Sunday, January 1, 2017

Curing our children of wanton behavior

Newton, by William Blake, at the Tate

To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.

A robin redbreast in a cage
Puts all heaven in a rage.

William Blake, from "Auguries of Innocence"

We fear wilderness, and understandably so. We prefer edged lawns to thistle, Lord Tennyson to William Blake, textbooks to open and changeable sources.

A wild child fails in our culture. Thankfully, we do a pretty good job at school, curing our children of natural impulses, of wanton behavior.


Wanton is an old word, now infused with ill will. It comes from wan, or lack (as in "for want of"), and togen, or pull. The roots literally mean "unpulled." To be wanton means to be unbridled. The word used to mean "sportive or frolicsome, as children or young animals."

As we dive deeper and deeper into a culture of efficiency, a culture dependent on artificial standards and goals, a culture that defines joy on its terms, we have less tolerance for the wild ones.


The wild ones got us here:

Isaac Newton (the same man who predicted the Apocalypse may fall as early as 2060, a man obsessed with alchemy and the Bible) "seem[ed] to have shown little promise in academic work. His school reports described him as 'idle' and 'inattentive'."

Einstein, an excellent math and science student despite the myths, believed that “it is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education."

The history of science is littered with bright folks sticking things into places where they don't belong, just to see what happens. If you already know what's going to happen, what's the point?

School is designed to protect the order of things, to keep us safe, to tell us what is going to happen.

Except for science class.

Sparks fly, test tubes erupt and spew off foam and flames, white flies spontaneously generate among rows of peas and carrots that look so incongruous in a government building.

Stains on the ceiling, cracks in the world, and incident reports in central administration remind us that wilderness exists, even in a building where young lives are pre-planned, curricula set, protocols enforced.

If you teach, guide your lambs to the ledge:
  • If you teach language arts, push the wilderness. Read Blake with passion; you grasp that all this is miraculous, and that all this will end. Let your children see you bleed.
  • If you teach history, let the smells and sounds of battle waft into your room, let fear and hope swirl in your room as it swirls around us in the world. Let your children taste the blood that has spilled.
  • If you teach physical education, push a child to feel what reckless abandon feels like, when the body is allowed to break from the human forms of chairs and desks and burst into motion. Let the children fall and bleed.

We do not shed enough blood in the classroom, and there are good reasons for that. We fear lawsuits, we fear unruly classrooms, we fear chaos.

I think we most fear the wilderness. Order is seductive, civilization seduces us all. Schools produce the graduates we deserve.

Civilization matters, of course. I like my hot showers, my iPod, my tap water, my clothes. I like order and the daily insulation from death and entropy. I do not plan to paint anarchistic slogans on my walls.

I do hope, though, that I am a little bit more courageous sharing the wild with my students this coming year.

Yes, I know, we adore Blake now--he is safely dead, tucked in a dead and long ago age we call Romanticism. If you can read Blake without wanting to scream and run off naked into a July thunderstorm on the edge of the ocean, you're missing the point.

The Newton page predicting 2060 as our end is from, fittingly, Armageddon Online here.

Yep, a repost.

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