Monday, March 15, 2021

The Original Affluent Society

One thing that the pandemic has done for many of us is to cut commute times down to zero. I live in an apartment building surrounded by Amazon, Google, and Apple offices that have been more or less vacant for a year. That's tens of thousands of people who have not been getting up early, eating, grooming, dressing, and transporting themselves, which translates to millions of hours that have been freed up for . . . what?

I hope most people have been sleeping longer or engaging in hobbies or some other self-selected activity, but I suspect not. I'm guessing most of that extra time has been used being in some way productive, which is historically what we do with the gift of time. Peasants in the Middle Ages, for example, working with the crudest of farming tools, for instance, worked far fewer hours each day than our modern farmers with their advanced farming machinery. Homemakers continue to always have work to do even as they no longer have to churn their own butter or scrub the laundry by hand in a tub of soapy water. Every day business tasks that once took days, can now happen in seconds, yet office workers still find it necessary to burn the candle at both ends.

Some companies have decided that even when the pandemic is over they will still give their employees the option of working from home. Why? Knowing the way corporations operate, I'm guessing that they've discovered that some employees, at least, are more productive not coming to the office. Productivity is a disease that we've contracted from human progress. It's a pandemic few recognize. Indeed, busy-ness is more often celebrated. No matter how many time- and labor-saving devices or systems we develop, we've proven ourselves to be largely incapable of using that extra time for anything other than more labor. We recoil at the idea of returning to the "primitiveness" of our hunter-gatherer past, but some anthropologists label that the "original affluent society" because that was when we enjoyed abundant leisure time compared to what we have today.

As a play-based educator, my goal is, in many ways, to create the conditions for such an affluent society to emerge. It's not terribly difficult because, unlike we adults, young children have not yet been induced by commercial markets to work harder in pursuit of material goods. All I really need to provide is time and a safe-enough place. Children know exactly what to do with themselves: they follow their curiosity, asking and answering their own questions, exploring, discovering, building, and inventing. I've had the privilege of having spent decades living amongst these people who are affluent when it comes to time and who know that its highest use is self-selected activity.

When adults dream of free time, too often it involves sitting on a beach, reading a trashy novel, while nibbling on exotic delicacies that are cooked for us and served to us. We imagine using our time to escape the busy-ness, to rest up, to re-charge. Escape from the grind might be just what we need at the moment, but I've found that most of us also have a deeper desire, one that we expect will never be fulfilled, at least not until retirement. And that is the dream to have the time to do what we really want to do with ourselves: write that novel, build a house with our own hands, master Italian cooking, form a band, climb a mountain. But none of these things have anything to do with productivity so we can't right now, at least that's what we tell ourselves. I have obligations. People are counting on me. And meanwhile we imagine if we just work a little harder, a little longer, we will somehow be free. Or as Albert Brooks puts it in his movie Lost in America, "I've finally achieved a level of responsibility. Now I can afford to be irresponsible." We laugh because we know that his self-delusion is our own.

I wonder if this is why I'm so passionate about protecting childhood, why I've dedicated my life to creating sacred places in which we vigorously defend against the plague of productivity, where children can experience what it means to be self-directed, where they can explore their world and know themselves in a place free from the voracious demands of efficiency, the ever-watchful eye of measurement, evaluation, and judgement, and the ceaseless nag of things left undone. I don't want them to ever feel the need to escape because, for at least one shining moment, they've experienced what it means to be free. And maybe, I hope, some of them will carry the seed of that memory with them into adulthood and plant it there.


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