On the Wildness of Children
by Carol Black
“In Wildness is the preservation of the World.” Thoreau says it 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.
What does this mean? Turner has tracked down a reference in Thoreau’s “Fact-book” to the word “wild” as “the past participle of to will, self-willed.” The wild, then, is the self-willed, that which lives out of its own intrinsic nature rather than bowing to some extrinsic force. But we are also confused, Turner says, about what Thoreau meant by “world:”
Near the end of “Walking” he says: ‘We have to be told that the Greeks called the world κόσμος, Beauty, or Order, but we do not see clearly why they did so, and we esteem it at best only a curious philological fact.’ Our modern word is cosmos, and the most recent philological studies suggest the meaning of harmonious order. So in the broadest sense we can say that Thoreau’s “In Wildness is the preservation of the World” is about the relation of free, self-willed, and self-determinate “things” with the harmonious order of the cosmos. Thoreau claims that the first preserves the second.
Okay, then. So what does that mean, and what do we do about it?
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.
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 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.
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 (never mind that studies show that children don’t grow as well in fluorescent light as they do in sunlight; did we really need to be told that?) Some children grieve longer than others, gazing through the slats of the blinds at the bright world outside; some resist longer than others, tuning out the nice teacher, thwarting her when they can, refusing to sit still when she tells them to (this resistance, we are told, is a “disorder.”) But 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. Our “standards” proclaim that children will understand the intricate workings of ecosystems, the principles of evolution and adaptation, but one in four will leave school not knowing the earth revolves around the sun.
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. Our minds are evolved to contain vast amounts of information about the world that gave us birth, and to pass this information on easily from one generation to the next.
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. At a trailhead in a coastal mountain range, a busload of nine-year-olds erupts carrying (and dropping) pink slips of paper describing a “treasure hunt” in which they will be asked to distinguish “items found in nature” from “items not found in nature.” (We discover several plastic objects hidden by their teachers along the trail near the parking lot; they don’t have time, of course, to walk the whole two miles to the waterfall.) By a willow wetland brimming with life, a middle-school “biodiversity” class is herded outdoors, given ten minutes to watch birds, and then told to come up with a scientific hypothesis and an experimental protocol for testing it. One of the boys proposes an experiment that involves nailing shut the beaks of wild ducks.
There is some dawning awareness these days of the insanity of raising children almost entirely indoors, but as usual our society’s response to its own insanity is to create artificial programs designed to solve our artificial problems in the most artificial way possible. We charter nonprofit organizations, sponsor conferences, design curricula and after-school programs and graphically appealing interactive websites, all of which create the truly nightmarish impression that to get your kid outside you would first need to file for 501(c)3 status, apply for a federal grant, and hire an executive director and program coordinator. We try to address what's lacking in our compulsory curriculum by making new lists of compulsions.
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 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.
If professional educators can’t understand how kids outside of school learn so much without being taught, it may be because they don’t understand how this kind of attention works. They shut it down as soon as the bell rings. In school children must turn off their powers of observation, they must narrow their attention and “focus,” which means they must not notice what's happening around them. They are told not to look out of windows. They are told not to let their eyes — or their minds — wander. A child who maintains a state of open attention in the classroom will be diagnosed with an attention “disorder” and drugged.
Of course “open attention” can’t teach you much if you’re confined for twelve years in a deprived learning environment: a cinderblock room with half-closed blinds. (One study has even suggested eliminating colorful bulletin boards from kindergarten classrooms in order to help children stay “on task.”) Once you have been shut away from the world like this, and once you have turned off your natural state of open attention to the world, you don’t learn much when you’re finally let outside. Everything is a blur; everything bores you.
