>One of the popular memes of our time is that “All I really need to know, I learned in Kindergarten,” a childishly charming, if mind-clouding thought. This phrase first gained popular acclaim when it was used as the title of a book of essays by Robert Fulghum, and what an idyllic and untroubled childhood he must have had – and yet how incredibly boring it sounds. My own was filled with torment, strife, struggle, hurt feelings, and taunts. All alleviated by the occasional earned success, love of parents and friends, opportunity to lead the group, and sense of playful adventure. All of the things, in short, which allow us to become civilized adults. For those of you who may be unfamiliar, the opening of the book begins:
All I really need to know about how to live and what to do and how to be I learned in kindergarten. Wisdom was not at the top of the graduate school mountain, but there in the sand pile at school.
These are the things I learned:
* Share everything.
* Play fair.
* Don’t hit people.
* Put things back where you found them.
* Clean up your own mess.
* Don’t take things that aren’t yours.
* Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody.
* Wash your hands before you eat.
* Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you.
* Live a balanced life – learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some.
* Take a nap every afternoon.
* When you go out in the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands and stick together.
* Be aware of wonder. Remember the little seed in the Styrofoam cup: the roots go down and the plant goes up and nobody really knows how or why, but we are all like that.
* Goldfish and hamsters and white mice and even the little seed in the Styrofoam cup – they all die. So do we.
* And then remember the Dick-and-Jane books and the first word you learned – the biggest word of all – LOOK.
Everything you need to know is in there somewhere. The Golden Rule and love and basic sanitation. Ecology and politics and equality and sane living.
Take any one of those items and extrapolate it into sophisticated adult terms and apply it to your family life or your work or government or your world and it holds true and clear and firm. Think what a better world it would be if we all – the whole world – had cookies and milk at about 3 o’clock in the afternoon and then lay down with our blankies for a nap. Or if all governments had as a basic policy to always put things back where they found them and to clean up their own mess.
And it is still true, no matter how old you are, when you go out in the world, it is best to hold hands and stick together.
Subtly disguised within this passage are both our modern society’s navel-gazing fascination with childhood and also the deep American streak of anti-intellectualism. While some such thoughts are spurred by the yearning for a simpler and less-complicated life yielding to them is a danger that our society often fails to recognize. In Kindergarten we are passed between a series of all-powerful authorities who guide our actions and (we hope) protect us from harm. In childhood these authorities may be parents, teachers, and other adults. Their eventual goal is to help us grow into reasoning, mature adults – heirs of the liberty that allows our civilization to thrive and capable of accepting the responsibility it needs to survive.
Yet this passage tempts us with the feeling of nurturing safety that comes when we pass on the responsibility to make decisions to others. Who do adults go to for this feeling? Sadly, it usually ends up being the state and its enforcement bureaucracy.
Whenever the state interacts in our life to direct and limit our actions, we become less like adults and more like children. One of the key differences between adults and children is that as adults we are capable and responsible of directing our own actions – and that we have the liberty to do so. When we give up too much of our adulthood we resort to a state of savagery, and lose those best civilizing influences among us. Thus, what appears to be a comforting world-view eventually ends in subjugation of a savage citizenry to an ‘ever-protecting’ state.
I don’t have time to go over every phrase, and to be fair some actually make sense, such as “living a balanced life.” But I some thoughts struck me as key bricks which build up the Berlin wall of the essay’s message.
“Wisdom,” Fulghum states, “was not at the top of the graduate school mountain, but there in the sandbox at nursery school.” One wonders why throughout history tribes have been guided by their elders rather than a council of the supposedly innately-wise children. It harkens back to Rousseau’s statement that humanity is everywhere born free and gives in to chains. In contrast freedom is achieved by man through his creation of workable social structures, and those structures require the occasional submission to experience. Wisdom is not given, but gained.
“Share everything,” how simple and romantic it sounds until we face the problem of deciding what is one’s fair share. Children always seem to each have their own opinions about that (and what happens when teacher isn’t around to make sure that one can keep one’s own project one slaved over.)
“Play fair.” Fairness, hopefully is defined by the will of the students. But what about when the current will of the students is morally wrong. Sometimes teacher must be there to protect individual students from the will of their classmates – a mob is still a mob whether they are for you or against you. Sometimes teacher’s rules are onerous and are designed to make her life easier, not for the benefit of the students – law is often but the tyrant’s will. That’s why we have parental boards full of wise adults – to keep teacher in line.
