Wednesday, October 12, 2022

"In Heaven There Will Be No Law"

"In heaven there will be no law, and the lion shall lie down with the lamb. In hell there will be nothing but law, and due process will be meticulously observed." ~Grant Gilmore

Every rule we make is an admission of failure whether we are talking about a household, a classroom, or society writ large. When we impose the rule, "No cookies without Mommy's permission," we do so because at least one person in the family hasn't internalized healthy eating habits. When we make a rule, "No running in the hallways," it's because not everyone has figured out that running in crowded spaces might be hazardous to oneself and others. When we make a law that outlaws stealing, we do so because, for some of us at least, theft remains an option. Without our failings, we would need no law. 

On a purely philosophical level, I favor the kind of idealism called anarchy, the beautiful idea that we will know we are truly free and equal when we no longer need laws. As anarchist Ammon Hennacy said while on trial, "Oh judge! Your damn laws! The good people don't need them, and the bad people don't obey them." What anarchists have instead of rules are agreements among free and equal people. 

We in the US say we are a "nation of laws," which is to say a nation of failures. At the same time, what underpins the concept of democracy, of self-governance, is the belief that we can, as a people, come to agreements through the legislative efforts of our elected representatives. We chose representative democracy because our founders had learned the lessons of the ancient Greeks who famously experimented with direct democracy between the 6th and 4th centuries BC.  Ultimately, it failed for many reasons, but most of all because when the rights of minorities were put up to a vote by the majority, the minorities wound up with no rights at all; it resulted in a tyranny of the majority, in which anyone who was not an adult male with conventional beliefs found themselves repeatedly holding the short end of the stick. Representative democracy was thought to correct for that, and to a degree it does, but as all of those holding the short ends of the stick can attest, it ain't working as promised.

That's the problem with rules unless everyone agrees to them, or at least agrees to set aside their objections, there will always be those who feel that they are not free nor equal. Indeed, as my favorite anarchist Utah Phillips said, "The degree to which you resist is the degree to which you are free."

I'm not trying to persuade anyone to become an anarchist. I recognize it, as the Gilmore quote at the top of this post does, as an idyllic condition that will only be found in heaven. But I believe it a useful thing to think about, especially as those of us who work with young children find ourselves amongst the humans who seem to best understand the beauty and work of anarchy.

Our youngest citizens, say those under two, simply can't comprehend the notion of rules. This is why we must hold their hands around traffic, because no matter how much we lecture them on the rules of road safety, they're still prone to chasing butterflies into the street. Urban kids soon come to understand the manifest danger of traffic, of course. I once joked with a group of five-year-olds, "If you want to get flat you can run out in front of that garbage truck," to which a boy replied, "Teacher Tom, we wouldn't be flat; we would be dead." With those children, a rule stating, "No running into traffic," would be entirely unnecessary. They all already agreed that it would be a bad idea.

Over the years, I've treated my classrooms as laboratories of anarchy, because, frankly, I found myself surrounded by natural anarchists. As the adult ostensibly in charge, I never imposed any rules on the children, but instead managed a process by which we came to consensual agreements. I was never in the position to insist, "No hitting," like an authoritarian. I could legitimately remind a child, "We all agreed to not hit one another," placing the responsibility where it belongs, on a free and equal child.

When conflicts emerged, I never saw my role as being the authoritarian decider, but rather as the facilitator of agreement. When, for instance, arguments around turn-taking on our swings became a problem for some of the children ("I never get a turn!" "She won't let me have the swing!"), we sat down together to discuss it. One year, after much back and forth, the children agreed that if you want a turn on a swing, you had to say, "Can I have a turn?" three times. If you said it once, twice, or four times it didn't count. If you asked, "May I have a turn?" or "I want a turn?" it didn't count. It sounded unworkable for us adults, but the children made it work without conflict. Indeed, one of the most popular swing games for the next several weeks was experimenting with that agreement. At first, the process of this agreement was meticulously observed, but as time went on, it was forgotten, left behind as the concept of turn-taking became absorbed into the culture the children were creating together.

Often we couldn't come to agreements, but we still had the discussions. A girl once suggested that we ban superhero play because it frightened her. The discussion of this idea was heated, with some children insisting on their freedom to "save people" while others asserted their freedom to not be afraid. It is vital in these kinds of conversations that the children were reminded by the facilitator to not only speak, but to also listen. The end-point of these kinds of discussions is rarely agreement, but rather an understanding of the nature of the differences between these equal people that comprise the society in which we live. Time and again, I watched these natural anarchists hold firmly to their own freedom while working to create space for the freedom of others. 

Sadly, too many of us feel that it is our job to instill a reverence for rules. After all, the reasoning goes, the real world is a place of rules enforced by punishments and rewards. In the process, we set ourselves up as authoritarians, teaching children the lessons of obedience. We teach them the falsehood that it is always wrong to eat a cookie without permission, to run indoors, or to take something that is not ours. And most of all, we teach them that their so-called freedom is an illusion. The kids will confront these hard lessons soon enough. But if we've allowed them their nature as young humans, which is to govern themselves as the situation demands and to seek agreements among equals, they learn what freedom means. And they will know when they must resist.


"I recommend these books to everyone concerned with children and the future of humanity." ~Peter Gray, Ph.D. If you want to see what Dr. Gray is talking about you can find Teacher Tom's First Book and Teacher Tom's Second Book right here

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