Crucially, a state of “open attention” cannot be compelled. Adults in many non-industrialized cultures understand that the mind itself is wild, self-willed; it cannot be forced. The mind must turn its attention outward to the world of its own volition, opening, seeking, expanding, creating its own connections with the fractal movement of a fern frond unfurling or a tree reaching for sunlight and water. Like a snail moving out of its shell, it pulls back and shuts down when threatened, blocked, pushed. This is considered obvious in many cultures; it’s common sense, something everyone knows. 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: “The Savages,” Jesuit missionary Paul le Jeune complained in 1633, “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 principal 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:
If children learn to normalize dominance and non-consent within the context of education, then non-consent becomes a normalized part of the ‘tool kit’ of those who have and wield power… This is unthinkable within Nishnaabeg intelligence.
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.
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.
Mini Aodla Freeman says when she first came South from the Arctic, she couldn’t understand the way the Qallunaat, the white people, talked to their children: always saying NO, as if they were dogs.
A bear’s wild nature is evolved, over hundreds of thousands of years, to carry the impulse to roam at will over a territory of hundreds of square miles. When you put a bear in a cage, it paces relentlessly back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, until its paws bleed. The bleeding paws tell the zookeeper, if she is listening, a story; a story of wide open spaces, of rushing rivers teeming with fish, of wriggling grubs in the moist soil under rocks, of the fragrance of wild blueberries carried for miles on the wind.
Some animals can live in cages. Squirrels and rats, pigeons and gulls, adapt and thrive under almost any conditions, no matter how far removed from their original nature. The baby squirrels we nursed at the wildlife center would wrap their little fingers around the plastic syringe of milk and suck with an indomitable will to survive. But other wild animals cannot adapt; they become dysfunctional, traumatized; they “fail to thrive.” You can find their stories in the zookeepers’ manuals. They pace till their paws bleed, they regurgitate their food, they pull out their own fur or pluck out their own feathers. They become abnormally aggressive, abnormally fearful. Or they just sicken and die.
Some of our children, it turns out, are more like pigeons and squirrels, and some are more like bears. Some of them adapt to the institutional walls we put around them, and some of them pace till their paws bleed. The bleeding of these children, if we listen, can tell us many stories about ourselves. The boy drugged with Adderall tells us a story of forests full of trees to climb, rivers to swim and paddle, open meadows to run across. The girl who slowly starves herself tells us of a family and clan in which acceptance is a birthright rather than something we compete for with thinness and good grades. The kids who fight back, who become defiant to the point of self-destruction, tell us a story of freedom from authoritarian control, from petty rewards and punishments, from endless surveillance and evaluation. The kids who turn to drugs tell us of feelings of warmth, of energy, of intimacy, of peace that they don’t find in their lives of never-ending scheduled competitive busy-work.
For decades our model of drug addiction has been based on research done on laboratory rats provided with a lever they could press to deliver water laced with heroin or cocaine. Researchers found the rats would press the lever and consume the drug until it killed them, and they concluded that the drug itself was the cause of the addictive behavior. But then a psychologist named Bruce Alexander noticed something. The rats who killed themselves in this way were isolated in an unnatural environment, a barren Skinner box where there was nothing rewarding to do but self-stimulate with drugs. When they were placed in a more varied, more natural setting, able to interact freely with the environment and with other rats, their drug use was reduced by more than three quarters. In other words, if you gave them a life they wanted to live, and a world they wanted to live in, they did not destroy themselves. Or, as author Johann Hari has put it:
“It’s not you. It’s your cage.”
Our DNA is a text, a vast, intricate sacred text, carrying information not only about ourselves but about the Kosmos we were created for. We all love clear water; we all love blue sky. Our natures, our wild human natures, have evolved, like the bear’s, over hundreds of thousands of years in an intricately detailed harmony with the infinitely detailed order and beauty of the Kosmos.
Is this a romantic “noble savage” argument? Does it mean that children in their “wild” state are perfect little angels? No. What it means is that no matter how smart we think we are, we are a species of mammal, and like every other species of mammal, we have a natural history, an evolved nature — a wild nature — that we disrespect at our peril.
