Back to Play

Many teachers think of children as immature adults. It might lead to better and more ‘respectful’ teaching, if we thought of adults as atrophied children.— Keith Johnstone

Early in the industrial revolution, modern schooling was invented in order to acclimate children to work that was tedious, repetitive, degrading, and unfulfilling. The transformation of work into art therefore coincides with a parallel transformation in education that will prepare children for lives as artists. In “The Currency of Cooperation” section I wrote: “Work will no longer be bound to the search for money, but will seek out ways to best serve each other and the world, each according to our unique gifts and temperament.” In this context, education will be transformed from a preparation to earn a living into a process of self-discovery. It will seek to help each of us answer the questions, “What do I love to do? What are my unique gifts? How might I serve others and participate in the creation of a more beautiful world?”

That these ideals exist already, both in education and in work, points to our intuitive realization of their validity and the unquenchable longing for a world better than the one we experience today. We know deep down that that is what education should be. Educators give lip service to these ideas of self-discovery, but in practice the imperative of control militates against their true expression.

In parallel to the financial crisis that will clear the way for a new system of money and the ecological crisis that will spur the adoption of a new system of industry, an educational crisis is crashing down on us that threatens to obliterate the school system as we know it. Already the schools are hemorrhaging teaching talent, legitimacy, and students as classroom violence escalates and literacy rates plummet. The response, typically, is ever more control: more standardized testing for students, more stringent certifications for teachers, more armed guards, metal detectors, locker searches, and razor wire for the school buildings.

Successful models of schooling exist that rely on the release of control and not its intensification. Their starting point is a faith in the innate curiosity and creativity of the human being. “Man by nature desires to learn,” wrote Aristotle, as a child’s enormous capacity for uncoerced learning (before schooling starts) demonstrates. Educational philosophers in the Montessori and Waldorf movements have built entire pedagogies around providing resources to meet children’s natural curiosity and desire to grow at each stage of development. Their alternatives to coercion, born of trust in the innate curiosity, intelligence, motivation, and wisdom of the human being, go against the institutional requirements of machine civilization and the ideology of conquering (human) nature.

A beautiful unadulterated example of the alternative to control-based education is the Sudbury Valley School of Massachusetts, which takes the principle of trusting the child beyond even Waldorf or Montessori. This is a school with no curriculum, no tests, no grades, and no rules except those legislated by the students themselves. One of the founders writes,

We wanted [students] to be entirely free to choose their own materials, and books, and teachers. We felt that the only learning that ever counts in life happens when the learners have thrown themselves into a subject on their own, without coaxing, or bribing, or pressure. . . . In order to be true to ourselves we had to get away from any notion of a school-inspired program. We had to let all the drive come from the students, with the school committed only to responding to this drive.[38]

For example, “At Sudbury Valley, not one child has ever been forced, pushed, urged, cajoled, or bribed into learning how to read.” And significantly, “We have no dyslexia. None of our graduates are real or functional illiterates.” Despite a lack of any external coercive mechanism or external incentives, Sudbury children display an amazing level of achievement, though not necessarily in traditional academic subjects. Even in the traditional subjects, though, they usually cover the bases, simply because traditional subjects are actually quite simple. One anecdote about the school describes how a self-motivated group of 9-to-12-year-olds learned the entire arithmetic curriculum from first to sixth grade in twenty contact hours.[39] An outside educational expert was not surprised:

Everyone knows that the subject matter itself isn’t that hard. What’s hard, virtually impossible, is beating it into the heads of youngsters who hate every step. The only way we have a ghost of a chance is to hammer away at the stuff bit by bit every day for years. Even then it does not work. Most of the sixth graders are mathematical illiterates. Give me a kid who wants to learn the stuff—well, twenty hours or so makes sense.[40]

Even more counterintuitive (to the intuitions of Separation) than self-motivated learning is the complete self-governance of the student body. The school assembly, in which every student age five to eighteen and every staff member gets one vote, makes all the rules and important decisions for the school, in sharp contrast to my own high school voting system, in which we were allowed to choose the school mascot and homecoming queen. At Sudbury, the students have real power: they decide on the disposition of funds, the hiring and firing of teachers, and on rules and penalties for infractions. Rule-breakers are subject to a court system staffed by students. Distrustful of human nature, we imagine such a system could never work, but from most accounts it works beautifully. Sometimes the assembly makes mistakes, of course: At the Circle School, a democratic school in Pennsylvania that my children attend, the assembly once voted to abolish chores (the teachers voted against this proposal but were outnumbered). So, there were no chores—for two weeks, when the assembly reversed its decision. The students had learned through experience the necessity of chores, very different than the usual model where the reason for doing chores is “because you have to.” They learn self-trust rather than obedience to authority, a model that only makes sense if you believe the self is to be trusted. The Sudbury model embodies radical assumptions about human nature and our understanding of self. The school has pioneered a vision of what school will be in the Age of Reunion, when the present effort to hold together the illusion of the discrete and separate self finally becomes unbearable, and collapses. Until that happens, schools like Sudbury Valley, in parallel with LETS currencies and energy healing, can occupy only a marginal place in our society because they conflict with the dominant institutionalized world view. Nonetheless, they are extremely important because they provide models which we will naturally and thankfully adopt as we rebuild a society after the convergence of crises.

