Towards an Anti-Work Education

The cover for Peter Gray’s book, “Free to Learn”

I’ve discussed Peter Gray before when I reviewed extrinsic and internal goals. As I said there, some of the research that Gray was using seemed shaky at best. Particularly in merely noting the correlation of various negative things that have happened to children in the last few decades with a lack of play.

For example, the increase in depression, suicide attempts and so on can just as easily be attributed to better diagnosing mental illness and taking suicide more seriously and measuring the rate of it better. Neither of these things happening  more necessarily has to do with a decrease in play even if the two match up on graphs.

Moreover, Gray’s field of study, evolutionary psychology (EP), has widely been criticized as a science of “just-so” stories that are reductionist in method, restricting in its conclusions, and largely can’t be tested.

Now, I’m not an expert on EP and I’m not trying to suggest that the entire field is bunk, as others have. But I just want to stress some amount of caution before we proceed and consider an article Gray wrote back in 2013 on play called The Play Deficit.

Once again, Gray hits on many of my ideological favorite spots. He emphasizes play, he advocates youth empowerment, self-directed learned, lauds the Subury Valley School, and in general, praises cooperation and egalitarian relations over authoritarian ones. So there’s a lot for me to like about Gray’s article.

I even like his definition of equality:

The golden rule of social play is not ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ Rather, it’s something much more difficult: ‘Do unto others as they would have you do unto them.’

To do that, you have to get into other people’s minds and see from their points of view. Children practise that all the time in social play.

The equality of play is not the equality of sameness.

Rather, it is the equality that comes from respecting individual differences and treating each person’s needs and wishes as equally important. That’s also, I think, the best interpretation of Thomas Jefferson’s line that all men are created equal. We’re not all equally strong, equally quick-witted, equally healthy; but we are all equally worthy of respect and of having our needs met.

Now, I’m not sure if I agree with such a broad statement that Gray makes at the end. Some people’s needs do come from a need to dominate others. Though, to be fair, I’m sure Gray would disagree this is a need that is equally worthy of respect. So perhaps I’m guilty of nitpicking here, which would, admittedly, be nothing new.

In any case, the fact that Gray thinks to differentiate separate forms of equality, emphasize individuality over sameness and that a certain sort of respect is due to us in so far as we follow the golden rule of social play is a much better form of equality than I usually see advocated.

Despite these admirable qualities of Gray’s article he continues to denote possibly spurious correlations:

The decline in opportunity to play has also been accompanied by a decline in empathy and a rise in narcissism, both of which have been assessed since the late 1970s with standard questionnaires given to normative samples of college students.

Empathy refers to the ability and tendency to see from another person’s point of view and experience what that person experiences. Narcissism refers to inflated self-regard, coupled with a lack of concern for others and an inability to connect emotionally with others. A decline of empathy and a rise in narcissism are exactly what we would expect to see in children who have little opportunity to play socially.

Children can’t learn these social skills and values in school, because school is an authoritarian, not a democratic setting. School fosters competition, not co-operation; and children there are not free to quit when others fail to respect their needs and wishes.

So, “normative” samples are a good thing. But not linking to the studies in question isn’t.

Further, with any college study, it must be kept in mind that college samples don’t necessarily reflect general populations. They are often small sample size studies that when not repeated (not applicable here though, to be fair) should be taken with a grain of salt, to say the least. Even when they are repeated, I would still stress that Gray’s use of the word “accompanied” is masking the fact that he’s only relying on correlations and studies from one portion of population to say this is the case.

And while, yes, you would expect less empathy and more narcissism from people who grow up less and less around others in the form of play there’s a few issues with this:

  1. An expectation does not equal a causation
  2. Just because you expect result A from Thing B doesn’t mean Thing B is the only possible thing that could’ve caused this chain of events. There are other causes that may have have roles or inputs in the chain of events you’ve been analyzing.
  3. In this example, we could also expect a rise of narcissism and reduction in empathy from kids being around multi-media (TV, smartphones, the internet, etc.) than around other kids and playing with them. But yet, Gray doesn’t seem to make a case that we should limit these things.

Granted, my example in 3. is a superficial correlation at best, but that’s my point.

It’s a struggle for me, because there’s much to like about Gray for me, as I’ve said before. But his methods and citations (even when he does give them, as he did in his Psychology Today article) just aren’t solid enough to build his case on.

But let’s move on from that and focus on some of his stronger points:

In another branch of my research I’ve studied how children learn at a radically alternative school, the Sudbury Valley School … It’s called a school, but is as different from what we normally think of as ‘school’ as you can imagine. The students — who range in age from four to about 19 — are free all day to do whatever they want, as long as they don’t break any of the school rules. The rules have nothing to do with learning; they have to do with keeping peace and order.

…[T]he school has been in existence for 45 years now and has many hundreds of graduates, who are doing just fine in the real world, not because their school taught them anything, but because it allowed them to learn whatever they wanted. And, in line with Groos’s theory, what children in our culture want to learn when they are free turns out to be skills that are valued in our culture and that lead to good jobs and satisfying lives. When they play, these students learn to read, calculate, and use computers with the same playful passion with which hunter-gatherer kids learn to hunt and gather. They don’t necessarily think of themselves as learning. They think of themselves as just playing, or ‘doing things’, but in the process they are learning.

Even more important than specific skills are the attitudes that they learn. They learn to take responsibility for themselves and their community, and they learn that life is fun, even (maybe especially) when it involves doing things that are difficult. I should add that this is not an expensive school; it operates on less than half as much, per student, as the local state schools and far less than most private schools.

I tried to apply to the Sudbury Valley School at one point, to become a staff member. Suffice it to say, it didn’t work out, but I still hold a big spot in my heart for this school and what they do. Gray’s example of Hunter Gatherer’s seems too messy and filled with confounding factors.

