Thursday, April 24, 2014


I keep wanting to tell parents this:

"Your child's potential is not a trained dog that it should be unleashed. It is the patient accumulation of skill and ability that can be made to do useful work over time. Children have no potential at birth; they have possible futures in which they accumulate potential."

It's the duty of parents and teachers to help them develop those futures so that they can build up the potential with which to do wonderful works — thaumaturgeia, as the Greeks might have said.

What I've been musing on is how the word 'potential', which used to mean 'power, authority or might' became twisted into 'possible use of power, authority or might' in the early 1800s, and now merely means 'possibility regardless of how silly it looks'. Everywhere, you read about 'unleashing potential' without really thinking about how this comes about.

It's more useful to look at the equally common 'developing potential', which actually has more meaning. You can't 'unleash potential' without accumulating some first. Anyway, 'unleashing' is more along the lines of Shakespeare's immortal line — "Cry 'Havoc!', and let slip the dogs of war!" It's as if you can train potential so that once you let its leash slip, it will automatically do what is right, useful, purposeful and wise.

Sorry, that's not how it works. Potential needs to be worked at, and then used wisely and carefully. And once it's gone actual or kinetic, it's gone.

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