How to (Not) Raise a Reductionist: Reassessing the Paradigms of Child Rearing for an Age of Flourishing

by Ben Draper and Andre Uhl
At their earliest years, children are able to master some of the most complex motor tasks, through intuitive/playful engagement with the world. Does the control-oriented approach to child rearing - when the adult inevitably intervenes - normalize the reductionism we're to resist?
How to (Not) Raise a Reductionist: Reassessing the Paradigms of Child Rearing for an Age of Flourishing
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Published
Mar 01, 2019

“We thought of life by analogy with a journey, with a pilgrimage, which had a serious purpose at that end, and the thing was to get to that thing at that end. Success, or whatever it is, or maybe heaven after you’re dead.

But we missed the point the whole way along.

It was a musical thing, and you were supposed to sing or to dance while the music was being played.”

- Alan Watts

We learn to master some of the most complex tasks at the earliest age and without any kind of formal instruction. Witnessing a toddler speak his first words or take her first steps is a special moment in the lives of parents, especially because they happen in the most unexpected ways and without much of their input. These kinds of developmental milestones are the miraculous byproduct of a child’s intuitive and playful engagement with the world, but unfortunately many of us do not tend to trust this innate process of growth beyond the first few years. Before long, the well-intentioned adult will intervene and begin to direct, advise, judge, praise, reward, and discipline the child to ensure that they acquire the knowledge, skills, and habits deemed necessary for proper development. The implicit message this sends to children, however, is that the innate drive to engage with the world is not an adequate engine for growth. They will learn to believe that it requires external authority —parents, teachers, experts, and society at large—to direct their development, and that the more they rely on their advice, guidance, and services, the more accomplished they will be. Is it perhaps this particular control-oriented approach to child rearing, practiced in many kindergartens, schools, and homes today, that normalizes the reductionism Joi Ito1 is asking us to resist?

As current critics of compulsory education2 are pointing out, humans educated themselves long before the emergence of schooling, and experiences outside of the classroom are often more formative than the knowledge acquired through adult-imposed education. It may thus not necessarily be the individual child who is in need of instruction, but rather the social context the child is embedded in that requires each member to share a particular set of knowledge, skills, and habits necessary for maintaining the specific paradigms that it is organized upon. At different times throughout its history, the education system has served various economic, political, religious, and secular interests. A central function of it today may be to initiate children into the values, beliefs, and habits of a consumer capitalist society. As MIT Media Lab alum Aaron Falbel claims,

“In our society, adulthood means primarily a life of consumption (having a job, earning money, buying things), so we introduce this idea early in our children’s experience by having them go through this ritualistic process of graded consumption that we call education.”3

According to Falbel, the current education system is designed to accumulate prepackaged content as a form of “capital” in order to successfully advance through it. Most of the content that students engage with through curricula is retained only long enough to be reproduced in a test, at which point it is converted to academic credit and can be safely forgotten. The more academic credit students accumulate, the more valuable they are to competitive institutions of higher education, where the consumption of expensive expert instruction will earn them a degree of higher market value, so that they can get a higher earning job, engage in even more consumption, and keep the economy growing. Falbel argues:

“Education teaches the lesson that the more we consume, the better we are. That’s the lesson that our society needs people to imbibe for them to be successful and obedient consumers… you won’t find it printed in any curriculum plan. It’s the form and structure of education that inculcates this message, not the content.”4

If we follow Falbel’s arguments, it may actually be the good student—the one who likes being instructed, derives satisfaction from accomplishing the tasks set for them, and thrives on the attention and approval of parents and teachers —for whom the education system can also perform the greatest disservice. All the focus on compliance, performance, and achievement distracts them from ever asking the question, “Who am I, and what do I want?”.

In many ways, the political and social climate that we find ourselves in today resembles that of the late 1960s, which gave rise to a radical questioning of dysfunctional institutions. While the civil rights movement, the feminist movement, and the environmental movement are regaining momentum, the voices that called for liberating our children from reductive education systems5 seem almost forgotten.

