Children and the Nature of Observation

I read a fascinating article about a month ago in the Washington Post, and it’s kind of been simmering in the back of my mind all this time. Called Pearls Before Breakfast, it involves the brilliant and gifted violinist, Joshua Bell, and a busy morning in a large Washington metro station. I highly recommend reading the article and watching the videos that accompany it, as well as an interesting Q & A with the author of the article.

Here’s what happened: the editors of the Post suggested to Bell that he play his violin in the station, anonymously, to see if there would be a reaction on the part of the commuters. Speculation was that crowds would gather once they heard his splendid playing; some thought that he would make hundreds of dollars from passersby.

Instead, what happened shocked everyone – including Bell. Hardly anyone stopped; most people didn’t even look at him. At the end of the morning, he had made a grand total of $32.17 (yes, as the article says, some people gave only pennies). This is a man who commands $1000 a ticket if you see him play in a concert hall.

Most people who were interviewed afterwards said that they didn’t notice the violinist. If they did, they said that they were too busy to stop and listen. Only a few people realized that they were listening to a musician of breathtaking artistry and technical ability. Obviously, this speaks greatly to the nature of context, priorities, and the ability to recognize and appreciate great artistry.

But here’s the part that stands out to me, as an educator: the only group of people who consistently showed interest in his playing were children! Here’s a quote from the Post:

“There was no ethnic or demographic pattern to distinguish the people who stayed to watch Bell, or the ones who gave money, from that vast majority who hurried on past, unheeding. Whites, blacks and Asians, young and old, men and women, were represented in all three groups. But the behavior of one demographic remained absolutely consistent. Every single time a child walked past, he or she tried to stop and watch. And every single time, a parent scooted the kid away.”

Wow! I am pretty sure that Maria Montessori would not be surprised by this result. She knew firsthand that children are keen observers of their environments, and are ready and willing to stop and enjoy things that adults dismiss.

This sentence is very convicting: “And every single time, a parent scooted the kid away.” Oh, how often we do that! We are so focused on our goals, our endgame, our tasks, that we don’t have time to stop and notice something for the pure pleasure of enjoying it. We may feel a little superior to the parents who ignored Joshua Bell that day (“surely I would have recognized his musical brilliance”) but you know what? I think many of us would have passed him by.

“We cannot know the consequences of suppressing a child’s spontaneity when he is just beginning to be active. We may even suffocate life itself. That humanity which is revealed in all its intellectual splendor during the sweet and tender age of childhood should be respected with a kind of religious veneration. It is like the sun which appears at dawn or a flower just beginning to bloom. Education cannot be effective unless it helps a child to open up himself to life.” – Maria Montessori