January 28, 2018

"Where children aren’t trapped mainly in the world of only two adults.”

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I was taken to a school. Over the course of the year I was taken to many schools. So many government and private buildings had been repurposed as schools. This was the School for Free Ideas and Thinking, the one they thought I would be most interested in. The students and teachers all cooked and cleaned together, that was one of the first things they told me about it. But then they told me this was also true of all the other schools. It wasn’t unique to them. Still, I thought it was interesting it was one of the first things they wanted me to know. That cleaning and cooking together was their gateway drug to thinking together. That everything was connected. The students built their own curriculum as they went along, and I found myself there during a semester dedicated to questions of communal living and collective child rearing. From what was conveyed to me via a series of different translators, I feel it was one of the most thorough ongoing discussions on any topic I have ever witnessed. I do not feel they came to any conclusions. Rarely did I ever feel they were working towards anything even resembling a conclusion. I’m fairly certain I was the oldest person in the room. The teachers were ten to fifteen years younger than me and the students were all at least half my age. I would listen to them discuss and think: they’re at an age when everything still feels possible. When I was their age I felt so much more was possible in the world than I feel now and I wonder what happened to me. (Then again, I know I’m just another broken idealist. The greater the youthful idealism, the greater the disillusion when it’s smashed or breaks.) I found myself wondering what it would feel like to be that age and be born into this experiment. You’ve lived your entire life knowing that tomorrow could be the day you or someone you love is taken by a bomb or bullet. But you’ve also lived the past three years surrounded by people who are taking control of their own destiny towards something that you may or may not understand is relatively unprecedented. For you it’s always been like this.

In class, most often, everyone is also sitting in a large circle. It takes me a while to figure out who the teacher is and some days I even guess wrong. And I’m asked why it even matters, why it’s so important for me to single out a particular participant and designate them “teacher.” I don’t think it’s so important but I’m here trying to observe and understand what I’m observing. And it’s definitely not a free-for-all, there are parameters for these discussions and, at times, it does seem to me that someone is leading. And there are age differences and differences in experience, though I also have to ask myself how much such things really matter. As we get older of course we learn things through experience, but perhaps there are other, equally important, things we forget along the way, or forget to relearn, or to unlearn. They say to me: we’re all learning from each other, and this is clearly a fact, there’s no need for me to question it. What I’m calling the parameters have a lot to with ensuring everyone participates equally, that some people don’t speak more than others, and if someone is dominating the discussion you can feel everyone nervously glance at them, wondering how long until they take the hint. I wonder if there is some less passive-aggressive manner they could enforce these don’t-talk-too-much parameters, like with a stopwatch for example, but also see that this suggestion would run counter to so much of what they’re trying to do. They’re trying to make it feel natural, to teach themselves through experience and practice how to have group discussions in which all can contribute equally. It’s definitely not easy.

I’m wondering how to report these discussions, discussions with so many participants. For better or worse I wasn’t recording. I should have written down all their names but didn’t. And, in general, names haven’t especially been the point of all I’ve written so far. I wish I could be back there now, listening to endless youthful reflections on community and living together with care. But I’m losing my grip on the point. Here is some of what I remember and what I’ve been able to piece together from my unfortunately rather scattered notes. I wish I was able to capture more of the feeling of it all, but perhaps what most captures the feeling is how much I wish I was back there now:

“I was raised by one mother and one father. And I think large swathes of my personality come from each of them. But if I had been raised by more people maybe I would have had more choices, more things to learn from, more examples of how to think and live and be.”

“You probably weren’t just raised by your parents. I assume you also had aunts and uncles and grandparents. Maybe also neighbors, teachers.”

“Yes, but my parents were the main ones. My main examples. I can see it so clearly in myself, how my thinking and personality come from them.”

“How would it work? How could you have been raised by more people?”

“Maybe I should let someone else speak. I feel I’ve already spoken a lot.”

