On the necessity of anxiety for education: the wild and unholy learning of adolescence

I've just finished Jessica Lahey's The Gift of Failure, and it inspired this post in a sideways sort of way. It's a great read for parents and educators, highly readable and very wise -- but what if the failure she writes about is really just a means to an end that looks more like play...

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Anxiety is a condition of learning. It's a feature of adolescence, not a bug.

Schools these days are worried about anxiety, and with good reason. Young people are very anxious, and it's impeding their learning. We've been asking how to reduce that anxiety, using techniques like mindfulness with some effectiveness, and rethinking emotional support in schools so that we can keep anxious young people tracking down the path we've set for them.

While anxiety is a real problem that must be addressed by schools, it's also clear that we haven't gotten a grip on the problem. Perhaps this is because the whole idea of reducing anxiety is problematic. Maybe the problem is not anxiety at all, but the forms in which anxiety is allowed to exist that are the problem.

Anxiety is fundamental to adolescence. It's the sense that things must change, and urgently. Or, as Camus wrote, it's the "tremendous energy spent in just being normal." Anxiety is the great driving energy that funds this incredible period of reaction, freedom, intense experience and growth. Without anxiety, there would be no first kisses, no deep insight, no wonder. Anxiety is the intensity, the shimmering, that gives adolescence its life.

In my work, the problem I see is not that students are anxious. Indeed it would be strange if they weren't. Teenagers should be anxious because they are experiencing freedom and growth. The problem is that they are anxious about the wrong things -- they have had their anxiety stolen from them. We ask that their anxiety be quelled and that they submit to a known and tamed future. The goals we set for them are of an adulthood that is already understood. The world we present for them is one in which the path to happiness is much too clearly defined. Anxiety does not want clear goals or need calming. What it wants, what it needs is wildness and openness. Anxiety is a panther pacing the cage. It can only be its full self in the wild.

We think that students are anxious because they are worried about an uncertain future or afraid that schooling is not going well. But this is an adult projection. Adults worry (and rightfully so) about the future for young people. But the natural attitude for adolescents towards the future is disinterest and unconcern. The intensity of youth is founded in the way in which it is totally present in its becoming.

The problem that students experience today is not that they experience anxiety, but that they are not allowed to experience it. Parents, schools, culture, college pressure -- these things bottle up student anxiety and attempt to direct and channel into mechanical, law-abiding, and future-obeying forms something that is fundamentally wild and living and anarchic.

So, maybe the answer to the problem of anxiety is not really deep breathing or relaxation or mindfulness, but instead something that looks more like play, joy, or wildness. So long as we are intent on teaching students to "manage" anxiety, we are misunderstanding the proper function of anxiety. Adolescent anxiety can't be managed -- that's the whole point. It operates outside of the whole concept of management. What we need are school and family spaces that allow for wildness and play. We need to release anxiety into its full power.

Until that moment, until we adults realize that the structures we have built are fundamentally hostile to the practice of adolescence in all of its wild and unholy learning, anxiety will be an impediment to learning and the mental health of our young people. Let's not be content to manage anxiety in the off-base hope that eventually adolescence will just go away.

Here's the heretical claim: maybe it's only by rethinking anxiety as a feature of adolescence, not a bug, that we can begin to glimpse a different sort of schooling, wilder, freer, less adult -- a school that doesn't just tolerate anxiety, but puts its tremendous power to use on behalf of learning. It's strange but we always talk about anxiety as if it were a quantity rather than an existential reality. We say: she experiences a lot of anxiety. But the problem of anxiety is not how much there is -- but the ends to which it is (or worse, is not) put.


  1. Hi Jeff! I hope you don't mind me taking the liberty to try to extend some of the ideas you began in this post: http://quest4three.blogspot.com/2015/09/achieving-runners-high-in-classroom.html. It is just under a 1000 words, and I probably should develop it some more. Thanks for posting.

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  4. This is very informative, Thanks for your post. Left untreated, anxiety disorders can impair students' ability to work or study and may affect their personal relationships. In the most severe cases, anxiety disorders can make going to school incredibly difficult.

  5. There is no need to worried about if your have an anxiety while learning because there is absolutely a good cure of it. It can be reduce by doing natural techniques to gradually left anxiety.


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