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“On the wildness of children”

Political theorist Toby Rollo has pointed out how the forcible subjugation of children by adults forms the psychological underpinning of every other model of political and economic subjugation. This is not a metaphor; it’s a structuring principle of political reality. During the days of overt empire and colonialism –– the same days in which our modern school system was created –– Indigenous people, people of color, women of all colors, and lower-class whites were all viewed as childlike, in need of fatherly tutelage and discipline. And because it was understood that children often required violent “chastisement” –– for their own good! –– it was natural that childlike adults would require the same.

From On the Wildness of Children.

I almost dropped out of high school when I was sixteen. By my sophomore year of high school, my mother was starting to run out of resources. She tells me now about the time she sat down with her friend, defeated and debating on letting me go through with it. “I’m going to lose her,” she said.

I often tell people that I hated school. “Oh, all kids do. Haha!” No, no. Not like that. I mean, I hated school, I loved learning. I talked about it like many adults talk about their office jobs when at their most desperate. I would get dressed in the morning and tell my mom I felt like it was draining the life out of me.

Nothing like a little drama.

I had always taken the hardest classes available. I always read. At home. On my own. Voluntarily. I got good grades. I did my homework on time. And so on, and so on.

By middle school, I had developed an eating disorder. I had very few friends. At least, that’s how I remember it. By high school, I decided to embrace being a loner. Then I found friends. They were weird, but confident in their weirdness. I liked it.

Through them, I started reading new things. Different things. I was able to describe what I wanted and why I didn’t like going to school every day. My mother and I started looking into alternatives. Into un-schooling, home schooling, alternative schools in the city. It wasn’t realistic for where we lived and a single parent household. But tenacity is genetic. We made a deal.

“I’ll help you graduate a year early if you hang in there for one more year.”

I did. It made things easier. I went to college. I want to go back to college at some point. I do think my life would look very different now if I hadn’t finished school, but not necessarily in a bad way. Just different.

Recently, a few friends and co-workers shared this article from Carol Black, “On The Wildness of Children.” It’s a reasonably long read, but a good one. It’s been a while since something resonated so wholly for me. The longer I spend outside of school (and the more time I spend at Automattic), the easier it is to forget how much I bray against too much structure, particularly if it isn’t self-imposed.

I have strong opinions about the school system and education, but I also don’t have children. I just know my own experience and I appreciate articles like this one that remind me it wasn’t just me. People learn differently, and our current education system was born out of our culture, and the perceived needs of that culture. Alternatives aren’t available to everyone or feasible to everyone, but I hope one day they will be.

Kids are smart and curious. We don’t give them enough credit. We were all kids once, got to this place where we are now, relatively successfully. So much imagination and energy that is disciplined, lost. Everyone’s adaptable, but what are we adapting to?

These children are the canaries in the coal mine, the ones who will not obey our masters, who will not take their place as cogs in the machine that is destroying the earth. They are not the ones who have a “disorder.” They are the ones who still hold the perfect Kosmos in their hearts.

The revolution will not take place in a classroom.

9 Comments

  • Cesar Abeid

    I think you turned out OK, Erica 🙂

    I understand what you are saying… I think I was always a year or two behind of where I should have been in school, but the system wasn’t set up to recognize it. So I enjoyed school because it was easy and I had friends there. As a result, my love for learning had to come later.

    We have been homeschooling our children for a few years now, and they have a lot of freedom regarding what they learn and when they learn it. My daughter came downstairs at 7AM today and started on her schoolwork. She’s almost done for the year, so she knows that the sooner she finishes it, the sooner we can go celebrate. So yes, there is structure, but most of it comes from her own self. Also, she has lots of time to pursue knowledge on her own, on things that are interesting to her (two years ago it was volcanos; last year it was geography; this year it’s Star Wars 🙂 )

    I’d always thought of academics as being one of the most important things in life. I have shifted on that a bit. What I want for my kids are not PhDs and decorations, but for them to be good people, to love and be loved, and to make a difference for a better world – even if in internal, small ways.

    • Erica

      Exactly! It’s awesome that’s how you think of it. There’s so much to learn and sharing that with them already, in terms of fostering their curiosity and learning those values, is amazing. They may want PhD’s, too, who knows? 🙂

      My daughter came downstairs at 7AM today and started on her schoolwork. She’s almost done for the year, so she knows that the sooner she finishes it, the sooner we can go celebrate.

      I love that!

    • Karen

      > What I want for my kids are not PhDs and decorations, but for them to be good people, to love and be loved, and to make a difference for a better world – even if in internal, small ways.

      this. very much.

  • Ryan C

    I hated school, I loved learning.

    This really hits home with me. I’ve always loved learning, but had a lot of trouble with school. I almost dropped out of high school, but stuck it out until graduation. After that I went to community college, only to drop out. Sometimes I reflect back, and wonder what might be different now had I tried a bit harder back then. I know that my lack of formal education hasn’t really helped with the whole Impostor Syndrome thing… But hey, that’s life. It’s interesting to ponder the “what ifs” but things usually have a way of working out. Thanks for sharing your story 🙂

    • Erica

      Exactly, it’s (obviously) not set up to explore different types of learning. I think curiosity and a love of knowledge is so much more valuable than completing a set of classes just for a piece of paper (but that’s cool if that’s what you like too!) And, hey, here we are now 😀

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