If they are never “forced, pushed, urged, cajoled, or bribed” into doing anything, what do the students at Sudbury Valley do? So used are we to lives guided by internalized coercion that we imagine, in the absence of self-control, a life of laziness, indulgence, and sloth. When I ask my students what would happen if they lost all willpower, they usually say they would stay in bed until noon, lounge around all day in front of the TV, indulging in the nearest pleasures and conveniences, and after that, “a vague never-ending spiral of indulgence, indolence, and apathy.”[41] But this is really just a rebellion against “work”, when that term is defined, as it has been since the Industrial Revolution if not before, as something unpleasant, degrading, or laborious that we are forced to do in order to survive. It is not human nature. Sloth and indulgence are not human nature. What is human nature? We can see it at Sudbury Valley, because what it is that children do in the absence of coercion is, quite simply, to play.

And here we come up against one of our culture’s defining dualities, the distinction between work and play. The last section of Chapter Two, “The Playful Universe,” describes how “play purely for play’s sake is [seen as] a waste of time, a view based on the purpose-of-life-is-to-survive assumption that underlies modern science and economics. After all, every minute spent playing is a lost opportunity to get ahead in life.” However, far from being frivolous or silly, “Play at school is serious business. . . play is always serious for kids, as well as for adults who have not forgotten how. . .”[42] Play is nothing less, in fact, than a child’s version of what adult life should be as well. Its value is not in the motor skills or problem solving techniques it develops; “What is learned is the ability to concentrate and focus attention unsparingly on the task at hand, without regard for limitations—no tiredness, no rushing, no need to abandon a hot idea in the middle to go on to something else.” Play is untrammeled creativity that comes from within. In adult life, play has vanished under the relentless regime of “shoulds” that prevent us from fully devoting ourselves to anything “without regard for limitations”. These “shoulds” are the limitations: schedules, pressure, guilt, survival anxiety. We are usually looking over our shoulder.

We experience the concentration and unsparing focus of play as a feeling of timelessness. Joseph Chilton Pearce calls this state “entrainment”, in which our ability to learn and to create are at a maximum. (Ironically, the coded threats through which we motivate learning actually create a psychological state inimical to learning.) The timelessness of play is almost impossible to reconcile with the busy, scheduled life of the modern adult (or schoolchild). As explained in Chapter Two, primitive societies were timeless societies: hours and minutes, times and dates, clocks and schedules only arose with the complex coordination of human activity necessitated by the division of labor and the Machine. A life at play is a timeless life.

Here is a passage from Free at Last that I offer you just because it brings tears to my eyes, so enormous the crime it reveals that our civilization has committed against the human spirit, and so simple is its implied prescription.

School opens at 8:30 in the morning, closes at 5:00 in the afternoon. It isn’t unusual to see someone go into the darkroom at 9:00, lose track of time, and emerge at 4:00 when the work is done.

Jacob seats himself before the potter’s wheel. He is thirteen years old. It is 10:30 a.m. He gets ready, and starts throwing pots. An hour passes. Two hours. Activities swirl around him. His friends start a game of soccer, without him. Three hours. At 2:15 he rises from the wheel. Today, he has nothing to show for his efforts. Not a single pot satisfies him.

Next day, he tries again. This time, he rises at 1:00, after finishing three specimens he likes.

Thomas and Nathan, aged eleven, begin a game of Dungeons and Dragons at 9:00. It isn’t over by 5:00. Nor by 5:00 the next day. On the third day, they wrap it up at 2:00.

Shirley, nine, curls up in a chair and starts to read a book. She continues at home, and the next three days, until it is finished.

Six year old Cindy and Sharon take off for a walk in the woods. It is a lovely Spring day. They are out four hours.

Dan casts his first line into the pond early on Fall morning. Three years later, he is still fishing.

Can you recognize this as a model for the lives we are meant to live? To choose our activities and devote ourselves to them fully until we are satisfied with the results? To be free of any schedule or requirement but our own? So it is in our culture’s most powerful archetype of creativity: the Biblical Genesis when, after creating the world, God said, “It is good.” Today, instead, we settle not for “good” but for “good enough”—good enough for the grade, the boss, the market—and in so doing deny the creative purpose for which we are here. But like Jacob, age thirteen, something in us desires to create beauty free of these limitations, to immerse ourselves in a creative task for its own sake for as long as it takes so that, in the end, we might look upon it with satisfaction and say, “It is good.”

