Michael Mendizza

Writer, Filmmaker

Qualities, Capacities, Content and Curriculum


Learning and Education, Parenting

“Never memorize something that you can look up.” ― Albert Einstein

Ask yourself: “If my child was one of the last living members of the human race, and he or she would carry the DNA memory that would give birth to a new species, what should that memory contain?”

Perhaps DNA holds the memory of 2+2=4 or the Beatles recorded I want to hold your hand in October of 1963, but I doubt it. I place my memory bets on capacity and qualities, not content as data, information or knowledge. Qualities and capacity are those forces of behavior that define our relationships with others, nature and the universe; selfish greed and altruism, empathy and aggression, holistic appropriateness and inventiveness for profit, for example. When considering the value of parenting and education, rather than passing standardized tests and preparing for a job, we might consider qualities and capacities that will serve humanity in its new dawn, and then see that our child embodies these, just in case. Here are a few suggestions to get started:

  • Affection
  • Attention
  • Appropriateness
  • Authenticity
  • Awe
  • Balance
  • Boldness
  • Confidence
  • Courage
  • Creativity
  • Curiosity
  • Decisiveness
  • Distilled Imagination
  • Embodied Presence
  • Empathy
  • Engagement
  • Endurance
  • Enthusiasm
  • Freedom
  • Goal-Oriented
  • Humor
  • Humility
  • Inner Silence
  • Inspiring
  • Inquisitiveness
  • Justice
  • Kindness
  • Knowledgeable
  • Optimistic
  • Order
  • Patience
  • Passion
  • Playful
  • Progressive
  • Resilience
  • Reliable
  • Rebellious
  • Sacred, A Relationship With
  • Serenity
  • Security
  • Strength
  • Supportive
  • Understanding
  • Trustworthy
  • Unbiased
  • Undistracted Listening/Observation
  • Vitality
  • Visionary
  • Visualization
  • Well Informed
  • Wonder
  • Wisdom

When qualities and capacities are the target, content or curriculum become playthings or toys that elicit and develop positive life-enriching qualities. Who cares which toy works the magic? As you read the above list imagine experiences that would invite your child, or any child, to discover that quality or capacity. What would your relationship with that child feel like at that moment? How would you feel inside? How would you model the value of that quality as a living experience or as a response to a challenge? As I run through the list I hope that my presence would model and invite each one of these positive qualities in my child. Good job!

When we focus attention on content, which invariably becomes contest and comparison in our culture, we lose sight of the qualities and capacities that experience and knowledge elicit, which is the real purpose and meaning of nature’s agenda for learning and development, to relate in optimum ways with life, which is infinitely more complex and magical than culture. Culture focuses attention on content to mask its true, but hidden, agenda, which is, as John Taylor Gatto documented so well, conformity and obedience to authority. Sure, there are well meaning people in the system we call public education. Recall however that form is content. The form of an experience is the true content that experience generates. Spending thirteen-years and then another four-to-six-years showing up on time and doing what we are told is the primary conditioning the system is designed to produce. When culture counterfeits nature’s agenda the experience produced is a different set of qualities and capacities:

  • Aggressive
  • Arrogant
  • Belligerent
  • Big-headed
  • Boastful
  • Boring
  • Bossy
  • Callous
  • Cantankerous
  • Careless
  • Clinging
  • Compulsive
  • Cowardly
  • Cruel
  • Cunning
  • Cynical
  • Deceitful
  • Detached
  • Dishonesty
  • Dogmatic
  • Domineering
  • Fearful
  • Foolish
  • Foolhardy
  • Greedy
  • Grumpy
  • Gullible
  • Harsh
  • Impatient
  • Impolite
  • Impulsive
  • Inconsiderate
  • Inconsistent
  • Indecisive
  • Indiscreet
  • Inflexible
  • Interfering
  • Intolerant
  • Irresponsible
  • Jealous
  • Lazy
  • Machiavellian
  • Materialistic
  • Mean
  • Possessive
  • Quarrelsome
  • Quick-tempered
  • Resentful
  • Rude
  • Ruthless
  • Moody
  • Narrow-minded
  • Nasty
  • Naughty
  • Nervous
  • Obsessive
  • Obstinate
  • Overcritical
  • Overemotional
  • Patronizing
  • Pessimistic
  • Pompous
  • Sarcastic
  • Secretive
  • Selfish
  • Self-centered
  • Self-indulgent
  • Sneaky
  • Stingy
  • Stubborn
  • Superficial
  • Timid
  • Unkind
  • Unpredictable
  • Unreliable
  • Untrustworthy
  • Vain
  • Vengeful
  • Vulgar

Read through the list above and imagine experiences that would invite your child, or any child, to become each of these qualities or capacities. What would your relationship with that child feel like at that moment? How would you feel inside? How would you model that quality as a living experience or as a response to a challenge? How do our children learn these states of being except as modelled by you and me, the adult culture?

