Friday, April 23, 2021

If Freedom Lies Anywhere, it is Here

As I'm recording interviews with my guests for the upcoming Teacher Tom's Play Summit, I've noticed that at some level, every single one of them is talking about trusting children enough to set them free.

To me, freedom is a fascinating concept that, like love or play, is a pure good that's almost impossible to define, yet we know it when we see it -- or rather, when we feel it. At any given moment, I'm not free, of course. There is some obligation, self-imposed or otherwise, that hinders me. When I was younger, this idea bothered me so much that I fantasized about running away to a desert island, because, I thought, it was all those other people who kept me in captivity with their expectations, their needs, their constant impingement upon my perfect freedom. 

I don't think that any longer. As I performed the mental experiments that we call daydreaming, I came to realize that freedom, at least in the sense we typically think of it, can never be complete. Even if one eliminates the demands and dictates of living in a society, even if one has a billion dollars, even if one becomes a master of meditation, there is still Mother Nature who sends her storms and droughts and earthquakes. There is still the need to eat and drink. There is still sickness and injury. The physical world does not permit the sort of freedom about which I fantasized.

In her masterpiece novel Middlemarch, George Eliot, as in all of her work, was concerned with the notion of freedom. She wrote that the mind "is not cut in marble -- it is not something solid and unalterable." And this, she believed, was the source of freedom: our ability to constantly change, to alter ourselves, to wake up each morning a new person. As I've talked with people like Akilah Richards, Peter Gray, Lisa Murphy, Denisha Jones, and Raffi, I've found myself reflecting on this insight as they've talked about children, trust, and freedom.

There was a time, within the span of my life, that the leading brain researchers believed that humans were born with a complete set of neurons and that once infancy was over our brains were complete. Or to put it in Eliot's words, our brains were, indeed, "cut in marble." It was one of the leading principles of neuroscience throughout the twentieth century, but we now know that our brains are, in fact, in a constant state of cellular upheaval. Our brains are not marble, but rather clay, and they are constantly evolving. Eliot was right and the science has only recently caught up with her.

And this, I think, is the source of our ability to become free people. We are, according to both art and science, in a constant state of becoming. When we watch young children at play, which is to say, in their natural habitat, we see this happening in the real world. We are inspired by their magnificent brains, their capacity to learn, their drive to become. From day to day, they change, both gradually and suddenly, as they interact with an environment, becoming the person they need to be in that moment, constantly becoming, constantly setting themselves free.

If freedom lies anywhere, it is here, in this irrepressible plasticity of our brains. In this, we are even free from the dictates of our genes, we become more than the sum of our parts. Eliot was correct about freedom: it lives in us as this capacity to embrace the core idea that is now embraced by neuroscience: we create reality in dialog with the world around us. And like anything else, the more we practice, the better we become at it.

If we could see freedom, what would it look like? I think I see it most clearly when watching young children at play in a safe-enough place with adults in the background, unselfconsciously becoming as they engage the world around them. I'm not the first to recognize that the cages are within ourselves. When we trust children enough to set them free, we see what real freedom looks like: human beings in a constant state of becoming.


Mark your calendar! If you're interested in who to set children free, Teacher Tom's Play Summit is online, free, and takes place June 21-25. To learn more and to get on the waitlist, click here! I'm excited about this line-up, including Akilah Richards, Peter Gray, Lisa Murphy, Maggie Dent, and the one and only Raffi! But I'm mostly excited about all of us coming together, for children, to turn this world around.

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