Thursday, December 07, 2023

The Stories We Believe

William Golding's novel of schoolboys castaway on a deserted island, The Lord of the Flies, is by far the most common literary reference used to cast doubt on or disparage the kind of play-based learning for which I advocate. It just happened the other day. A new acquaintance ask me about my profession and as part of my answer, I gave a thumbnail sketch of a typical classroom. He replied with a sneer, "Have you ever heard of Lord of the Flies?"

For those of you who are unfamiliar, the boys find themselves on an uninhabited island, try to create a civil, cooperative society, but eventually find themselves falling into savagery. They are saved from themselves by the timely arrival of a rescue team from the British navy. The underlying message of the book is the grim idea that human nature is essentially evil and, if not controlled by strong institutions, like government, religion, or school, we will descend into a constant state of war against one another. 

Golding was clearly influenced by the 17th century British philosopher Thomas Hobbes, whose great work The Leviathan postulated the essentially evil nature of humans. Much like Golding, Hobbes supports his thesis by imagining a hypothetical "state of nature" that would exist without civilization, then paints a picture of a world in which, as he famously put it, life would be "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." I bring up these dead white men because their work continues to weigh heavily on our Western culture's ideas of the nature of humans. At bottom, it seems that all of our political systems are forever balanced over this fulcrum: between those of us to see humans as essentially evil, in need of control, and those of us who see humans as essentially good (see John Locke, Jean-Jacque Rousseau), in need of a world that helps them achieve their highest potential.

Here's the thing that I point out to people: The Lord of the Flies is a work of fiction. In the real world, when a group of six Tongan boys found themselves castaway on an uninhabited island for nearly a year and a half, not only did they survive, but created a small society based on friendship, cooperation, and resilience. They shared food, they figured out how to collect fresh water, they built a thatched house, made a badminton court, they fashioned themselves a guitar. And their eventual rescuer was not a representative of strong government, but rather a fisherman who at least one of the boys, to this day, loves as a father. This is the real story of castaway boys.

Likewise, Hobbes' story is a work of fiction based on a fabricated "state of nature" that has never existed. Yet his basic idea of the evilness of human nature forms the foundation of so much of our world in which militaries and police are seen as the thin line that separates us from hell on earth. But as Rousseau pointed out, if these institutions are meant to protect us from our own worst instincts, then how do you explain the history of war, slavery, colonialism, and murder that has come about in defense of civilization. In the real world, these strong institutions seem to cause us to behave like savages.

More recently, American ecologist Garrett Hardin, a contemporary disciple of Hobbes, introduced the concept of "the tragedy of the commons" into our modern discussions. He used the example of common farmland in pre-industrial Britain as an example of a paradox that encouraged farmers to over-farm the land, thus destroying it. He argued that even though every farmer might know that, for the good of all, proper stewardship of the land was essential, the very idea that others might violate the principles of stewardship in the name of profit caused all of them to abuse the common land. His point was that human nature created this paradox and that we are simply incapable of sharing anything held in common without, again, the control of authorities. "The tragedy of the commons" is regularly used as the excuse for our inability to, for instance, come to any sort of consensus on how we should, as a planet, deal with global climate change.

But again, Hardin's theory is one that seems rational on paper, like The Lord of the Flies or The Leviathan, but the real world tells a different story about human nature. Indeed, one of Hardin's students, Eleanor Ostrom, undertook a study of actual examples of existing communities confronted the the challenges of shared resources. She found that time and again, in the real world, all around the world, local communities, when allowed to manage themselves, created complex, cooperative, and sustainable ways to share their commons. The real story is, like the story of the Tongan boys, a triumph of human nature, not a tragedy.

And that's my point. I don't know if human nature is essentially good or essentially evil. It obviously can be bent to either side depending on the circumstances and the stories about human nature that we've embraced. Golding, Hobbes, and Hardin have sold us stories spun out of their own catastrophic imaginations and many of us believe them, so they tend to come true. But there are alternative stories from the real world, ones that portray our species as kind, cooperative, and willing to make agreements that benefit the community rather than a life that is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." 

As an early childhood educator, I've spent my life witnessing the real world of children who do not yet know the myths of Golding, Hobbes, and Hardin. As a play-based educator, I do not seek to control them, but rather, in the spirit of helping them achieve their highest potential, I trust their human nature and have found that when I do, a complex, cooperative, and sustainable society emerges. 

In other words, I've found that it's important to be conscious of the stories I believe. They have a habit, for better or worse, of coming true.


"Teacher Tom, our caped hero of all things righteous in the early childhood world, inspires us to be heroic in our own work with young children, and reminds us that it is the children who are the heroes of the story as they embark on adventures of discovery, wonder, democracy, and play." ~Rusty Keeler
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