If, on the other hand, well-roundedness means realizing and understanding that you live in a world with other people, with whom you have to get along to some degree; if it means that you have seen enough things and thought about enough, deeply enough, over the course of your life that you can function well in the many unexpected situations real life will throw your way, then long live well-roundedness.

    The latter is something that is at least as likely to result from an interest-led approach to education as it is from any the alternatives.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I think well-roundedness is what you’ve learned. Open-mindedness is the approach to life you’re writing about, I think.


      • Mark Kenski
        Mark Kenski says:

        It seems to me that open-mindedness is the habit of mind that results from opening your mind to a variety of topics, and thinking about things that might not be in your core interest area–exactly the types of things that are excluded from vocationally focused courses of study.

        My son followed an exclusively interest-led course of study for 12 years. He chose to read Plato’s Republic, along with The Iliad, The Odyssey, Anna Karenina, and dozens of other things that people ordinarily read because they are told or coerced to read them. It so happens that these and many other classics are freely available in audio form on Librivox, which makes them very accessible. Despite my own lifelong daily reading habit, I have not gotten around to these.

        My point is there is nothing about interest-led studies that dictates a person will or should focus narrowly. All knowledge is part of a great web–everything is interrelated–and a love of learning that is enthusiastically indulged will, over time, expose one’s mind to a sufficient variety to develop plentiful well-roundedness and open-mindedness.

        • MC
          MC says:

          I think you have it nailed. For such a smart person, Ms. Trunk rarely makes reference to any great literary works, philosophers, religious thinkers, etc. Mostly just business and “leadership” books. But her parochialism in such matters does show through.

  3. christy
    christy says:

    Although I wasn’t part of the comments storm that gave rise to this post, I have to admit that I felt a visceral negative reaction to it … initially.

    On reflection, however, I realized that you’re talking about someone forcing a child to learn stuff in pursuit of being a “well-rounded individual” and are not saying that being interested in learning everything on the planet is bad or stupid.

    At least I think that’s what you’re saying. Is it?

    I’m one of those crazy people who actually does want to know everything under the sun and have long felt shunned because of it.

  4. Allison
    Allison says:

    There was an interesting op-ed in Harvard Magazine recently about how Harvard needs to forget about admitting well-rounded students if it wants great artists and writers.

    Here’s an excerpt:
    “The truth is that many future poets, novelists, and screenwriters are not likely to be straight-A students, either in high school or in college. The arts through which they will discover themselves prize creativity, originality, and intensity above academic performance; they value introspection above extroversion, insight above rote learning. Such unusual students may be, in the long run, the graduates of whom we will be most proud. Do we have room for the reflective introvert as well as for the future leader? Will we enjoy the student who manages to do respectably but not brilliantly in all her subjects but one—but at that one surpasses all her companions? Will we welcome eagerly the person who has in high school been completely uninterested in public service or sports—but who may be the next Wallace Stevens? Can we preach the doctrine of excellence in an art; the doctrine of intellectual absorption in a single field of study; even the doctrine of unsociability; even the doctrine of indifference to money? (Wittgenstein, who was rich, gave all his money away as a distraction; Emily Dickinson, who was rich, appears not to have spent money, personally, on anything except for an occasional dress, and paper and ink.) Can frugality seem as desirable to our undergraduates as affluence—provided it is a frugality that nonetheless allows them enough leisure to think and write? Can we preach a doctrine of vocation in lieu of the doctrine of competitiveness and worldly achievement?”

    via http://harvardmagazine.com/2012/11/writers-and-artists-at-harvard

  5. redrock
    redrock says:

    “…well-roundedness in education is largely a myth, propagated by people who fail to specialize and want to justify it.” Maybe I know the wrong people? The academics in my sphere (and they are numerous) are highly specialized and successful, interested in a lot of things outside of their realm of expertise, well-rounded in their knowledge, and expect similar things from their kids and peers. And I am not sure why well-roundedness and inquisitiveness are mutually exclusive…

    • P Flooers
      P Flooers says:

      “I am not sure why well-roundedness and inquisitiveness are mutually exclusive…”

      Industrial education and inquisitiveness are mutually exclusive, in fact the one tends to squelch the other.

      • redrock
        redrock says:

        that depends – on the particular school, the parents, the group of friends… there are many inquisitive, curious, smart, independently thinking people who went to public school. It’s just not that simple of a causality.

        • P Flooers
          P Flooers says:

          Even if we consider only the best each system of education has to offer, still, one system is set up to nurture broad sustained inquisition. One is set up to nurture rote learning. And its obvious which is which.

