|Why Children Protest Going to School:
More Evolutionary Mismatch
Our schools work against children's instincts, not with them.
|by Peter Gray
Most children in our society protest going to school. Am I telling you something
They protest in many ways - by feigning illness, by dragging their feet in the
morning, by doing the least they can to meet the school's demands (or not doing even
that), and by violating school rules when they can get away with it. Even those who
get high grades in school and enjoy a bit of showing off protest school through their
expressions of cynicism, and sometimes by cheating, which they justify by saying that
it's all just stupid hoops to jump through anyway.1
Why all this protest? Education is a good thing, right? Children need to become
educated to do well in society. Society goes to tremendous expense and trouble to
provide schooling - lots of it! - for every child (whether they want it or not). Are
these kids just spoiled ingrates? If so, then you and I - and essentially everyone
else who ever attended school after schooling became compulsory - were also spoiled
ingrates. We all protested it. In fact, back in the days when schools first became
compulsory kids protested it even more than they do now, even though there was much
less of it then. They had to be beaten with birch sticks to get them to stay in school
and do what the teachers told them to do.
|In my last essay I used the concept of
evolutionary mismatch to explain why infants and young children protest going to bed -
alone, in the dark, at night. The term refers to a lack of congruity between
environmental conditions today and those that existed during the time of our
evolutionary ancestors. For at least 99 per cent of our history as human beings, we
were all hunter-gatherers. Anthropologists have pointed out that the hunter-gatherer
way of life is the only stable way of life our species has ever known. Ever since the
origin of agriculture, a mere 10,000 years ago, we have been caught in an ever-faster
whirlwind of cultural change. From a biological perspective, we are all still
hunter-gatherers, doing the best that we can to cope with the conditions of life that
exist today. In my last essay I pointed out that infants and young children protest
going to bed alone because, in hunter-gatherer days, to do so would likely lead to
death. The monsters under the bed were real. They were jackals, tigers, and other
nighttime predators, prowling around looking for small snacks unprotected by adults.
Instincts and fears that evolved when we were hunter-gatherers have not changed.
Now I want to apply the concept of evolutionary mismatch to the problem of
As I pointed out in another essay2, the means by
which children became educated in hunter-gatherer cultures were the opposite of the
means by which we try to educate children in our schools today. One of the most
cherished values of all hunter-gatherer societies that have ever been studied by
anthropologists is freedom. Hunter-gatherers believed that it is wrong to coerce a
person to do what the person doesn't want to do - and they considered children to be
people. They rarely even made direct suggestions, because that might sound like
coercion. They believed that people, on their own initiative, would learn to
contribute to the welfare of the band, because they would see the wisdom of doing so
and experience the joy of it. For hundreds of thousands of years, that was the
organizing principle of human society.3 The hunting
and gathering life required great personal initiative and creativity, and it required
trust that people would share and cooperate because they wanted to. Hunting and
gathering people seemed to understand that - and they also seemed to understand that
children would best grow up to be free, trusting, cooperative, creative adults if they
were permitted freedom throughout their childhood, in the context of the moral
community and models that the band provided.
Throughout our immense hunter-gatherer period, children were free to play and
explore all day, day after day, and in that way to educate themselves. Education was
always self-directed. In fact, the reason children are naturally so playful, curious,
and social is because those traits were the motivating powers behind children's
abilities to educate themselves. Those "childish" traits were promoted and
shaped, by natural selection, precisely to serve the function of education, in
conditions of childhood freedom.
||So, when we force children to sit in their seats and listen to a
teacher and do just what they are told, every bone in their body, and every neuron and
muscle, resists. Their body tells them, "This is wrong. I need to control my own
actions; I need to play at the skills that seem to be important to me; I need to
explore the questions that I'm curious about, not ones that bore me; I need to pay
attention to what people in the real world are doing, not to what this teacher, who
doesn't even seem to be part of the world outside of school, is telling me. If I don't
do these things that I need to do, I will not grow up to be a competent, dignified
human being." In hunter-gatherer times, a child who did not feel so strongly
driven to run his or her own life and education would have grown up to be a misfit.
So, our children have instincts that drive them to educate themselves through their
free play, exploration, and socializing. But we have schools that insist that they
give up that freedom and do what they are told to do. The schools have never worked
well, and even in theory can't work well, because they always pit the school against
the child and thereby evoke resistance.
What are we going to do about this evolutionary mismatch?
It seems to me that we have two choices. We can continue stumbling along with our
coercive system of schooling and continue to fight our children's instincts, using
drugs or whatever other means we must to dampen their cries for freedom. Or, we can
adopt what to most people today seems like a radical, even crazy approach to
education, but which to hunter-gatherers seemed like common sense. This radical
approach is to let our children educate themselves, while we provide the conditions
that make that possible.
The idea that children can direct their own education, and can do it well, seems
absurd to most people today; we are so conditioned to the idea that education requires
top-down direction and coercion. But, for those who are willing to take a look at it,
the evidence is overwhelming that the hunter-gatherer approach to education can work
beautifully in our society today. I've described that evidence in previous essays.4 We can build play and learning centers - similar to the
Sudbury Valley School - that provide children with the resources they need to educate
themselves. The essential resources include access to lots of children of mixed ages
to play with, access to the tools that are crucial to our culture, and access to
caring adults - all within the context of a moral community that embodies the highest
values of our society. Amazing as it may seem to some, this can all be done at far
less expense and trouble than that extracted by our current system of coercive
schooling. And this sort of institution - unlike our standard schools - is filled with
excitement and joy.
1. See Cheating in Science, Part II: School is a Breeding Ground for Cheaters
2. See Children Educate Themselves III: The Wisdom of Hunter-Gatherers
3. For much more on hunter-gatherers, their way of life, and their means of education, see:
Gray, P. (2009). Play as the foundation for hunter-gatherer social existence. American Journal
of Play, 1, 479-522.
4. See Children Educate Themselves IV: Lessons from Sudbury Valley
Note to readers: Do your children protest school? Did you? What forms do (or did) the
protests take? How have you dealt with the contradiction between the human drive for freedom
and our coercive school system? What do you think we could do, as a society, to resolve this
contradiction? I'm interested in your experiences and thoughts.
comments and questions here
Peter Gray, Ph.D., a research
professor of psychology at Boston College, is a specialist in developmental and evolutionary
psychology. He is the author of an introductory textbook, Psychology,
and Free to Learn, a book
about children's natural ways of educating themselves, and how adults can help (Basic Books,
2013). For more information and articles, visit his blog Freedom to Learn.
Published on November 10, 2011 by Peter Gray in Freedom to Learn.
© Peter Gray, Reprinted with permission of the author.
|More Articles on
Learning More Articles by Peter Gray