The anti-education movement of the 1960s had, as one early precedent, the activism of Alexander Sutherland Neill, a Scottish educator who founded Summerhill, the prototype of the democratic school model, in 1921. Neill’s work centered on one basic idea: Make the school fit the child, instead of making the child fit the school.6 Summerhill had no curriculum, no testing, no grading, and no age segregation, and children and adults exercised equal rights through democratic decision-making on all aspects of school governance. Children spent their school time in whatever ways they found meaningful, without the unsolicited judgement, guidance, or intervention of adults. Anything was possible as long as it didn’t cause harm to other members of the community. Contrary to other child-centered models of alternative education, such as Montessori or Waldorf schools, which have curated a sophisticated learning environment based on specific educational intentions ultimately conceived and enforced by adults, the democratic organization of Summerhill resulted in a radically open learning environment in which children had the agency to shape the paradigm of learning itself. Describing the philosophy behind Summerhill, Neill argued:

“The function of the child is to live his own life--not the life that his anxious parents think he should live, nor a life according to the purpose of the educator who thinks he knows what is best. All this interference and guidance on the part of adults only produces a generation of robots.”7

Neill’s pedagogic work enabled a diverse community of children, teachers, and parents to prioritize individual and shared wellbeing over the demands of society, especially when the two were in conflict with each other. As children grew up exploring and negotiating their intrinsic needs, values, and motivations as responsible members of a community, the democratized classroom encouraged them to develop a strong sense of purpose, which, it may be argued, is more vital to flourishing than any kind of imposed educational standard:

“You cannot make children learn […] without to some degree converting them into will-less adults. You fashion them into acceptors of the status-quo—good thing for a society that needs obedient sitters at dreary desks, standers in shops, mechanical catchers of the 8:30 suburban train—a society, in short, that is carried on the shabby shoulders of the scared little man—the scared-to-death conformist.”8

The establishment of Summerhill as an official school eventually turned the project into a highly political statement that managed to question an industrial model of education set up to train entire generations to derive meaning solely from economic merit, instead of the other way around. As the first cohorts of Summerhill students graduated and managed to find their ways into colleges, workplaces, and other communities on their own terms, Neill had proven to a generation of parents and educators that children could thrive without being coerced into rigid educational standards. By the early 1970s, the book9 that introduced the Summerhill project to the rest of the world had sold three million copies and inspired the global free school movement as well as child-centered homeschooling approaches known as unschooling. One of the central convictions of self-directed education, as it has been carried out by free schools and unschoolers over recent decades, is that genuine learning is a fundamentally intrinsic process that tends to get corrupted through externally imposed teaching agendas. If children are given the freedom to direct their own learning in a nourishing and supportive environment instead, they will intuitively piece together the particular knowledge, skills, and habits that are necessary for them as individuals to find purpose in this environment.

Today’s climate of increasingly standardized test-driven schooling and so-called helicopter parenting seems inhospitable to the ethic of freeing our children that these previous movements embodied. As the filmmaker and grownup unschooler Astra Taylor notes,

“Today, the prospect of a book like Summerhill—one that paints a sympathetic portrait of kids who refuse to attend classes, do schoolwork, or obey authority—reaching an audience of millions seems absurd.”10

On the other hand, the world’s top education experts and business leaders are warning that our predominant industrial model of top-down instruction, age segregation, and standardized testing is failing to prepare young people for the 21st century job market. Today’s innovation economy, so the argument goes, rewards intrinsic motivation, critical thinking, and creative problem solving over compliance and test performance. While these skills have long been known to free schools and unschoolers as the happy side effects of the self-directed child, entrepreneurs are now leading the way with a whole range of creative learning toys, self-directed after-school programs, and micro-schools in which free play is repackaged as the new education paradigm for training our future innovators. This emergent brand of learning lab is often perfectly in tune with the current zeitgeist of Silicon Valley work environments: Children are encouraged to think outside the box, be collaborative, and, most importantly, scale their passions into promising learning projects. But just as in the new workplace, “There is no room for worker malaise”11, there is often also little room for non-participation in the new classroom. After all, it’s all about the children’s interests, not as though they’re doing it for anyone else—or at least they’re made to feel that they’re not doing it for anyone else... While Neill and his movement considered self-directed play a basic right of the individual and essential to our lifelong pursuit of well being, the new educational paradigm often reduces the value of play to the purpose of optimizing productivity. In other words, entrepreneurial self-directed learning does not question reductive functions of education, but merely attempts to update it with corporate management tools in sync with a narrow definition of success that aligns with the incentives of the post-industrial innovation economy.

Education has become a basic human need, as basic as the need for food, clothing, and shelter, and we speak of equal access to institutionalized education as a human right. Resisting reduction at the level of child-rearing is therefore particularly challenging. While access to institutionalized education can indeed serve as an effective tool to counterbalance persistent and increasing inequality, on a deeper level we must recognize that the current entanglement of economic viability and basic security has led us to a more and more reductionist understanding of childhood and child-rearing as a primary means to job preparation. This approach does not allow children to measure success by how much they are thriving; rather, it trains them to measure success by how much they keep the economy thriving, even in situations when it comes at the expense of their well-being as well as that of their communities.