          Redrock, do you think its unfair to say industrial education squelches inquisitiveness? I think its silly to suggest its even fair to compare the quality of well roundedness in education between homeschoolers and industrial schoolers. On the one hand, you have bright students institutionalized and on the other, bright students free in the world. Are there good schools and good teachers? Of course there are. Are those good schools and teachers exceedingly rare? I think so. But even looking at the best teachers in the best schools, still, it would be nearly impossible for them to compete with the best homeschooling has to offer.

          I think folks forget that ALL students graduate with holes in their education.

          I think the idea of well roundedness has not served industrial education very well, and surely not the children forced to march through the system. If, instead, the system focused exclusively on the basic 3Rs: reading writing and arithmetic, children would be better served. If they cut industrial education in half, half the day, half the year, half the subjects, I bet the children (on average in general) would learn more. Not only because the children would have more time in the real world. I think they would also absorb more information from less curriculum.

          • redrock
            redrock says:

            I think we have a very different idea of well-roundedness. For me it is knowledge of the world around us – knowledge of forms of government, history and the flow of history, some math to grasp that this is a way to describe the physical world, some literature, basic physics and chemistry, some basic idea how a computer works, maybe a foreign language or two. Yes, I also think that life-skills are part of it – cooking, driving, riding a bike… Nobody can know everything, and well-roundedness is not a list, it is not the same for everybody, and it is different from country to country and selected by cultural background. In my own profession specialization is very important to success , however, being able to also talk to the other specialist is the key to true innovation. Had I only ever learned physics – there would be no way for me to get an idea what the biologist is talking about, although it greatly enriches my own work and ultimately success in the workplace. And while the US is a melting pot, there are very strong streams of cultural knowledge which are common to nearly everybody who has grown up here. Being well-rounded also means to be part of those.

  6. Amy
    Amy says:

    As a high school teacher who questions everything and anything about my profession, I totally agree that individualization and specialization helps students keep involved. I do everything I am able to do to help my students find that interest and spark while we navigate through our time together.

    However, as a 40-something who went to the most normal, boring, small-town, not-high-end school, I think my life and work experiences still give me a worthwhile opinion to share. I like your passion and I agree with your ideas, but that “high-end” high school paragraph came off sort of snobbish to me.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Well, it’s meant to be snobbish. Because I think it’s snobbish that someone feels qualified to define well rounded, or a common knowledge, or whatever. It’s culturally snobbish, and socio-economically snobbish. So my point is that if you want to be a snob, you are out of your league unless you’ve been educated with the snobs.


      • Amy
        Amy says:

        I am sorry, but I’m even more lost now with what you’re trying to convey about this idea of who’s defining well-rounded … but that’s OK … just me not connecting what you’re explaining.

        The more important idea of the post is that we should find ways for kids to have more say in thier educations and to follow their interests. Homeschooling can allow for that. But even though everyone isn’t going to homeschool, we shouldn’t just give up on the idea or be happy with common core curriculum. We should try to find a way to let all kids experience more individualized education instead of less of it. I totally get that : )

  7. Daniel Baskin
    Daniel Baskin says:

    Thanks for the nod Penelope. : ]

    “The very idea of well-rounded presupposes that we have an agreed-upon set of ideas that create a well-rounded person. I think that went out of fashion when Allan Bloom went out of fashion. (He’s an incredibly annoying cheerleader for the white male canon.)”

    Trying to force everyone to be well-rounded in any complete sense is like being at a party, and instead of having a normal buffet of foods and drinks, you mix it all together into a mushy paste for everyone to take a little bit of. That’s an awful analogy, but it was fun to write.

    Well-roundedness actually, IMO, is a form of specialization, or rather, a pathway to which one specializes.

    And because it is a specialization in itself, it is not something to be hoisted onto everyone.

    • j
      j says:

      To draw your analogy much further that it probably should go:
      If someone wants to be the world’s expert in, say, green beans, then it will probably help them to make nuanced comments and predictions and draw unexpected connections if they’re fairly well-versed in similar vegetables, and are at least familiar with foods in general.
      I agree with commenter Mark, above, that the use of “well-rounded” in this post seems like a bit of a straw man. Is my interpretation of “specialized” also a straw man? Not sure.

  8. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    “Well-roundedness is dead. Long-live inquisitiveness.”

    Is that it? Case closed?