Daniel Greenberg writes, “Time is not a commodity at Sudbury Valley. It is not ‘used’, either poorly or well. It is not ‘wasted’, or ‘saved’. . . . The respect the school shows to private rhythms is inviolate.” The children there offer us a model, not only for education but for life, that subverts cultural assumptions so deeply rooted that we are hardly aware of them. To no longer think of time as something to use, waste, or save—that would be a revolution far, far more profound than anything Karl Marx dreamed of.

I have gone into such depth about the Sudbury Valley School because it offers a model for bringing us back to play. And coming back to play is the key to overthrowing the hegemony of measured time that has bound us, tighter and tighter, for thousands of years. Since early childhood, few of us have ever experienced a timeless life, except in brief stolen snatches. We adults have relegated much of our play and creativity to the margins—weekend hobbies irrelevant to our livelihoods—just as ordinary school students must sneak it in between periods or behind the teacher’s back.

I do not advocate a return to Stone Age technology as the only means of undoing the bitter consequences of machine ideology. While the outward forms of technology, money, medicine, and education will certainly change, they will do so as a result of a new relationship to the universe that is best summarized, perhaps, as playful. Not only is play timeless, not only is it free of the coercive mechanisms that create ugliness as the price of survival, but it also undoes the artificial self-other distinction that defines the Age of Separation. In the entrainment state of play, a sense of a separate self vanishes as the task at hand absorbs us; instead of a discrete subject manipulating the universe, we become an organic agent of the universe’s own creative process. Through us, the universe creates itself. The same goes for another kind of play that instead of creative might be called “exploratory.” We play with our boundaries, explore our limits, define who we are. The archetype of this kind of play might be the infant playing with her toes, her hands, and her voice, as she learns to coordinate movement, sense organs, and speech. She is not merely discovering a preexisting reality of her body; her explorations are what stimulates her body’s development. In all its aspects, true play is inherently and unavoidably creative.

The Age of Reunion will be an age of play that will redefine every human endeavor, not just education but also work, art, and science. Like an infant playing with yet simultaneously creating her body, science will no longer assume an independently-existing reality “out there” awaiting discovery. But what of the Scientific Method, based on Newtonian assumptions of determinism and objectivity? Articulated by Bacon as a means of interrogating nature and extracting her secrets, the Scientific Method also embodies an intellectual humility, the flip side of its dispassionate objectivity. It represents an intention to hold lightly to preconceived beliefs (hypotheses), to hold lightly onto the existing understanding of the world and our relation to the world (which is really what an experiment is, an exploratory way of relating to the world). The Scientific Method will still be part of future science, but it will be conceived in the spirit of play. Experiment, which is nothing other than the spirit of “Let’s see what happens if. . . ” will be a way of playing with nature, not torturing her as Bacon described. We will test hypotheses not only by how they affect the world, but by how they affect us. We will seek not to control nature but to find our place within it. Nature will be our teacher, not the object of our dominion, for we will realize that its beauty and complex wholeness is beyond our rational, reductionistic and hence control-enabling understanding.

Like the body an infant discovers and develops, our place in nature is neither static nor limiting but always unfolding, both discovered and created through our play. The model of science along the lines of exploratory play is consistent with the ecological conception of progress and purpose, in that it seeks to fulfill a role that arises beyond our selves as separate beings. As such, it is much akin to prehistoric ritual, which we, projecting our own ideology, see as an impotent attempt to control nature (bring luck in the hunt, for example), but which actually sought to “restore the earth’s balance”, to compensate for the damage caused by human beings’ already-incipient separation from nature.

One aspect of the Age of Reunion, then, will be the fusion of science and religion, so long sundered. Already we see the portents in the growing mystical metaphors arising from quantum mechanics, the realization of an organic intelligence pervading nature, and the spiritual awakening that invariably accompanies an ecological understanding of nature. With the crumbling of Objectivity, the divide that separates experiment and ritual will crumble as well, for both will seek the same goal: to discover and enact our role and function in the dynamic balance of nature.

The gathering convergence of crises is bringing the Age of Separation to an end, and with it everything that we know as “civilization”. Yet the end of civilization-as-we-know-it need not be a return to the past. We equate the ascent of humanity with an escalating domination of nature only because we deny the universe’s inherent creative energy, sacredness, and purpose. When we recognize that nature is itself dynamic, creative, and growing, then we need no longer transcend it, but simply participate in it more fully.

 

[38] Greenberg, Daniel, Free at Last, Sudbury Valley School Press, 1995. p. 3

 

[39] Greenberg, p. 15-18

 

[40] Ibid

 

[41] This quote is from my earlier book, The Yoga of Eating (New Trends, 2003) which has an extensive discussion of the fallacy of willpower.

 

[42] Greenberg, p. 80