But having read a few of Sudbury’s own books (a requirement if you want to apply to a position there so you can understand their philosophy better) I can say with a better sense of judgment that what Gray says here seems true. Both through the philosophy of the school itself and the books that collect the stories of children who went there.

The person Gray mentions, Karl Groos, was one of the first researchers on the subject of play. He developed a theory later called “practice theory of play”. That by playing more and more animals become better adaptable to their environment and thus were more easily selected for natural selection in positive ways.

I’m not sure how well this translates to humans but Groos apparently was:

He pointed out that humans, having much more to learn than other species, are the most playful of all animals. Human children, unlike the young of other species, must learn different skills depending on the culture in which they are developing.

Therefore, he argued, natural selection in humans favoured a strong drive for children to observe the activities of their elders and incorporate those activities into their play. He suggested that children in every culture, when allowed to play freely, play not only at the skills that are valuable to people everywhere (such as two-legged walking and running), but also at the skills that are specific to their culture (such as shooting bows and arrows or herding cattle).

And so too with Sudbury do children learn play as a form of practice from which to live by and adapt to their environments.

There’s an interesting way that people justify schools: Test scores.

But what good are test scores if you can’t exist outside of tests? The “real test”, as corny as it may sound, is life itself. It’s not the regimented, organized and highly legible experiences of mandatory testing in schools. The tests we face in life are likely to be much more unpredictable and hard to follow then what stares us in the face on our desks.

Gray uses China as a particular example:

In an article entitled ‘The Test Chinese Schools Still Fail’ in The Wall Street Journal in December 2010, Jiang Xueqin, a prominent Chinese educator, wrote: ‘The failings of a rote-memorisation system are well known: lack of social and practical skills, absence of self-discipline and imagination, loss of curiosity and passion for learning…. One way we’ll know we’re succeeding in changing China’s schools is when those scores [on standardised tests] come down.’

Meanwhile, Yong Zhao, an American education professor who grew up in China and specialises in comparing the Chinese educational system with the system in the US, notes that a common term used in China to refer to graduates is gaofen dineng, meaning ‘high scores but low ability’. Because students spend nearly all their time studying, they have little opportunity to be creative, take initiative, or develop physical and social skills: in short, they have little opportunity to play.

I’m tired of the “real world” trope for college students and students. There are plenty of ways that real life (whatever that means) intersects with student life as well. There are ways that student life can be harder than the outside life (consider balancing a job and being a student…well many students likely don’t have to given college debt) and denying these experiences seems nothing but belittling to me.

All of that said, as tired as I am of this trope, the structure of college and anything below it are obviously restricted or liberated in high-minded ways by people who think they know better for others. Self-directed learning, here I agree with Gray quite strongly, better prepares children or anyone for the rough things life can throw at us.

And what happens when Sudbury graduates move on to the “real world”?:

Graduates were continuing to play the activities they had loved as students, with the same joy, passion, and creativity, but now they were making a living at it.

There were professional musicians who had played intensively with music when they were students, and computer programmers who had spent most of their time as students playing with computers.

One woman, who was the captain of a cruise ship, had spent much of her time as a student playing on the water, first with toy boats and then with real ones. A man who was a sought-after machinist and inventor had spent his childhood playfully building things and taking things apart to see how they worked.

Free play allowed these children to develop themselves into more than capable adults. Adults who can handle not only the faults in our state-capitalist system but come through looking not too shabby, honestly. They find their passions, they explore them and they take them to the end. Maybe that won’t guarantee them a career as a CEO or mean they’ll not be a bit weirder than other people in some important ways.

But it’s my hope that that weirdness will spread.

I’m always looking for excuses to mention my favorite anarchist, Voltairine de Cleyre, and her essay Modern Educational Reform is such an excuse:

The really Ideal School, which would not be a compromise, would be a boarding school built in the country, having a farm attached, and workshops where useful crafts might be learned, in daily connection with intellectual training.

It presupposes teachers able to train little children to habits of health, order, and neatness, in the utmost detail, and yet not tyrants or rigid disciplinarians.

In free contact with nature, the children would learn to use their limbs as nature meant, feel their intimate relationship with the growing life of other sorts, form a profound respect for work and an estimate of the value of it; wish to become real doers in the world, and not mere gatherers in of other men’s products; and with the respect for work, the appreciation of work, the desire to work, will come the pride of the true workman who will know how to maintain his dignity and the dignity of what he does.

Of course, that may sound like what Sudbury is, but it was written many decades before.

Voltairine had other things to go off of however, like Fransisco Ferrer and his Modern Schools which serves as the partial basis for the title of her essay.

This leads me to my final point: I think what Gray, Sudbury and Voltairine all suggest here are great foundations for the building of an anti-work education.

An education that builds self-reliance, individuality, versatility and generally speaking, a lack of needing others to meet ones needs. A lack of needing masters, gods, managers, bosses, CEOs, systems, societies, teams and anything else that may or may not interfere with the free action of individuals. Having individuals grow up to be self-reliant means they can work for themselves or freely associate with others on whatever basis gives them pleasure and seems most virtuous.

They can depart at any time and in that way associations become a form of play itself. A way for people to practice free and voluntary actions that are meaningful to all participants involved, but are also seen as fun. Association becomes less about irrational biases, social signaling and social status. Instead, they become much more about the mutuality and reciprocity of each others individuality being optimized. About their individuality being respected by the actions of those they choose to associate with, for however long that may be.

An anti-work education would be done on this basis.

Perhaps it wouldn’t need schools and we could go farther into the realm of unschooling. Why shouldn’t we dismantle the entire institution of schools itself and let children build their own structures and lead their own lives?

Let them abolish work in their own lives!


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