    Inquisitiveness, curiosity, etc. is the driving force which enables a person to learn a multitude of things. Goals are set and achieved and then you reflect on what you’ve learned and it turns out to be much more than originally intended. Your goal wasn’t “well -roundedness”. Well-roundedness turns out to be more like a by-product of everything you were learning while you were trying to reach your goal. It’s like happiness. I will submit happiness is a by-product of working, helping other people, etc. You don’t specifically search for happiness – it will find you when you’re doing other things.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I guess I’m saying there is not well-roundedness. Because there’s too much to learn, so the list is too arbitrary. The idea of raising a “cultured child” is from the 1700s. It was easy to stay within a small geographic area for your whole life and have widespread agreement, within that area, of what was important to learn. We are way past that.


      • Mark W.
        Mark W. says:

        “I guess I’m saying there is not well-roundedness. Because there’s too much to learn, so the list is too arbitrary.”

        Evidently, there isn’t well-roundedness because we don’t have a definition for it. I don’t think it’s about having too much to learn, a list, or a curricula. I think the degree of a person’s well-roundedness is the result of their own desire to learn what they choose to learn which manifests itself in them doing research, independent study, and experiencing life in their own way. Ultimately, I think a person’s well-roundedness is determined by their personality and environment. Each person will chart their own destiny in any multitude of ways. Some people are comfortable with being generalists while others will embrace the path of being a specialist. The successful person is the one who knows themselves and pursues the path that works for them. The successful person is one whom assumes responsibility for their own learning and actions. There’s much I like about homeschooling. However there are some facets of conventional schooling that can work favorably for some children.

  9. MoniqueWS
    MoniqueWS says:

    Rather than well-roundedness I want my children to actively search out information, ideas when they understand they don’t know enough and I want them to understand we all could learn something else even if we are a specialist. I want them to know how. Banking information is unhelpful in the emerging world we live in.

    Early on in out homeschooling/unschooling life I purchased the Hirsch books *What Every Kindegartner/1st/2nd/3rd… Grader Should Know*. They are part of the concept of Core Knowledge. I used them as a reference. Maybe I was missing something myself or had forgotten something the kids might find useful/need? Usually we have some discussions about the topics which often lead to looking into the topics more in depth by reading, doing, going, experiencing. At some point my two eldest just picked them up and read the books for themselves. My youngest often asks family members or adult friends about stuff he is interested in. I *caught* him reading one of the Core Knowledge books way above his grade level a couple days ago.

    We are not a homogeneous population in the USA. As a nation we have history. As a world we have history. The principles of science don’t change from one country to another. Current popular culture holds lots of items of *core knowledge* too.

  10. Elizabeth Kane
    Elizabeth Kane says:

    I think most parents feel pressure from others to raise a well-rounded child, and kids feel the pressure to be great in all the activities their parents enroll them in. You have to let kids have the freedom to explore what interests them. Then once they find their passion, you have to gain the know-how to steer them in the direction of mastery. Like getting the right mentors and exposing them to other kids who want to learn those skills with the same excitement.

    Of course, so much of figuring that out depends on trusting kids, having patience with them, and letting go of some outdated expectations. Most of which, people aren’t willing to let go of easily.

    It would be great if activities were used as complements rather than requirements. For example, if a child wants to learn music, dance is a fantastic way to help them learn rhythm. They’re moving their body with the songs along with a group of people making the music come to life on stage – much like an orchestra does. It certainly helped me.

    Now softball on the other hand…that just helped me realize I hated hot weather and nats in my face. Who knows what I would have been doing with those hours if my Mom had listened to my pleas to leave those fields every year?

  11. karelys
    karelys says:

    While I agree with most points I still have lots of questions. I don’t want to force myself and my future children to learn something but I want us to seek it out of intense interest.

    However, you gotta start somewhere.

    There are lots of things that didn’t interest me until I learned about them. And I learned about them the most boring way; being forced to learn about it.

    I am unsure what education is for anymore. I used to believe that if education didn’t translate into making money then it was useless therefore I had to focus on educating myself on what would help me make money even if I hated it.

    However, I’ve come to the realization that there is merit in education for the sake of education. And there’s hardly a need for specialization there. Then, I started seeing that things do come full circle at some point. The only thing that hasn’t come full circle for me is materializing my interests in a money making scheme.

    But even then, with the very simple life we lead I am very very happy. Mostly because I do what I am interested in doing, for the most part. And because all my interests that seem disjointed at best, during some times of life, have opened a way for me to make my life a good one.

    That said, I am still trying to figure out how to plant my child in an environment that offers all kinds of subjects for learning and then let him choose.

    Another question, what does it even mean to be well educated? and if there’s poorly educated what exactly does it look like?

    If good education doesn’t spin on all the “literary works” and spewing all kinds of snobbish notions, would bad education be the results of…what exactly?

