Wednesday, October 06, 2021

Cooperation: The Real 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 non-fiction world, and is why I call this novel a lie.


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 automatically that they would need our strong control.


Of course, as anyone knows who works with young children, that's not what happened. After an initial flurry of back-and-forth amongst the kids, some of it angry, some of it sad, none of it exceeding the normal bickering that is essential to most childhood games, they settled into their play. 


Despite racing about at high speeds in randomly chosen directions, there were few 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 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 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.

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. 

******

Although Thomas Hobbes has been dead for well over three centuries, his central idea that humans are essentially evil remains with us. Even those of us who believe that humans are essentially good, find ourselves resorting to the kind of "strong control" he proposed, usually resulting in a kind of self-fulfilling spiral as children push back against us. No where is this more evident than in the language we use when speaking with young children which is why I developed The Technology of Speaking With Children  So They Can Think, a 6-part e-course that explores how the way we speak with children can create an environment in which cooperation and peacefulness are the norm, where children take the initiative, solve their own problems, and, most importantly, think for themselves. Registration is limited and closes on Sunday. Click here for more information and to register.

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