Children are born with the ability to identify and question this kind of reductionism through unbiased and boundless play, but in most cases we adults have come to ignore this actual genius of childhood for the sake of safeguarding the current paradigm. Children are the only group about whom it is still accepted to say explicitly what has become unacceptable to say about almost any other group in society: Too much freedom is not good for them, and they benefit from being under our control. If they don’t cease to question this power dynamic, if they perhaps even become defiant, anxious, or depressed, they are made to believe it is their fault—that there is nothing wrong with the system, but that the problem lies in their inability to master it. Children who fail to conform are either marginalized and suspended, or diagnosed with an increasing number of disorders, such as dyslexia, ADHD, ASD, SPD or EFD, and given medication, therapies, and special services to help them tolerate the powerlessness and unhappiness they are experiencing.

What if we collectively addressed the paradigm layer instead, and, just like Neill, make school, and society, fit the child again? Is it perhaps our own inner child, which, scared to death of getting nudged, corrected, cajoled, bribed, or disciplined again, impairs our capacity to let our children be… children?

Digging into paradigm layers hurts. It forces us to face our self-deceptions, the identities and narratives we have carefully constructed to distract ourselves from our own struggles to find genuine purpose. The narrowing focus on economic growth produces false expectations that well-being is something to be earned in a distant future, like a reward for present sacrifices. Well-being, however, is not something to be earned. It is a paradigm that should inform the purpose of any and all pursuits. If we want to support children in prioritizing well-being, we need to thoughtfully intervene in systems that tend to pass on reductionist views to coming generations—that is, to abolish reductive metrics for growth in current standards of child rearing and grant our children the right and security to live by more individual and comprehensive definitions of success.

It may be no surprise that Erich Fromm was one of Neill’s greatest supporters. In his foreword to Neill’s book, he argues:

“If it can happen once in Summerhill, it can happen everywhere once the people are ready for it. Indeed there are no problem children, as the author says, but only ‘problem parents’ and a ‘problem humanity.’ I believe Neill's work is a seed which will germinate. In time, his ideas will become generally recognized in a new society in which man himself and his unfolding are the supreme aim of all social effort.”12

Can alumni of democratic schools, free schools and unschooling communities perhaps show us new pathways to a less reductionist society? That is, to envision leadership as a shared responsibility rather than a power exercise of a few winners, to deploy principles of adaptation that allow any type of interest, skill, and ability to provide meaning and merit to the whole, and, most importantly, to elevate well-being to a shared purpose and encourage each individual, each generation, to redefine and nourish its meaning for themselves?

While these aspirations might seem unattainable in consideration of how profoundly the paradigm would have to shift, we can all be encouraged to reflect as individuals on the values that we choose to engage with the children in our lives. We can learn to see children as whole human beings and less like moldable works in progress, to get to know their perspectives with genuine interest, and to provide the support they request, not just the support we think they should have. We can hereby learn to reflect on our own biases from years of reductionist education and manage the unease that arises as we react to new mindsets of new generations. That way, we may be able to get out of the way of our children and allow them to flourish as the unique individuals, and generation, that they are. The sooner we replace the questions “What are our children learning, and what are they not learning?” with “Are they thriving, and if not, what is getting in the way of their thriving?” the sooner we can shift our paradigm toward shared flourishing. The courage to resist reductionism in child rearing is an investment in the well-being of the generation that will one day lead us.


