Friday, January 16, 2015

The Law Of The Jungle

One of the great "lies" in all of literature is William Golding's novel Lord of the Flies. For those unfamiliar with it, and I can hardly believe there are many over the age of about 35, it's the story of a group of British school boys who find themselves castaways, without adults, on a tropical island. Their efforts to form a society, however, fall apart as they succumb to their essential evil natures becoming brutish murderers, saved when adults in the form of the British navy arrive, drawn by the smoke from a fire the boys have set that is consuming the island.

I'm not saying it isn't a good book, but rather that it takes an exceedingly grim view of human nature, one based in the ideas of the philosopher Thomas Hobbes who argued that without strong control from government, religion, and other social institutions, life among humans is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." 

I mention this book because it is quite regularly brought up to me by those who have objections to the child-centered, play-based approach advocated on these pages. There is a strain of thought that what we do leads to a sort of law-of-the-jungle free-for-all that will ultimately end in tears, chaos, and worse.

This, of course, is the opposite of the truth that I have found in the world, and is why I call it a lie.

Yesterday, inspired by a couple of our classmates who brought their new skateboards for show-and-tell, we broke out our classroom "scooters." There were ten wheeled vehicles for 20+ kids. In the first few moments there was a mad, competitive scramble, with a few children complaining loudly, "I want a turn!" Conditioned by a world that tends to buy into Hobbes whether we like it or not, we adults girded ourselves to manage the negotiations, assuming they would need our strong control.

Of course, as anyone knows who works with young children the way we do, that's not what happened.  After an initial flurry of back-and-forth amongst the kids, some of it angry, some of it sad, they settled into their play. 

Despite racing about at high speeds in randomly chosen directions, there were few accidental collisions, as the children instinctively knew when to brake and how to steer in order to avoid harming one another. This isn't to say there weren't collisions, but those were most often encountered by mutual consent, one that was typically forged by making eye contact, smiling, and then slowing down to create a controlled contact. A few felt it necessary to fortify this agreement by announcing, "I'm going to crash you!" just to make sure everyone was on the same page. Indeed, the children, even while speeding across the floor, were in constant communication, talking, scolding, warning, objecting, listening, and agreeing.

After a time, rather than breaking up into "civil war" as Golding and Hobbes would predict, the opposite happened. The longer they played the more they joined together cooperatively, creating games of catch, and trains of kids on wheels, each grabbing hold of the one in front, laughing until their cheeks were red.

After our initial forays into adult control that generally only made things worse, we found ourselves stepping back, sitting off to the sides, joining the games when invited, but otherwise observing that the law-of-the-jungle, at least our jungle, is actually one from which a great society could be built. I'm not saying there weren't conflicts and tears along the way, but instead of steps toward a burning island in need of rescue, those moments were part of a general movement of the children in the contrary direction, toward one another rather than away; they were instinctively exploring a path toward a cooperative existence, the way human nature tends when the "adults" seek to support rather than control.

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Jeff Lanzilotta said...

Great Post. I also believe in children being competent. Sadly, people in positions of power will often use fear, to try to get us parents to do something that we know in our "gut" is not right.

It is great to see you work with the children when cleaning instead of "bossing" them around. Bossing children around only engages the sub cortex of their mind (as they do not have to any thinking). This is not good for building a strong brain reserve. Studies have shown that passive activities (such as being bossed around) increase your chances of brain disorders later in life. They have also shown that the brain is shaped by the environment and everything around it. Studies have also shown that brain cells regenerate our entire lives. It is awesome to see how you are always engaging the children's cortex, which is responsible for complex thinking. This information is taken for "Save your Brain" by Paul David Nussbaum.


Anonymous said...

Totally agree. I think I read somewhere that Golding was a high school teacher and that he deliberately provoked groups of boys to observe their aggression towards one another.

Unknown said...

I think the problem with Lord of the Files is what happens before the book starts. The boys came from the highly controlled environment of a British prep school which taught them not to trust themselves or each other.