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Fulfilling One's Potential? Why?
By Beverley Paine, Nov 2004
Earlier today I heard educationalists yet again talking about "fulfilling one's potential" and began thinking in earnest about the pressure to perform in our society.
Education makes us seek lives less than ordinary - it urges us to vanity, and embeds values that cherish ambition, greatness and fame.
"You could have been successful" my father once told me, as he lamented my lack of university education. He firmly believes that education is the road to success. But education is much more than schooling - education is a lifetime experience and is molded by the culture, time and place in which we live. I feel a continuous educational process occurring in my life as I listen to the radio, watch the television, read magazines, newspapers and novels, reflect, listen and talk to the people around me.
What I learn is this: life is full of ordinary people living with ordinary lives in every moment; but history, that is the reflection of the moment passed, embodied and translated by education, is a world of heroes, people with ability or talent, great drive, momentous ambition. When considered historically life becomes a movie script where the ordinariness of everyday life is stripped away and all that is left are the highlights, great acts, achievements that surpass the mundane. These exceptional moments are the bits considered worth recalling, retelling, and passing down from generation to generation. The everyday, the ordinary, is lost. I believe this results in a discontent with self and place and often time, a yearning for Lady Luck to bless us, to lay opportunity at our feet, so that we too can live lives less ordinary, to reach that elusive concept, our 'potential'.
Most of us feel cheated, as though there is something wrong with us for not being chosen for greatness. We blame ourselves for our inadequacies, for never reaching the great heights supposedly meant for us. If only we'd tried harder, worked harder, or took advantage of the opportunities we only see in hindsight. Our parents know that if we'd worked harder at school we would have achieved their goals, the goals their parents had for them, and so it goes on, from generation to generation. Whether for personal gain or societal progression the pressure is forever there to achieve greatness and success at ever younger ages. And thus an ordinary life is considered inadequate, unfulfilled and a pervading sense of failure is born. The malaise that is discontent spreads.
I often wonder how those people I hear or read about, those whose moments of fame have come and gone, and who are immortalised through the educational process and paraded as figures to admire and emulate, feel. Did they value the mundane moments - the getting up, washing, cleaning teeth, organising food for the day, the long walks to and from places of work and play? Beneath their brilliance were they ordinary people? And if so, did the daily moments of ordinariness frustrate or delight them? Did they realize their greatness, or was it bestowed upon them by others? Why do humans place so much emphasis and importance upon greatness? Why is greatness and success an educational imperative?
I would often ask myself these questions as I home educated my children. Every day I felt the pressure to make my children perform to the very best of their capabilities in everything they did. Achievement and satisfaction was never enough: the best they could do was the standard that echoed in my mind, a legacy from my own educational journey in childhood. Not achieving the very best they could do was somehow failing not just themselves or me, but the whole of society.
My children taught me to relax; they taught me that it's okay to enjoy working to whatever standard I felt comfortable with and not to feel guilty if my painting wasn't a Renoir. In time I was able to reflect this contentedness back to them in our educational journey together. I still pressure myself to achieve the very best I can though and I'm frequently told I do too much and work too hard. Breaking the conditioning of my youth - the maxim that says that I must reach my "full potential" - is probably the hardest lesson in life I have to learn. I still haven't defined my potential; I don't even know what that phrase means, and I'm not sure it has any meaning at all, but it haunts me with its damning consequence. No matter how hard I try I know I can - and should - improve on what I've done. No matter how diligently I work I always know that my work is less than perfect.
And at long last I'm learning to accept that this state of affairs is okay. It's better than okay, it's perfectly normal. Perfection is the realm of angels and, for now at least, I'm happy to be merely human.
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Beverley Paine with her children, and their home educated children, relaxing at home.
Together with the support of my family, my aim is to help parents educate their children in stress-free, nurturing environments. In addition to building and maintaing this website, I continue to create and manage local and national home educating networks, help to organise conferences and camps, as well as write for, edit and produce newsletters, resource directories and magazines. I am an active supporter of national, state, regional and local home education groups.
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We began educating our children in 1985, when our eldest was five. In truth, we had helped them learn what they need to learn since they were born. I am a passionate advocate of allowing children to learn unhindered by unnecessary stress and competition, meeting developmental needs in ways that suit their individual learning styles and preferences. Ours was a homeschooling, unschooling and natural learning family! There are hundreds of articles on this site to help you build confidence as a home educating family. We hope that your home educating adventure is as satisfying as ours was! Beverley Paine
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