Footnotes

Footnotes
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Christopher Taylor: In their haste to serve their audience a smorgasbord of reheated platitudes from the 1960s unschooling movement, Draper and Uhl have neglected to adequately acknowledge the positive role that schools play--or at least can play--in helping less fortunate members of society in their quest to thrive. Not everyone is equally capable of detaching from the game of consumerism and simultaneously maintaining an acceptable baseline quality of life for themselves and their children. Denying that fact would be naive; ignoring it would be callous. Additionally, vilifying schools as destroyers of childhood based on the writings of philosophers who haven’t set foot in a public school for at least a half a century is itself a form of reductionism. The source cited most frequently in this piece was published just six years after Brown v. Board of Education, and its author--A.S. Neill--had been dead for two years before the precursor to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act was passed in 1975. The brush that men like Neill and Holt painted with fifty-eight years ago is far too broad a brush to paint all schools with today. In short, I feel the authors have recklessly downplayed the complexity of the problems they seek to solve in order to present an argument that ignores the needs of many children and is largely based on emotional reasoning rather than sound logic. We all benefit when our children, as well as our neighbors’ children, develop into well adjusted, self reliant adults. Do all children need school for that? If we define school as a common public space designed and staffed to facilitate the sharing of public resources among children and to positively support their social, emotional, creative, and intellectual development, then it is true that not all children will need school. If you are born able-bodied and neurotypical and are then fortunate enough to grow up in a safe, climate controlled, print-rich environment wired for high speed internet access, surrounded by multiple functionally literate, mathematically literate, scientifically literate, patient, caring adults with good communication skills and at least enough money to feed you, clothe you, provide you with tools to express your creativity while exposing you to a broad range of language-based and artistic cultural experiences, then no--you probably don’t need to be “educated” to live a comfortable life full of opportunity, especially if you are also a beneficiary of multi-generational wealth. However, despite all that is wrong with how we currently deliver compulsory public education, to categorically dismiss the entire concept of education is dangerously classist given the very real and potentially devastating discrepancies between an affluent childhood and an impoverished childhood. Yes, some children will be just fine without school, but they will predominantly be white or Asian and live well above the poverty line. We must be careful not to forget about those who rely on their public schools because they are poorly positioned to break free from the vicious grind of consumerism. People who work three or four jobs to meet their family’s basic needs of shelter and nutrition might struggle to find the time to read to their kids or take them to museums. People without access to safe and reliable transportation might struggle to engage with the world outside of their immediate surroundings which may or may not be particularly enriching. People who can’t pay for private math and writing tutors in place of school based instruction would struggle to earn the degrees necessary to participate in many professions. Schools may cease to serve a function in a hypothetical post-scarcity, utopian future, but at present they serve as vital agents of social justice, despite their many flaws. We must also consider how ridding the world of school serves people with disabilities. At a minimum, isolating them out of sheer convenience would certainly get much easier again. As for learning and neurological disabilities specifically, even with the labels removed and the neurotypical profile no longer being explicitly treated as “one-size-fits-most” by any institutional entity, the underlying disabilities--even if you’d prefer not call them that--won’t just disappear. People with dyslexia will still struggle to read in a world without school. People with ADHD will still struggle to focus in a world without school. People with dyscalculia will still struggle with basic arithmetic, and so on. Maybe the way we handle “special education” falls short of ideal, but I guarantee that universally ending all coordinated efforts to support young people who are non-neurotypical will again disproportionately harm the less privileged. There are many intelligent, creative, and talented young people with uniquely complex learning profiles who would be likely to suffer from the wholesale cessation of strategic intervention, reaching adulthood without having had opportunities to be challenged in a low-stakes, high-support environment and develop reliable compensatory skills as a result. The “haves” with disabilities will certainly suffer for this less than the “have nots” with disabilities. The authors might counter here by arguing that we really shouldn't be making any deliberate attempts to control the experiences of a child, even if we do so believing it to be in that child’s best interest. In theory, the child’s innate drive to learn will take her everywhere she needs to be when the time is right so long as no adult gets in her way. In practice, adult intervention in children’s decision making is--to an extent--unavoidable. Would you stop a two year old running toward a busy street? Yes. Would you serve your child oatmeal even if she asks to have cotton candy for breakfast? Probably. Would you encourage a teenager who you know to be injuring himself to seek mental health treatment? I hope so. That we should all completely avoid intervening in the lives of the children we care about is simply not tenable when applied rigidly as ideological dogma. Showing respect for children’s rights isn’t as simple as refraining from drawing lines in the sand; it’s more so about thoughtfully considering where it would be most beneficial and least restrictive to draw them. Considering where to draw those lines becomes infinitely more complicated when you invite hundreds if not thousands of extremely diverse young people at a time into one or more enormous facilities paid for with public money that an entire municipality’s worth of children must somehow share safely and equitably under the supervision of adults who are then themselves held accountable to elected and appointed local, state, and federal