When we had our parent-teacher conference last week, I was surprised by the fact that, on the sheet of paper that gives categories for “grading” our child, one of them was: “distinguishes self from others.”
Somehow, I had not thought to run into a major philosophy problem when conferencing about whether it is time to wean Adam from his pacifier. And yet there it puzzlingly was. He did not have a mark in the category, which, his teacher explained to us, was because, being the age he was, no mark could be given. We quickly passed on to other categories, but I remained puzzled. I never supposed, I never naively supposed, that education in America also looks to the metaphysical development of the pupil. Surely this is a little early to be imposing a lifelong task, that of distinguishing self from others, that I have never been able to perform to my own satisfaction, always stumbling over fuzzy boundaries and finding that those opinions and ideas that I thought were the self-born products of my idiosyncratic mind were actually cliches that everybody and their brother already knows all about. Of course, there is another explanation for what is being implied here: perhaps it is just that Adam doesn’t yet say I and only rarely says Adam. On the other hand, he gets straight As from me for his increasing employment of “mine”, which he applies to the whole world with the imperturbable greed of the 19th century British imperialists.
Still, if it were simply and simplistically a matter of linguistics, I think the question would not have been phrased so provacatively. It has larger implications. It is, I am pretty sure, a metaphysical nugget buried among a bunch of other questions about whether he can hold a crayon with his forefinger and thumb and make a mark with it, or whether he puts blocks and toys back in the box (no and yes, if you are curious). Surely, too, a stranger would smile and say that this question could only have such a place at such a time in America, famous for its individualism. Now myself, I doubt that famous individualism, thinking that as with the rest of the world, people operate automatically and as though mesmerized in the larger current of what their fellows do. On the other hand, the ideological signature is not a pure fraud. It [points to a real thing. There is an American loneliness, just as there is an American habit of jumping from one thing to the other, and both are expressions of “individualism”. It is a marvel and a catastrophe: its monuments are midlife career changes, the rags to riches story, and the old folks home. We do spend a lot of time distinguishing self from others.
My sense is that the teacher is right that this category doesn’t even apply to Adam yet. The other day we were in the park. There was a nifty climbing thing plus slide that Adam was playing on. Near it, there was a boy and a girl, both around six. The girl had a plastic wand, which she said was a magic wand, and she was pointing it at her friend. For some reason, this interested Adam, so he waded into their circle of play saying no no no and several other things thatwere less parse-able, being a bit of English, a bit of French, and a bit of Adamese. The girl was taken aback, and told the boy, look at the baby! Then the two wandered over to the swings, and Adam tagged along behind the girl. I think he was going to give it another try. But I caught him, swung him up in my arms, and said it was time to leave the park. For the girl, Adam truly was a baby. Myself, I could see how much, how comparatively much, he wasn’t. We are definitely approaching filling in the blank.