Psychology Professor, Massachusetts, USA
Editor’s Note: The following was originally published as the Prologue in the author’s book, Free to Learn. It was submitted by the author.
“Go to hell!” The words hit me hard. I had on occasion been damned to hell before, but never so seriously. A colleague, frustrated by my thickheaded lack of agreement with an obvious truth, or a friend, responding to some idiotic thing I had said. But in those cases “go to hell” was just a way to break the tension, to end an argument that was going nowhere. This time it was serious. This time I felt, maybe, I really would go to hell. Not the afterlife hell of fire and brimstone, which I don’t believe in, but the hell that can accompany life in this world when you are burned by the knowledge that you have failed someone you love, who needs you, who depends on you.
The words were spoken by my nine-year-old son, Scott, in the principal’s office of the public elementary school. They were addressed not only to me but to all seven of us big, smart adults who were lined up against him—the principal, Scott’s two classroom teachers, the school’s guidance counselor, a child psychologist who worked for the school system, his mother (my late wife), and me. We were there to present a united front, to tell Scott in no uncertain terms that he must attend school and must do there whatever he was told by his teachers to do. We each sternly said our piece, and then Scott, looking squarely at us all, said the words that stopped me in my tracks.
I immediately began to cry. I knew at that instant that I had to be on Scott’s side, not against him. I looked through my tears to my wife and saw that she, too, was crying, and through her tears I could see that she was thinking and feeling exactly as I was. We both knew then that we had to do what Scott had long wanted us to do—remove him not just from that school but from anything that was anything like that school. To him, school was prison, and he had done nothing to deserve imprisonment.
That meeting in the principal’s office was the culmination of years of meetings and conferences at the school, at which my wife and I would hear the latest accounts of our son’s misbehavior. His misbehavior was particularly disturbing to the school personnel because it was not the usual kind of naughtiness that teachers have come to expect from exuberant boys confined against their will. It was more like planned rebellion. He would systematically and deliberately behave in ways contrary to the teachers’ directions. When the teacher instructed students to solve arithmetic problems in a particular way, he would invent a different way to solve them. When it came time to learn about punctuation and capital letters, he would write like the poet e.e. cummings, putting capitals and punctuation wherever he wanted to or not using them at all. When an assignment seemed pointless to him, he would say so and refuse to do it. Sometimes—and this had become increasingly frequent—he would, without permission, leave the classroom and, if not forcibly restrained, walk home. We eventually found a school for Scott that worked. A school as unlike “school” as you can imagine.
Children come into the world burning to learn and genetically programmed with extraordinary capacities for learning. They are little learning machines. Within their first four years or so they absorb an unfathomable amount of information and skills without any instruction. They learn to walk, run, jump, and climb. They learn to understand and speak the language of the culture into which they are born, and with that they learn to assert their will, argue, amuse, annoy, befriend, and ask questions. They acquire an incredible amount of knowledge about the physical and social world around them. All of this is driven by their inborn instincts and drives, their innate playfulness and curiosity. Nature does not turn off this enormous desire and capacity to learn when children turn five or six. We turn it off with our coercive system of schooling. The biggest, most enduring lesson of school is that learning is work, to be avoided when possible. My son’s words in the principal’s office changed the direction of my professional life as well as my personal life. I am, and was then, a professor of biopsychology, a researcher interested in the biological foundations of mammalian drives and emotions. I had been studying the roles of certain hormones in modulating fear in rats and mice, and I had recently begun looking into the brain mechanisms of maternal behavior in rats. That day in the principal’s office triggered a series of events that gradually changed the focus of my research. I began to study education from a biological perspective. At first my study was motivated primarily by concern for my son. I wanted to make sure we weren’t making a mistake by allowing him to follow his own educational path rather than a path dictated by professionals. But gradually, as I became convinced that Scott’s self-directed education was going beautifully, my interest turned to children in general and to the human biological underpinnings of education.
What is it about our species that makes us the cultural animal? In other words, what aspects of human nature cause each new generation of human beings, everywhere, to acquire and build upon the skills, knowledge, beliefs, theories, and values of the previous generation? This question led me to examine education in settings outside of the standard school system, for example, at the remarkable non-school my son was attending. Later I looked into the growing, worldwide “unschooling” movement to understand how the children in those families become educated. I read the anthropological literature and surveyed anthropologists to learn everything I could about children’s lives and learning in hunter-gatherer cultures—the kinds of cultures that characterized our species for 99 percent of our evolutionary history. I reviewed the entire body of psychological and anthropological research on children’s play, and my students and I conducted new research aimed at understanding how children learn through play.
Such work led me to understand how children’s strong drives to play and explore serve the function of education, not only in hunter-gatherer cultures but in our culture as well. It led to new insights concerning the environmental conditions that optimize children’s abilities to educate themselves through their own playful means. It led me to see how, if we had the will, we could free children from coercive schooling and provide learning centers that would maximize their ability to educate themselves without depriving them of the rightful joys of childhood.
 Available in several formats at http://skyler.link/amznfree2learn