When I was quite young it became very clear that the quality of my relationship with my teacher predetermined how well I would perform in his or her class. Pleasure and pain was the clue. Pleasure meant feeling safe, related, connected. Pain, not safe and isolated. Feeling safe-enough-to-play invited the top list of qualities. Not feeling safe to play, drew me to the bottom list. Content, as curriculum, rests on this relationship foundation. I sat in the back row and failed my Algebra class because I did not trust or feel comfortable with the cigarette-smoking teacher who was as mechanical as the numbers on the board. I sat in the front row, was interested, engaged and got an ‘A’ in World History because I felt safe enough to play in that class. Form is content. In this case the form is the relationship. Flip the content and teachers around and I would have gotten an ‘A’ in Algebra and flunked World History. When content is the goal it doesn’t matter who the teacher is. You play the win-lose-comparison game that compulsory schooling is. The same pattern applies to “alternative” models and even home schooling:

It may sound strange coming from someone who has spent all his working life teaching in and helping start schools, but I have always been ambivalent toward their existence, even ones I think are pretty good places for kids. Why do I feel this way? Because most schools are:

  • Artificial environments where children tend to learn about life second-hand.
  • Rich in information and materials, but poor in organic experience filled with meaning and purpose. 
  • Increasingly isolated in these days of heightened school security that keeps others out and budget cuts that keep students in, placing yet another barrier between children and real-world sources of deep and permanent learning.
  • Following a standardized template that has little connection to local conditions, which makes no sense in a nation as geographically and culturally diverse as ours.

Even autonomous schools with unique and flexible approaches have to continually resist the gravitational pull toward taking on the characteristics of institutions by adopting routines and protocols aimed at meeting the mechanical needs of the institution, not the human needs of the participants.

Chris Mercogliano
A School Must Have a Heart, 2014

Increasingly Einstein’s suggestion: “Never memorize something that you can look up,” grows in importance. The Industrial Revolution model of compulsory schooling, as a model of human development, based in content and curriculum, is as out dated and rusty as the steam engine. It is impossible, no matter how many computers or tablets the school buys from big technology firms, to keep up. Content and curriculum is culture’s way of predicting and controlling the population. Real learning is the way experiences elicit and develop qualities and capacities. Content is the playdough, not the goal.

Every experience a child, or you and I, have is a learning experience. Life and our relationship with life is the curriculum, but we miss this most basic and most important goal when content, comparison, and pecking-order is all we see and value.

Model for our children, every day and in every way, the top list and culture’s content becomes trivial, easy-peasy. Focus on content, pecking-order, winning and losing, and we slip, ever so easily, down to the second list, and don’t even know we are doing it because we are obsessed, preoccupied and blinded by content being the goal. The essential point is; what we call content and curriculum is easy, literally child’s play, when learning is play and play is learning.

In Endangered Minds, Jane Healy quantified that today’s 6th grade level used to be 4th grade. John Taylor Gatto demonstrated that the more professional and costly education became the poorer the outcomes. Why? John answered that question in our interview: mainstream schooling and television, (now social media and YouTube), do the same thing but differently. Both are distractions, what Joseph Chilton Pearce calls counterfeits.

Recall the Carnegie study: only 5% of what we learn lifelong is acquired in the form of schooling or formal instruction and of that 5%, children remember only 3% to 5% for any length of time. Easy-peasy. Most of the time and attention our children and we invest in schooling is spent on logistics and dealing with the consequences of millions of bright, but bored children wondering what the heck this is all about.

What on earth would we do with our kids if they weren’t in school? That is the real issue. Mainstream education is extended childcare. That is the real issue. Without compulsory schooling what will they do all day? How much corporate and social media can a child consume before exploding, or committing suicide, which is the leading cause of death for young people.

The greatest challenge is not the child, his or capacity to learn. The monumental challenge is for each adult to care enough about their child, as the future of humanity, that he or she is, to take complete responsibility for modeling, every-day, the top list of qualities, and not be seduced or dumbed-down by culture saying they can’t. Breaking spell that culture weaves is a dramatic paradigm change, a new reality, and we need a new reality to prepare our children for the unprecedented challenges they will face.

Ask yourself: “If my child was one of the last living members of the human race, and he or she would carry the DNA memory that would give birth to a new species, what should that memory contain and how can I gift them that capacity today?”