Wednesday, June 10, 2020

The Play First Summit: Let's Build a Paradise from Hell

I despise the novel Lord of the Flies. I hope they're still not making kids read it. As I passed through middle school, high school, and college I had to read this mean, nasty piece of work no less than three times. I'm not saying it isn't well written. I'm not even saying it isn't worthy literature. No, what puts this book on my bottom shelf, spine turned toward the wall, is its ugly take on human nature. William Golding held the Hobbsian view that people are essentially evil and that if left to our own devices, without the strong control of institutions like governments, churches, and schools, we would revert to a warlike state of every man for himself. Even as an adolescent, I resented that Golding had set up an opportunity to examine paradise by proposing a group of boys my age being stranded alone on a tropical island then, instead of utopia, had them create a kind of hell. That they are ultimately saved by Her Majesty's Navy makes it almost impossible to stomach.

It's not alone in being a good book based on bad philosophy. But this novel, because so many people my age have read it, has become a kind of cultural touchstone, frequently brought up in argument as "evidence" that we can't trust children or poor people or Black people or anyone for that matter to do anything good without a great white master strictly enforcing rules that have been passed down from on high. I can't count how often people have evoked Lord of the Flies at me as a way to cast aspersion on play-based or self-directed learning. Yes, there are examples in history that would seem to support the "humans as essentially evil" theory, but from where I sit most of those hells were created not by freely associating human beings, but rather by those who would impose their rules. And from my decades of studying young children, I'm here to tell you, without question, that human nature is essentially good.

Indeed, when an actual group of school boys found themselves stranded on a South Pacific island for 15 months, they did create a kind of paradise, one in which cooperation and friendship reigned. 

In her book A Paradise Built in Hell, author Rebecca Solnit examines disasters, not from the perspective of tragedy, but rather from the point of view not usually taken when considering such things as earthquakes and hurricanes. She writes about the "ability of disasters to topple old orders and open new possibilities."

"The study of disasters makes it clear that there are plural and contingent natures -- but the prevalent human nature in disaster is resilient, resourceful, generous, empathetic, and brave."

Using examples from the past century, she shows that time and again, behind the suffering, there is also the "desire and possibility" to build paradise in hell when we find ourselves, in the midst of disaster, suddenly "free to live and act another way."

"We don't even have a language for this emotion, in which the wonderful comes wrapped in the terrible, joy in sorrow, courage in fear. We cannot welcome disaster, but we can value the responses, both practical and psychological." 

The worldwide Covid-19 pandemic presents us with such a disaster, one that has certainly seen its share of hell. But within that, there are blessings. The air is cleaner with all those cars off the roads. A recent survey of Americans finds that up to 40 percent of us are considering lifestyle changes that would allow one partner to remain home with the kids. We're cooking more, appreciating our parks, and our pets have never been happier. And I would assert that these extraordinary times of disruption have created an environment in which many of us have seen that now is the moment in which all things are possible, even the dismantling of white supremacy.

One of the common aspects of redemption found in disruption is that people come together in friendship and empathy to build a new order. As we begin to slowly emerge from this disaster (which is not yet over by any means) many of us see this moment as a teachable moment, an opportunity to push for a better, more playful future for children around the world.

With this in mind, my friend and all-around great human, Sally Haughey of Fairy Dust Teaching and I have come together in the hope that we can, together, begin a worldwide discussion about what that might look like. I am giddy to announce The Play First Summit as a first step. It is a free online conference taking place July 20-24, featuring educational and parenting thought leaders from around the world. It is an opportunity to explore a variety of perspectives, experiences, and hopes, as we all, collectively, consider how to use this moment to create the future young children, educators, and parents deserve.

I can't tell you how excited I am about this. To register, click right here, and then join the conversation in our Facebook group. Let's talk about this moment. Let's talk about what we have learned. Let's talk about our dreams. Let's use this moment to begin building a paradise from hell.

Horrible in itself, disaster is sometimes a door back into paradise, the paradise at least in which we are who we hope to be, do the work we desire, and are each our sister's and brother's keeper. ~Rebecca Solnit


I'm excited to announce that Teacher Tom's Second Book is now available in the UK, Iceland, and Europe thanks to my friends at Fafunia! It's also available in the US and Canada. We're working to find our distributor for Australia and New Zealand. If you want to go directly to the Fafunia page click here.  And if you missed it, Teacher Tom's First Book is back in print as well.

And finally, this is uncomfortable for me, but I earn most of my income by speaking at education conferences and running in-person workshops. I've had 95 percent of my income wiped out for the next 9 months due to everything being cancelled. I'm hustling to become a new and improved Teacher Tom. I know I'm not the only one living with economic insecurity, but if you like what you read here, please consider hitting the yellow donate button below.

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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