“I think it has to do with adults knowing they have to earn the respect of the children. And children having some degree of choice as to what adults they spend the most time with. Or having the choice to learn different things from different adults.”

“But if there was one adult who let the children eat candy and ice cream for every meal maybe all the children would gather around only that one.”

“I don’t think it would take most children very long to realize eating candy and ice cream three times a day doesn’t make you feel very good.”

“When I was a child it would have taken me many years to learn that lesson.”

“We’ve already agreed there would have to be some sort of rules. The question is what kinds of rules can we imagine that would produce the desired results. I don’t think “you’re not allowed to feed children only candy and ice cream” would be a particularly controversial rule.”

“But children themselves would need to have a say shaping those rules. And maybe some of the children would push for their right to eat only candy and ice cream.”

“I want us to get back to the main point. What we’re talking about is not a society in which children can simply do what they want. What we’re talking about is a world in which children can be raised and influenced, can learn from, a greater array of adult experiences and perspectives. Where children aren’t trapped mainly in the world of only two adults.”

“To what extent would the mother and father still be the main force in the child’s life?”

“That’s the question that seems so hard to answer.”

“It could be different for different children. Maybe some children would gravitate more towards their parents and some would gravitate more towards a larger community. But you can see how this would encourage a parent to work to earn the respect of their child.”

“If I were a mother and my child “gravitated towards the larger community” I think I would find it extremely hurtful. These are also people’s feelings we’re talking about.”

“But maybe this is something that could also change: that mother could instead feel happy and proud that her child is getting all the knowledge and stimulation they need to thrive. It’s not only the children that will be changed by these proposals. The adults would be changed as well.”

“I think if we talk about something very simple – like large, daily communal meals – then we could see that these proposals aren’t even particularly radical. Everyone eats together. Everyone cooks and cleans up together. Children included. The children get to meet and talk to all the different adults and also to play with all the other children. And eating together is a way of coming together, of building community. Even if this happened just once a week I think you would start to see its effects. It could happen at the level of the neighborhood, like so many of the developments we’ve seen.”

“I hope we’re talking about more than communal meals.”

“It could be a start.”

“Where does it lead? Isn’t that what we’re here to imagine? To think about? To ask ourselves?”

“One of the things all of this makes me think is that too much choice can be confusing. It would be important not to give the children too many choices. Not to overwhelm them.”

“Every time someone says “the children” I feel confused. I mean, weren’t we all children once, actually not so long ago. Aren’t we “the children?” Shouldn’t we be thinking about what we would have wanted and needed at their age?”

“It’s not only a question of children having more input and influences. It’s also a question of a greater number of adults taking responsibility for the raising of children, of collectivizing the tasks that can most easily be made more collective.”

“That reminds me of the first thing I thought when we started in on this topic. That parenting is hard and we should be searching for ways to make it easier. To make it feel better. Also that parenting makes you feel more disconnected from the rest of the community because you’re so focused on all the things you need to do to make sure your children survive, and we should be searching for ways to counterbalance that.”

“But no one is going to care about a child more than the parent. Do we really think that direct link of parental care should be decentered?”

“Is it really so impossible to imagine a society in which all adults care about all children to the same degree?”

“I actually think it might be.”

“Sometimes it sounds like we’re saying children have more to learn from adults than they do from other children. And I don’t think that’s true. I think they have just as much or more to learn from the other children.”

“I don’t think anyone here is going to disagree with that.”

“I notice we haven’t been talking much about school. About the adult encounters the child has with their teachers at school.”

“Abolish all schools except this one.”

“That’s the kind of self-defeating joke I hope the next generation of children won’t feel nearly as compelled to make or laugh at. But, since I’m from this generation, I want to say on the record: I find it funny.”

“We need schools where, instead of teaching you a series of questionable skills and facts, they actually teach you how to live. But maybe the word for such a place, or such an idea, can’t quite be the word school.”


- Jacob Wren, from the work-in-progress Dry Your Tears to Perfect Your Aim



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