We all talk about the well-rounded student. But do we have any idea what it means? From a student’s point of view, it seems to mean that adults think they should be perfect at everything from the moment they hit kindergarten and are expected to read and even write, to the point of writing that college application where being well rounded means sharing a resume that not only is too good to be true, it contains half-lies and even total lies – think the clubs the students didn’t attend! But the rationale for being well-rounded in the kinds of subjects students “must” take actually does exist. In Scientific American John Horgan of the Stevens Institute of Technology that calls itself the Innovative University, lays out the rationale for the humanities from the point of view of a science writer. He argues that “ it is precisely because science is so powerful that we need the humanities now more than ever. In your science, mathematics and engineering classes, you’re given facts, answers, knowledge, truth. Your professors say, “This is how things are.” They give you certainty. The humanities, at least the way I teach them, give you uncertainty, doubt and skepticism. ” So does science or the humanities teach skepticism or certainty? How does that work out at your school, in your disciplines, at all age levels? And what is our role in that tension?

There is another way of looking at it. At answers.com, the definition of a well-rounded student is one who has “a balance between work and play”. What is play? Aristotle said it was taking a break from work but we think about it differently today. Johan Huizinga in Homo Ludens (1938) said that play was firstly voluntary.  This is helpful in schools since most of what happens in schools is demanded – they must go to school by the law of the land, they must take a certain number of credits in a certain number of classes, they must attend their classes from the earliest age up, and all of this under the penalty of significant sanction up to and including being put in jail or taken away from their families.  School is a “compulsory” place. If well-rounded includes play, then surely co-curricular would qualify for that. It is voluntary and different from the daily activities. So a well-rounded student would go to class and then voluntarily decide what else to do. You have to think about this in the context of your own school. How voluntary are those activities when good citizenship often places a “moral” burden on the student to participate, or when college advising urges the student to fill the resume, or when the social rules of a school require participation in fear of isolation? These pressures are certainly different school to school.

Well-rounded seems to be too often a synonym for exhausted, particularly at the high school level. And even at the primary levels, school is rarely an exhilarating experience. A significant study carried out in 2003 identified that happiness for students increased from Monday through Saturday, and that level of happiness was lowest during school (with a bump at lunch-time) and highest during active and passive leisure activities. Maintenance activities such as washing and dressing were average happiness activities. This study thus suggests that school is the worst time of day, and the closer to the weekend, the better it gets. Even international studies demonstrate parallel results. A 2015 PISA study on student happiness found, for example, that “around 64% of girls and 47% of boys reported that they feel very anxious even if they are well prepared for a test. Schoolwork-related anxiety is negatively related to performance at school and to students’ satisfaction with their life.”

What do we want when we aspire to having well-rounded students? Does it reflect the actual lived experience of our own schools and classrooms? Can we engage in conversations in our schools about the nature of curriculum and its breadth? Are we open to talking about voluntary versus compulsory? Are our students, our children, happy? There are places in the world that seem to have discovered their own answers to the problem. In Finland, for example, children are happier and it’s not hard to see why – no-one is left behind, play is integrated into daily activities, and children/students have a legally required 15 minute break after every 45 minute class. The direction in Finnish education is just different from the high pressure, standardized test, high stakes environment that the USA has.

Maybe it’s time to replace the term ‘well-rounded’ with adjectives that carry greater import. Teachers are the best people to talk about the school experience that we want for our children/students and the way that is most powerful to describe it. Our children/students are the best people to ask about the school experience that is most meaningful to them. Let’s get together with our children/students and come up collaboratively, creatively, and using critical thinking, a much better solution.