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. Human societies, of course, are more variable than animal societies; there is a breathtaking variety to the colors and sounds and stories that we see in the thousands of cultures around the world. But beneath the many differences, there are deep commonalities that appear in peoples all around the world and all through human history right up until the explosive dislocations of the modern era.
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 do not see children confined indoors for twelve years of their childhood, we do not see children segregated with same-age individuals under the care of strangers, we do not see a state of perpetual competition in which children are measured and ranked against their peers and in which “helping your neighbor” equals “cheating.” We do not see parents having to choose between raising their children alone with no support and paying strangers to do it for them. We do not see young people starving themselves, cutting themselves, killing themselves.
No human society is utopia; no human society will ever eliminate suffering and conflict and grief. But the severe and epidemic pathologies that have developed within our modern institutions –– the bullying, the eating disorders, the depression, the anxiety, the compulsive self-harm –– are as distinct and identifiable as the pathologies that develop in zoo animals.
In fact, they are the same.
Like the old joke says, there are two kinds of people in the world: the kind who divide everything into two categories, and the kind who don’t.
It’s a good joke, like all good jokes, because it’s true. For Indigenous people, of course, there is no conception of “wildness” or indeed of “Nature.” There is only the world, of which human beings are an integral part.
Thoreau, despite his many great contributions–– from his detailed work as a naturalist to the philosophy of civil disobedience that inspired two of the greatest liberation movements of the twentieth century –– remained mired in the Eurocentric dualisms of “wildness” and “civilization.” He was fascinated by the idea of “The Indian,” but had difficulty comprehending the actual Penobscot people he encountered, who declined to fit into the categories of “savage” or “noble savage.” And he was a bit thrown by the realization that the threatening, exhilarating, awe-inspiring “wilderness” he encountered in the vast forests of Maine was, to the Penobscot, simply home.
This same psychological split, or dualism, drives Euro-western understandings of children and learning today. We see our children as savages or as noble savages, as innocent angels or as little demons out to drive us crazy, deprive us of sleep, ruin our sex lives, destroy our peace in restaurants and on airplanes. As John Holt famously said, we see them as “a mixture of expensive nuisance, slave, and superpet.” The one thing we have a hard time doing is seeing children as human beings very much like ourselves.
But this is not true of everybody, everywhere. The same people who do not see themselves as “above” nature but as within it, tend not to see themselves as “above” children but alongside them. They see no hard line between work and play, between teacher and student, between learning and life. It is a possibility worth considering that this is more than coincidence.
Children, like the natural world, do not benefit from our dualisms. 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 likable intelligent person like anybody else.
But the dualistic vision runs deep in our education system, which, as Peter Gray has pointed out, divides life into “work” (which is unpleasant but important) and “play” (which is enjoyable but without significance), human beings into “teachers” (who are in control in order to impart their knowledge) and “students” (who must be controlled in order to receive it.) The underlying belief that somebody always has to be in charge is stubbornly persistent, woven into our thinking at a very deep level. There always has to be a subject and an object, a master and a slave. We have forgotten how to live and let live.
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.
We no longer frame people as either “civilized”or “savage,” but as “educated” or “uneducated,” “developed” or “developing” (our modern terms for the same thing). But we retain the paternalistic attitudes of our forebears, toward our children and toward the “childlike” adults we find all over the world — a paternalism in which the veneer of benevolence is underpinned by the constant threat of violent force.
Control is always so seductive, at least to the "developed" ("civilized") mind. It seems so satisfying, so efficient, so effective, so potent. In the short run, in some ways, it is. But it creates a thousand kinds of blowback, from depressed rebellious children to storms surging over our coastlines to guns and bombs exploding in cities around the world.
We are engaged in a vast dystopian project of one-upping our Creator, of treating the Kosmos 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. 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 for, and the wildest of our children––the ones they have to put on Ritalin, the ones they have to put on Prozac–– know it. 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.
In wildness is the preservation of the world.