In Wildness is the preservation of the World.
Thoreau says this in ‘Walking,’ and Jack Turner, in his exquisite collection of essays, The Abstract Wild, questions how many of us have any idea what it means. People often misread the quote, Turner points out, as “In wilderness is the preservation of the world;” but Thoreau did not say that preserving wilderness preserves the world; he said that wildness preserves.
At the turn of the twentieth-century, educational theorists were quite open about the fact that they were designing schools for the purpose of adapting children to the new industrial order. Children must shed their ‘savage’ wildness, these pedagogues maintained, and develop ‘civilized’ habits like punctuality, obedience, orderliness, and efficiency. As Ellwood P. Cubberley, Dean of the Stanford University School of Education, put it in 1898:
Our schools are, in a sense, factories, in which the raw materials – children – are to be shaped and fashioned into products… The specifications for manufacturing come from the demands of 20th century civilization, and it is the business of the school to build its pupils according to the specifications laid down.
The Foundations of ‘Factory Education’
In the minds of these architects of modern schooling, ‘The Child’ ‘The Savage,’ and ‘Nature’ were homologous concepts; all represented something intrinsically corrupt, bestial, unformed. ‘Nature,’ said William Torrey Harris, U.S. Commissioner of Education from 1889 to 1906, is the ‘polar antithesis’ of the ‘nature of man as spirit.’ He elaborates:
Out of the savage state man ascends by making himself new natures, one above the other; he realizes his ideas in institutions, and finds in these ideal worlds his real home and his true nature.
The purpose of school, in other words, was to ‘elevate’ children out of their natural state (which was, in Mr. Harris’ view, totally depraved) and train them to take their place in man’s grand project of “subordinating the material world to his use.” As Harris explains, “The nations and peoples of the world rank high or low… according to the degree in which they have realized this ideal of humanity.” Cultures that did not see things this way confronted a choice:
absorb our culture and become intellectually productive or else – die out. This is the judgment pronounced by the Anglo-Saxon upon the lower races.
We have forgotten that these were the original purposes of the factory-like institutions that most of us grew up in. We speak of our familiar school experience almost as though it were an integral part of nature itself, a natural and essential part of human childhood, rather than the vast and extremely recent experiment in social engineering that it actually is. But the past, as Faulkner famously remarked, is never dead; it’s not even past. These original purposes, as John Taylor Gatto has pointed out, were so effectively built into the structure of modern schooling – with its underlying systems of confinement, control, standardization, measurement, and enforcement – that today they are accomplished even without our conscious knowledge or assent.
They are not, of course, accomplished in the ways that the social engineers had in mind. These visionary men assumed human nature to be infinitely malleable; children were to be molded and fashioned like any other industrial raw material into a predetermined finished product, and industrial utopia would be the result. But they did not count on the power of children’s instinct for dissent. The wild mind strives to protect itself the way a horse under saddle does, with a thousand strategies of resistance, withdrawal, inattention, forgetting; the children won’t do what the authorities say they should do, they won’t learn what the experts say they must learn, and for every diligent STEM-trained worker-bee we create, there are ten bored, resistant, apathetic young people who are alienated from both nature and their own chained hearts.
The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.
The Free Child vs The Institutionalized
When we first take children from the world and put them in an institution, they cry. It used to be on the first day of kindergarten, but now it’s at an ever earlier age, sometimes when they are only a few weeks old. “Don’t worry,” the nice teacher says sweetly, “As soon as you’re gone she’ll be fine. It won’t take more than a few days. She’ll adjust.” And she does. She adjusts to an indoor world of cinderblock and plastic, of fluorescent light and half-closed blinds. Gradually, over the many years of confinement, they adjust. The cinderblock world becomes their world. They don’t know the names of the trees outside the classroom window. They don’t know the names of the birds in the trees. They don’t know if the moon is waxing or waning, if that berry is edible or poisonous, if that song is for mating or warning.
It is in this context that today’s utopian crusader proposes to teach ‘eco-literacy.’
