Curly Willow Education: Bonsai or Freedom?

Willow Children

People become who they are based not on the transformations that we impose on them but based on whether or not their needs are met. Just as my willow will die if I fail to water her, a person’s interest and enthusiasm will disappear if it is not stimulated, and just as my willow would not be herself if I chose to trim her branches bonsai-style, people cannot be themselves if we force them to be confined to learning through and about only certain things.

Recently, I acquired a branch from a curly willow tree.  The trees, known as Salix matsudana ‘Tortuosa’ to botanists, are lovely.  Their branches bend and twist as they grow upwards, rather than outwards, from the trunk.  The leaves are small and green and in the fall turn a brilliant yellow.  Native to China, the tree’s winding, coiled branches make it ideal for bonsai- the art of perfecting and controlling something that is already beautiful.

For now, my branch lives in a glass bottle on my kitchen table.  Her stem is thick and she has five small branches that, if they were human appendages, would almost certainly be fingers.  Eventually, she will shed her leaves and sprout roots.  Once I plant her she will grow more fingers that will flow from long, twisty arms.  Her roots, once small, will grow to be thick, sturdy legs ending in long, earth-suckling feet and toes.  Life will spring from her every cell.  She will absorb sunlight and rainwater, and will feast on the nutrients in the ground beneath her.

I will help to provide for my willow the water, sun, and soil that I know she needs in order to grow from a mere branch into a big, triumphant tree.  I won’t trim her branches like some people do.  I will watch her grow without scrutiny, and I will wait patiently to see what wonderful surprises she has in store.  Will she have a plethora of branches and leaves for shade?  Will she have perfect nooks for birds’ nests?  Only time will tell.

In caring for my willow, I have realized that she’s a lot like me.  She’s a lot like any person, really.  Just as I will care for her, the people who cared for me helped to foster my transformation from a wriggling infant into purpose-filled (semi) adult.  They provided me with the things that they thought I would need, and they created for me the environment that they thought would help me to become the best possible version of myself that I could possibly be.

In my last post, Lost and Frantic in the Race to Nowhere, I discussed how the results-driven culture that we exist within as Americans negatively effects young people.  Our public school system, which I see as a direct manifestation of this culture, does not truly succeed in providing its students with the metaphorical water, sun, and soil that they need in order to succeed.  Instead, it acts as a person practicing bonsai.  It sees the beautiful willow children for which it is responsible for and trims them, providing a strong suggestion for what they should be like.

I have been asked by many people since I last shared my thoughts what I think we should do to change the culture within our public school system.  Honestly, I’m not entirely sure.  I have spent the last few weeks anxiously pondering the dilemma, wondering why I can’t come up with a solution if I feel so strongly about the problem.  I think that the conclusion that I have come to is that I can’t come up with a solution because there is no “fix”- there is no magic formula for creating an ideal environment in which our current goals can be achieved.  What we can do, though, is change our goals.

The goal of public schools today is to teach students as much information as possible.  We measure how much they are learning by giving them all the same test, and if they don’t pass, we teach them more.  And more.  And more.  We think that the more we teach them, the more they will succeed.  I think it is obvious, however, that this isn’t necessarily true.  People become who they are based not on the transformations that we impose on them but based on whether or not their needs are met.  Just as my willow will die if I fail to water her, a person’s interest and enthusiasm will disappear if it is not stimulated, and just as my willow would not be herself if I chose to trim her branches bonsai-style, people cannot be themselves if we force them to be confined to learning through and about only certain things.

My solution, as it were, for schools is simply to allow more freedom.  Who is to say that one method of learning is better than another?  Who is to say that one topic is necessarily more important than another?  Honestly, I remember very few of the actual bits of information that I have supposedly learned throughout my education.  What I do remember, though, are the larger concepts and life lessons, and I suspect that the majority of people feel similarly.  People remember things because they matter and because they are relevant to their immediate reality.  It was not learning bits of information that mattered- it was learning the bigger things.  So if it is not the facts themselves but the conclusions that I drew from them that were significant, and it is those things that are helping me to succeed in life (or to begin to, at least), then this is what I want for everyone else.  I want for everyone to get their sun, soil, and water.  I want for everyone to be able to grow fingers from their long, twisty arms and earth-suckling feet from their thick, sturdy legs.

I know that I’m possibly being more idealistic than may be reasonable or realistic, but I truly think that this type of environment can be accomplished- and not just because I have faith.  There are many types of education that approach learning differently than our public schools tend to, and they have begun to succeed in creating the environment that I dream of.  It can be done- it is simply a matter of time and change.


Robin Morgan Huntley, Hilltown Families Intern

A native to Maine, Robin is a student at Hampshire College in Amherst. She is studying education and is slated to graduate in the spring of ’12. Her interests within the field of education include policy and all types of nontraditional education. For her senior project at Hampshire College, Robin will be researching and writing about the importance of connecting public schools with their surrounding communities, especially in rural areas. She plans to look to schools and communities within Western MA and Maine as models of the type of symbiotic school-community relationship that she believes to be critical to the success of rural education.

(Photo credit: (ccl) Urban Combing (Ultrastar175g))


  1. Michael said,

    May 11, 2011 at 5:24 pm

    Robin, both of your articles are very well written and bring up so many important and problematic issues for our schools right now. I think–perhaps optimistically–that maybe our teachers are being pruned and trimmed too. If they have no freedom to teach as they want or what they feel is necessary, how can they give their students any freedom either?

    John Dewey said that an education should never be considered over (he questioned the idea of graduation altogether), but results-based instruction (I refuse to call such head-stuffing “teaching” or “education”) necessitates the existence of an end to a child’s or person’s education.

    Two solutions, then: a focus on the student and a focus on process. (By no means the only solutions.) As long as we never lose sight of the student, and make the student’s growth (not his or her ‘knowledge’) the first priority, we will keep from remaking for a new generation the grevious conditions in which our own was “educated” (rectified?). And when we remember that education is not about the acquisition of facts, so-called knowledge, information, or rote skills, but about the nurturing of thought, creativity, ability, and criticality, we will not have to compare children in a vain attempt to uncover what we think they ought to know.


  2. Craig Fear said,

    May 11, 2011 at 7:53 am

    Very well said, Robyn. The best education I got in life was when I graduated college and started traveling. And reading the books I wanted to read. And meditating. And questioning. Looking back, all those good grades didn’t do me much good. If anything, I’ve had to undo much of what I “learned” in school. This of course goes in opposition to the high stress lifestyle most people take as normal today. Each person has to navigate the demands and expectations of parents, friends and society at large. I don’t know what the solution is either. A collective awakening in our culture may in time force a re-evaluation of our educational system. Let’s hope it’s sooner than later.


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