…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…

…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…

…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…

…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…

…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…

…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…

…The revolution will not take place in a classroom.

In wildness is the preservation of the world.

-Carol Black, “On the Wildness of Children”

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