A free child outdoors will learn the flat stones the crayfish hide under, the still shady pools where the big trout rest, the rocky slopes where the wild berries grow. They will learn the patterns in the waves, which tree branches will bear their weight, which twigs will catch fire, which plants have thorns. A child in school must learn what a ‘biome’ is, and how to use logarithms to calculate biodiversity. Most of them don’t learn it, of course; most of them have no interest in learning it, and most of those who do, forget it the day after the test.
A child who knows where to find wild berries will never forget this information. An ‘uneducated’ person in the highlands of Papua New Guinea can recognize seventy species of birds by their songs. An ‘illiterate’ shaman in the Amazon can identify hundreds of medicinal plants. An Aboriginal person from Australia carries in his memory a map of the land, encoded in song, that extends for a thousand miles. But to know the world, you have to live in the world.
My daughters, who did not go to school, would sometimes watch as groups of schoolchildren received their prescribed dose of ‘environmental education.’ On a sunny day along a rocky coastline, a mass of fourteen-year-olds carrying clipboards wander aimlessly among the tide pools, trying not to get their shoes wet, looking at their worksheets more than at the life teeming in the clear salty water. There is some dawning awareness these days of the insanity of raising children almost entirely indoors.
But the truth is, we don’t know how to teach our children about nature because we ourselves were raised in the cinderblock world. We are, in the parlance of wildlife rehabilitators, unreleasable. I used to do wildlife rescue and rehabilitation, and the one thing we all knew was that a young animal kept too long in a cage would not be able to survive in the wild. Often, when you open the door to the cage, it will be afraid to go out; if it does go out, it won’t know what to do. The world has become unfamiliar, an alien place. This is what we have done to our children.
This is what was done to us.
After seven generations of this vast experiment, we must now send scientists into the field to try learn who we might have been. Study after study shows that our disconnect from nature is increasing the rates of anxiety and depression, that our lack of physical activity is leading to diagnoses of ADHD and obesity and even type 2 diabetes. What is less widely understood is how our separation from the world is changing how we learn.
In many rural, land-based societies, learning is not coerced; children are expected to voluntarily observe, absorb, practice, and master the knowledge and skills they will need as adults – and they do. In these societies – which exist on every inhabited continent – even very young children are free to choose their own actions, to play, to explore, to participate, to take on meaningful responsibility. Learning is not conceived as a special activity at all, but as a natural by-product of being alive in the world.
Researchers are finding that children in these settings spend most of their time in a completely different attentional state from children in modern schools, a state psychology researcher Suzanne Gaskins calls ‘open attention.‘ Open attention is widely focused, relaxed, alert; Gaskins suggests it may have much in common with the Buddhist concept of ‘mindfulness.’ If something moves in the broad field of perception, the child will notice it. If something interesting happens, he can watch for hours. A child in this state seems to absorb her culture by osmosis, by imperceptible degrees picking up what the adults talk about, what they do, how they think, what they know.
We didn’t have a name for it, but my friends and I often noticed that our kids – who didn’t go to school – had this quality of attention as they moved through the world. They were in a different mental state from schooled kids. You could see it. They noticed everything. They remembered everything. Their minds were open, clear, alert, at ease. If something caught their interest, they were on it with laser focus. When we encountered adults who were used to dealing with groups of school kids — at museums, aquariums, archaeological sites, animal tracking hikes, beach clean-ups, citizen science projects – they would say they had never seen kids like this before. They would be sort of dumbfounded by it. They expected all children to be wound up, tuned-out, half-frantic with suppressed energy, like a dog who’s been locked in the house all day.
Inuit author, Mini Aodla Freeman, recounts how, when she first came South from the Arctic, the thing that surprised her most was the children:
They were not allowed to be normal the way children in my culture are allowed: free to move, free to ask questions, free to think aloud, and most of all, free to make comments so that they will get wiser… To my people, such discipline can prevent a child from growing mentally, killing the child’s sense of interest.
