Friday, June 04, 2021

The Worst Idea We've Ever Had

As a species, we humans have certainly had our moments. The domestication of dogs, for one. I mean, we literally created love machines. Good on us. But it often seems as if we are doomed, as a species, to try out every damned thing that comes into our great big brains, no matter how horrifying: tossing virgins into volcanos, colonialism, racism, torture, unfettered capitalism, rape, white supremacy, genocide, slavery, pedophilia. We've even turned our love machines into brutal fighting machines. I suppose it's possible that humans have had even worse ideas that have not been adopted by an entire civilization, but if history is any guide it's only a matter of time.

Don't get me wrong. I've worked with young children long enough to know, for a fact, that humans are essentially good. We are born listening to the angel on our shoulder. Researchers have found that children as young as 14 months old will pitch in to help, unprompted, even giving up fun activities in order to do so. Babies consistently demonstrate what psychologists, economists, and anthropologists call "inequality aversion," nearly always choosing fairness even when they could otherwise have an advantage. 

Indeed, according to Rutger Bregman, author of the book Humankind, it is this urge to "goodness," toward cooperation and agreement, that ultimately causes us to be led astray. We can be convinced that what we are doing, no matter how evil, is actually for the betterment of all. Our urge to cooperate and get along is so powerful that it makes it very, very difficult to stand up to the group, even if that group is doing something awful.

As Director of the Art of Teaching Program at Sarah Lawrence College and Teacher Tom's Play Summit presenter Denisha Jones tells us, "A lot of racism is enacted from good intentions." And we know from history that there were a lot of otherwise "good" people who went along with the Holocaust, slavery, and, I imagine, human sacrifice.

In other words, most of us, at heart, are fine people, but we are too easily duped. We are prone to just go with the flow because we don't want to rock the boat and that is just the opening evil needs.

One of techniques used to get us to go along with atrocities is to simply not talk about them. We've all heard interviews with average German citizens who didn't ask about what went on behind the concentration camp fences despite their suspicions, or the myths about the kindly slave master. Today, in many circles, it's impolite to talk about things like racism or sexism or the brutality of the police. To question the cruelties of capitalism or colonialism or pedophilia is not proper subject matter for dining tables or preschools. Right now, as I write this, there are powerful people trying to prevent public schools in America from talking about our history of racism and colonization.

This, perhaps, is the worst idea we've ever had as a species: to not talk about certain things.

As author, kindergarten teacher, and summit presenter Laleña Garcia tells us, "If we don't talk about racism then we can't fix it. If we don't talk about class then we can't do anything about inequity. If we just say, 'This is how it is,' then how do we say, 'I don't think that's okay and I have these other ideas.' I think that's what we've been taught by capitalism, by white supremacy, by misogyny . . . And that's definitely one of the facets of white supremacist culture: that we're just not going to talk about it. We're going to avoid conflict. We're just going to be nice and polite. And nobody's feelings will be hurt."

Evil can only thrive in the dark. Talking is the disinfecting light. It's not young children who are uncomfortable talking about these issues -- it's adults. As Laleña tells us, the children she teaches find conversations about race, consent, gender, and equity to be no more difficult than conversations about the A-B-C's, healthy eating, or the native plants of North America. It's our adult discomfort that should tell us we need to talk -- and listen -- especially to those whose feelings (and bodies) are hurt by the very things we won't talk about. There are many of my fellow white people who cringe, or are even angered, by the mere mention of white supremacy. That alone should tell us that we need to be talking and listening.

As Laleña told me stories from her classroom, I once more saw the essential goodness of humans. They so easily and readily understand the basic concepts of fairness and equity while naturally rejecting unfairness and inequity. Time and again, I've found that when children are told the truth, when they are free to think for themselves, they always listen to the angel on their shoulder. It's only when we are kept in the dark that the devil's whispers are heard.

If we are to fully unleash the potential of human goodness, we must talk and listen, and when a subject is off limits, there, we must know, is where evil hides.


To hear my entire interview with Laleña and to join us in talking about what she calls these "big ideas," please join us at Teacher Tom's Play Summit. What if the whole world understood the power of trusting children with the freedom to play, to explore their world, to ask and answer their own questions? What if everyone respected their right to learn in their own way, on their own time? What if we remembered that children must have their childhoods and that means playing, and lots of it? Teacher Tom's Play Summit  is a free, online conference that takes place June 20-25. Click here to get your free pass to all 24 of our incredible sessions with early childhood and parenting experts and thought leaders from around the world. Every one of these people are professionals who have placed children first. You will walk away from this event transformed, informed, challenged, and inspired to create a world that respects children and sets them free to learn and grow. Together we can, as presenter Raffi sings, "Turn this world around!"

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