    Because from where I stand right now, plugged sinuses and all, poor education can be the result of zeroing on one’s interests and leaving everything else aside. Which is what people do anyway whether they are homeschooled, unschooled, regular schooled, taught by a nanny/tutor/etc.
    We all focus on what we are interested as much as our time and energy allows. So our education is poor anyway because we don’t really care to learn anything else. When I was in school I’d only study so much to ace a test then forget about it. And I am sure I’d do the same in any other setting.

    Anyone have an idea of what “good education” and “poor education” is?

  12. Emmalina
    Emmalina says:

    I think this is an interesting subject and certainly I think it is difficult to argue for the cult of generalization withint the public system. It limits children and disengages them from their own learning path. But in terms of how this applies to homeschooling I’d be interested in your thoughts on a couple of things:

    – At what age do you think this streamlining (this is how I think of it and is a less loaded word than specialising) should begin or be more encouraged? For me the early teens is the natural point but certainly before if that is applicable to the child.

    – To what degree does one encourage exclusion on an educational path? If a child is very science focused do we abadon the arts altogether or give a basic grounding regardless and vice versa of course.

    – To what degree do you think this concept of specialisation is reserved for more ‘academic’ pursuits and how does it apply to the vocational student? For example would you regard ‘car mechanic’ as a specialisation?

    – In what way do you think this applies to broader life? For me, living a rural life now, I’m noticing the need to be much less specialised and to embrace a wide range of skills. I see this as largely separate in nature to the academic focus I had earlier in life but I do really value the broader range of ‘life skills’ I learned when younger and the wider skills base of previous generations.

    Ok that was more than a couple! I’d love to hear your thoughts on these ideas if you have time : )

  13. Gareth
    Gareth says:

    I recently read an article in Vanity Fair that touches on these issues:


    Gill seems to be preaching to this choir at the beginning (“In the 100 years since we really got serious about education as a universally good idea, we’ve managed to take the 15 years of children’s lives that should be the most carefree, inquisitive, and memorable and fill them with a motley collection of stress and a neurotic fear of failure. Education is a dress-up box of good intentions, swivel-eyed utopianism, cruel competition, guilt, snobbery, wish fulfillment, special pleading, government intervention, bu­reauc­racy, and social engineering. “)

    I’m sure most folks here, myself included, would be happy to jump on the bandwagon and wave flags.

    Where Gill’s article becomes interesting and relevant to this conversation is at the conclusion: our children would be better off if they’re not particularly good at anything while they’re children.

    The worst thing that could happen to a child, Gill argues, is being a prodigy or standout of some kind, because he will be chained to that at too early an age.

    “Nothing good ever came from peaking too early.

    The interesting adults are always the school failures, the weird ones, the losers, the malcontents. This isn’t wishful thinking. It’s the rule. My advice to any child reading this: If you’re particularly good at the violin or math, for God’s sake don’t let anyone find out. Particularly your parents. If they know you’re good at stuff they’ll force you to do it forever. You’ll wake up and find yourself in a sweaty dinner jacket and clip-on bow tie playing “The Music of the Night” for the ten-thousandth time in an orchestra pit. Or you’ll be the fat, 40-ish accountant doing taxes for the people who spent their school days copping a feel and learning how to roll a good joint.”

    Conversely, is the best thing for a child to do just well enough to get by until he is old enough to figure out what he wants to do without his parents getting involved? And where does this fall on the well-rounded / not well-rounded scale?

    I don’t think this resolves my homeschooler’s neurosis about whether I am making my kid learn enough. But the article certainly makes me feel better about my kid not being a prodigy of any sort. We’ll muddle through childhood as best we can, and then he’ll figure out who he is once I’m not around to parent all over him.

    • P Flooers
      P Flooers says:

      Gareth! You’ve made my day! That is the funniest piece of writing I’ve read in a long time. And dead on the money, as well. Thank you for posting this! Whew, I can’t tell you how much I needed that laugh. And thank GOD the author isn’t a homeschooler, eh?

  14. Joe
    Joe says:

    Oh my…

    If academia was the goal of life, then you might be correct. If, however, one wants to succeed in the real world, then one needs a skill set that is not taught in the classroom (or the living room).

    The irony is that you appear to be quite successful, yet your background is fairly diverse, one might even say “well rounded”.

    Do you consider yourself poorly educated?

  15. Robert Stanton
    Robert Stanton says:

    I will bring up the dying art of polymathy. Incorrectly called a “jack of all trades” by those uneducated masses. Multi specialists are extraordinarily well rounded folk and exremely educated. I feel for anyone that you pour this dribble on.

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