Reasserting the Personhood of Children

This is Part 1 of a series of posts called
How Kids Are Bypassing School in Order to Learn.

I read Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game as a teenager. It’s a scifi novel in which gifted children are trained from a very young age in military strategy to fight in adult wars against alien invaders. The story itself had an impact on me, but long after the plot details faded a brief passage from the book’s introduction has stuck with me vividly.

In it, Card recounts the story of a guidance counselor for gifted children who read his book and hated it. “The criticism that left me most flabbergasted,” Card writes, “was her assertion that my depiction of gifted children was hopelessly unrealistic.… It was important to her, and to others, to believe that children don’t actually think or speak the way the children in Ender’s Game think and speak…

Yet I knew—I knew—that this was one of the truest things about Ender’s Game.… Because never in my entire childhood did I feel like a child. I felt like a person all along—the same person that I am today. I never felt that I spoke childishly. I never felt that my emotions and desires were somehow less real than adult emotions and desires. And in writing Ender’s Game, I forced the audience to experience the lives of these children from that perspective—the perspective in which their feelings and decisions are just as real and important as any adult’s. [Emphasis mine]

This problem is present not just in education, but throughout society. Any lasting learning paradigm must acknowledge the cultural changes that need to take place to accept children as functional people and treat them as such.

In his delightfully meandering essay “Murder in the Kitchen” philosopher Alan Watts contextualized the problem:

Children are a special class of human beings which came into existence with the industrial revolution, at which time we began to invent a closed world for them, a nursery society, wherein their participation in adult life could be delayed increasingly—to keep them off the labor market.

The industrial revolution had a lasting impact on how children were perceived and treated. Children were stuffed into a bubble in an effort to protect them from dangerous factory jobs. Today those factory jobs are mostly gone. In an information economy, keeping children out of society stunts their learning and development.

Watts continues:

Children are, in fact, small adults who want to take part in the adult world as quickly as possible, and to learn by doing. But in the closed nursery society they are supposed to learn by pretending, for which insult to their feelings and intelligence they are propitiated with toys and hypnotized with baby talk. They are thus beguiled into the fantasy of that happy, carefree childhood with its long sunny days through which one may go on ‘playing’—in the peculiar sense of not working—for always and always. This neurotic suppression of growth is outwardly and visibly manifested in the child’s toy world of plastic and tin, of miniaturized won’t-work guns, airplanes, cars, kitchen ranges, dinner sets, medical kits, and space rockets, designed so to entrance them that they will keep out of the way of adults….

In truth, children resent their nursery world but are given no opportunity to go beyond it.

In the time since Watts published his essay in 1971, technology has finally begun to give children that opportunity to participate in society directly. Increasingly, almost any device connects to the greatest aggregations of knowledge in human history.
Continue reading “Reasserting the Personhood of Children” »