“Don’t hit people.” What human heart has been willing to stand by while the class bully torments one’s friend. There’s another childhood lesson too: “Don’t be a tattle-tale.” How do these mesh? Should we always bring others in or should we “clean up our own mess?”
“Don’t take things that aren’t yours.” Presumably ‘without asking,’ otherwise how would we learn to ‘”share.” The ability to balance these two is apparently part of that innate “wisdom” that Kindergartners possess.
“Warm cookies and milk are good for you.” Best hope they don’t have trans-fat. Is the better lesson to learn to enjoy cookies and milk, or when our parents tell us to finish our vegetables? ‘He who does not answer to the rudder, will answer to the rock.’
“Hold hand and stick together.” Unless one wants to go off adventuring on one’s own or just have some time to oneself. There’s no room for individual achievement or heroic greatness in Kindergarten; that is supposed to wait until later. Stick with the herd, so it’s easier for teacher to keep track.
“The roots go down and the plant goes up and nobody really knows how or why, but we are all like that.” Mysticism, pure an simple. Without asking why the plant goes up or down we might as well be animals living the life of apes with no past, present, or future. The whole march of mankind is based on not accepting what happens but asking why it does and if it is good. Animals accept their world, mankind makes it. Oh, and if we bother to ask our unwise elders, they might be able to tell us a thing or two. “Learn from your parents,” is conspicuously absent on this list.
Many of these points were well-made by Judith Martin in her chardonnay-dry style in one of my favorite essays:
Kindergarten is an excellent institution, in its way, and Miss Manners can think of few better solutions to such problems as keeping five-year olds off the streets and producing handmade pot holders. But she does not see why she, having reached what we shall call a certain age, must continue to be subjected to its rules and practices in what ought to be a larger, if not more sophisticated society.
In kindergarten, nobody has a last name, and few even have full use of their given names. Everyone has a simple nickname, and must always be telling everyone else what it is. We make quite a point, then, of addressing them correctly, and of helping others to do the same to us, as in “Hi, I’m Cindy.” Naturally, nobody has titles – even many of the teachers have ceased to be “Miss Twinkles” and become “Hi, I’m Pam.”
In kindergarten, we all wear simple, durable play clothes that are practical, mostly in bright colors, and sporty. We dress up only as a big joke. And those of us learning to read like to have signs across the fronts of our shirts and our possessions marked with their names – lunch bags that say LUNCH BAG, and so on.
In kindergarten, we are not expected to go very long without juice and cookies, and so we can eat at our desks and wherever we wander, and we always have simple snacks available for breaks. We prefer to drink from heavy mugs marked with our names or pictures of our favorite cartoon characters.
In kindergarten, we have Show and Tell, in which we are assured that nothing is too trivial or too personal to command the attention of all, who must treat any revelation, no matter how pointless, with rapt attention. We are assured that if we blurt out everything that is on our minds, we will feel better.
We may also have general conversation in kindergarten, but it should be about things that everyone understands, such as sports or television programs or how we feel about our food.
In kindergarten, exercise is very important, and anyone who does not want to play is cajoled into doing so.
In kindergarten, creativity is important, and so we praise and accept anybody’s efforts and consider them all equally worthy.
In kindergarten, we must all learn to work together and to share in the rewards, and anybody who wants to go off alone or who piles up more than his or her share must be gently led back to the group to let everyone else participate and catch up.
Most of all, we must learn, in kindergarten, to like and accept everyone else. Not only do we not want loners here, but we want to show everyone that if you make an effort, you can like anyone at all, and all of them more or less equally. We assume that dislikes are only a matter of prejudices and misunderstandings, and that any people if placed together in pleasant circumstances can get along as well as any other people.
In kindergarten, if we discover anyone who simply cannot learn and flourish within these standards, we suggest a little outside help, because we know it must be a sign of emotional problems.
Miss Manners does not quarrel with any of these rules, under which kindergartens have flourished for some time now. She only please that, having put in her time, she be promoted into a society where formality, distinctions, subtleties, individuality, standards, and eccentricities are permitted.
To reap the benefits of civilized life, we must be willing to accept the responsibilities that make it possible, no matter how tempting trite philosophies and savagery concealed by simple statements may be. And the biggest word of all isn’t “LOOK,” but “WHY?” Children look, adults see.