authorities for oversight. When serving as many masters as they do, schools and the people who keep them running don’t have the luxury of pretending that adult intervention in the lives of children is unnecessary. I suppose one could argue that the complications that arise in crafting an adequate public school system simply add to the evidence that the institution should itself be abandoned, but I counter that anything you try to replace it with--be it a single comprehensive solution or a network of smaller ones--will ultimately end up looking at least something like a school once you consider the wide-ranging needs of the entire populace. It’s also not clear if anyone--outside of the unschooling echo chamber--is meant to take anything away from this essay. It’s certainly doesn’t seem intended for those in the mainstream world of education. The authors imply that incremental progress made in schools or with supplemental self directed learning experiences is just an extension of the current system which they see as fatally flawed in its entirety. Besides, educators working in the mainstream--for better or worse--will generally dismiss an essay like this as being laughably out of touch with reality. As a public school teacher myself, I would actually rather my colleagues at least make an effort to understand the unschooler’s perspective instead of refusing to engage out of ignorance and self protective indignation. We teachers do have a lot to learn from the unschooling movement about the value of play and self initiated inquiry in learning, two things that humans of all ages do naturally, without coercion. School-based educators must also start addressing how problematic it is that nearly all schools, as the authors very correctly point out, run on arbitrarily--though not necessarily capriciously--distributed forms of “capital,” perverting the very natural process of learning into an often harmful game that replaces curiosity and wonder with anxiety and dread for a great many students. This is an enormous problem with no simple, universally applicable solution considering that employers and institutions of higher learning ultimately expect people to arrive on their doorsteps with some sort of fair assessment of their current abilities issued by a neutral third party, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t look for ways to shift away from the importance of “grades.” There are creative solutions to be discovered that lie between “grades for everything you do” and “no more school ever.” The work of designing, implementing, and revising those solutions--the work of progressive teachers--is painstaking and without fanfare, but it is the work of meaningful change. Teachers and unschoolers alike should work to put a little more faith in the middle ground, because that’s where good can be done on the most impactful scale. I have a sinking feeling, however, that this essay was not written to bring about any sort of concrete, scalable societal change. I fear this essay was published as part of a pseudo-academic attempt to legitimize the fashionable gimmick of private, unregulated, curriculum-free, boutique daycare facilities being marketed as Summerhill-inspired “self directed learning centers.” I respect that some families who are in a position to do so choose to opt out of their public schools, and that is certainly their right. I’d much rather they stay and fight to make their own schools more inclusive, but that’s usually going to require at least a little compromise on both sides of the principal’s desk, which isn’t always possible. Imagine, though, if the people I described earlier--those of us who live with disabilities, those of us who live in poverty, those of us who live without the benefit of white privilege--were to be given nothing more than a banquet hall full of hand drums, board games, and building blocks in lieu of school. A feebly resourced after school program that happens to run all day is not a viable alternative to school for all children. For young people whose privilege has shielded them from the negative consequences of consumerism, these centers can provide ample opportunities for gentrified socialization and lightly supervised whim indulgence, but the myriad young people who would benefit from more strategic support or access to higher quality materials and experiences are largely overlooked by the anemic “self directed learning center” model. Charismatic and persuasive unschooling advocates seeking to serve their own narrow agenda will try to sell this model as something of a panacea for those who are chronically disenchanted with school, but if we’re truly looking to resist reductionism, we must temper these voices with the proudly and openly ambivalent voices of those working to improve childhood for more than just a select few, even if it has to be done incrementally and at the expense of ideological purity. As schools are a product of an ever-evolving society, they themselves exist in a constant state of flux. Reforming the experience of childhood will be an endless process, requiring not one big, simple change but an infinite number of tiny, interconnected changes that add up to make a more useful and humane system of systems over time. Those of us looking for genuine progress understand how little value there is in using glib generalizations to propose grandiose solutions. It is admittedly tempting to get swept up in the poetry of it all. “Free to learn” makes a lovely bumper sticker, but what does that actually look like for the whole of society? It feels good to listen to “Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2” on repeat and blog about the oppression of “factory model” education, but is that an au fait assessment of what goes on in all schools today, or is it just lazy and outdated rhetoric used to stir up a cheap emotional response from prospective “self directed learning center” clients? Yes, we marvel at and gush over how children learn to walk and speak without intervention, but from that should we extrapolate that children aren’t owed anything more from adults than unmitigated freedom? The problem isn’t that these ideas are too radical to be considered by the mainstream; it’s that they are too superficial to hold up to informed scrutiny. An attention grabbing idea like eliminating school can generate a lot of misguided enthusiasm amongst career philosophers and affluent parents seeking an easy solution to the conflict between their personal expectations of childhood and the aggregate needs of their neighbors, but ideas like these are simply distractions from the hard reality that society’s needs--including and especially the needs of children--are almost unfathomably complex and require an often uncomfortable amount of nuance and compromise.