If you thwart a child’s will too much when he is young, says Aodla Freeman, he will become uncooperative and rebellious later (sound familiar?) You find this view all over the world, in many parts of the Americas, in parts of Africa, India, Asia, Papua New Guinea. It was, of course, a great source of frustration to early missionaries in the Americas, who were stymied in their efforts to educate Indigenous children by parents who would not allow them to be beaten. As Jesuit missionary, Paul le Jeune, complained in 1633:
The Savages cannot chastise a child, nor see one chastised. How much trouble this will give us in carrying out our plans of teaching the young!
But as Odawa elder and educator, Wilfred Peltier tells us, learning – like all human relationships – must be based in the ethical principle of non-interference, in the right of all human beings to make their own choices, as long as they’re not interfering with anybody else. As Nishnaabeg scholar and author, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, tells us, learning – like all human relationships – must be based in the ethical principal of consent, in the right of all human beings to be free of violence and the use of force. Simpson explains:
Interestingly, the most brilliant artists and scientists in Euro-western societies tell us exactly the same thing: that it is precisely this state of open attention, curiosity, freedom, collaboration, consent, that is necessary for all true learning, discovery, creation.
But our school system has been built of other bricks.
Education Built on Fear
We think we live in an ‘advanced’ multicultural society; few today would speak of the inherent sinfulness of children. But our schools still embody the fear of children’s ‘wildness:’ the fear that without constant control, constant measurement, and the constant threat of punishment, they will ‘run wild,’ fail to learn, become anti-social, harm themselves or others, become incompetent, helpless adults.
A row of enormous skulls stands outside the office of a gamekeeper in South Africa. They are the skulls of rhinos, killed by gangs of juvenile male elephants who were separated from their mothers and grandmothers and uncles and aunts, and shipped to a game reserve where they had only their peers for companionship. Cut off from the complex social system elephants have evolved to teach their young appropriate species behavior, without the social checks and balances they were evolved to expect, these teenagers’ behavior went haywire.
Right now we live in an entire society gone haywire, in part because we have strayed so far from our own species nature and the social structures evolved to both sustain it and hold it in check.
In Indigenous societies all over the world, on every continent, we see babies and young children held close by parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, siblings and cousins. We see children intimately embedded in the natural world and free to move and use their bodies outdoors. We see children embedded in their communities and free to observe and participate in adult work, leisure, and celebration. We see complex social structures of mixed-age extended family and clan, which provide child care and teach respect and hold anti-social behavior in check far more effectively, and with less conflict, than the institutions we now rely on. We see people connected to the land with a depth and richness and sense of reciprocal ethical relationship that is unimaginable to modern urban humans.
We Are Born Wild
Children, when free to run in the open air, to move, to speak, to ask questions, to explore, to play, to work, to participate – to be ‘normal’ as Mini Aodla Freeman would put it – the child who is ‘wild’ in a classroom becomes a human being, a friendly, helpful companion. Not a perfect angel, just a normal, likeable, intelligent person, like anybody else.
We are engaged in a vast dystopian project of one-upping our Creator, of treating the Cosmos as though it were a fixer-upper, and of imagining we can redesign ourselves, as well as the world we are to live in. The social engineers who shaped our world understood very well that no matter how far civilization ‘progresses,’ each new human being is born wild – in other words, human – and they made it their overt goal to create an institution that would break the will, the ‘self-will’ the ‘self-determination’ – that would subdue the wildness – of our children. And it works. But like any other radical intervention in the natural world, like dams, like pesticides, like genetically modified crops, the mass institutionalization of children alters our lives and our planet in ways that are both unanticipated and beyond our control.
Species die, our planet warms, and in the name of teaching our children to save the world, we go on destroying their wildness, ‘socializing’ them away from nature and into the cage we have built around childhood. Our nice teachers try to find ways to make it fun, to limit or at least soften the damage that is done; like zookeepers giving beach balls to captive polar bears, they try to find substitutes for what is lost. But the world is too beautiful to substitute. The revolution will not take place in a classroom.