Into the Heads of Babes and Sucklings:
Modern Thought for Tiny Tots
It started with a simple ride in the car. My boys Luke and Matthew, were in the back seat when my wife mentioned a family friend named Peter. At this, my six year old (Luke) perked up and, eager to display his rather traditionalist education, exclaimed, "Peter was a disciple!"
To which our younger son Matthew (not to be outdone) added, "And he was a rabbit!"
Now here was an explanation of our "Easter-event" beliefs to make Bishop John Shelby Spong proud. The totemic links between the mythic Apostle and Beatrix Potter's Jungian archetype were simply too many to be ignored: the temptation to eat the Forbidden Fruit in the Garden; the twittering birds (angels) which appear to Peter and exhort him to exert himself when caught in a snare (a metaphor for sin); Peter hiding in the water can from Mr. MacGregor (a mythic symbol of baptism); the clothes taken and hung up on a tree as a scarecrow (an image of the mythic crucifixion of Peter); the escape through the "narrow gate" into the eschatological Banquet and the Communion of Saints (symbolized by Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail). Here, surely--in the fertility myths of taboo, struggle, conflict and ritual meal--are to be found the true origins of Catholicism's tale of the "Chief Apostle" and of Christendom's ancient association of the Easter Bunny with the Christ event. Indeed, Matthew's analysis of the shadowy figure oral tradition calls "Peter" was virtually indistinguishable from a Spongian exegesis. And it was coming from a four year old!
Now to compare Spongian theology with that of a four year old naturally invites only one conclusion: Our children are ready for far more sophisticated modern thought than I had previously assumed. Therefore, I hereby propose some core elements for an accelerated program aimed at conferring on preschoolers the same benefits of modern scholarship of which I, a graduate of American higher education, am such an obvious beneficiary. Such a curriculum would necessarily include all that is essential to a full grip on the modern mind, but in terms accessible to the four year old.
Take for example, a complex statement such as "Moral conceptual structures which postulate an objectivist worldview as an epistemological basis for simplistic standards of "right" and "wrong," are no longer acceptable to thinking individuals. Such conceptual structures are merely the method for imposing subjectively held values on society when, in fact, they are valid only for the individual possessing those conceptual structures." Clearly, this is not a statement with which many children will resonate. But when re-stated in the simple words, "I'm rubber and you're glue. Everything you say bounces off me and sticks to you!" we have suddenly created a powerful tool for impressing young minds with the very latest intellectual trends in American academe.
As should be obvious, this is a proposal with far-reaching implications, since it promises to be applicable in a wide variety of disciplines and can employ pedagogies adapted to many different learning styles. Consider the kinetic learner and the problem of creating a K-8 deconstructionist curriculum. Obviously abstractions such as "semiotic stoppages" and "interpretive communities" would be lost even on the most verbal child. But the kinetic learner has been hitherto regarded as being at a still greater disadvantage in this respect. Such children must often spend years in intensive pedagogical therapy till they are finally disabused of the notion that phrases like "Don't hit someone littler than you" have "meaning". Indeed, such therapy is often incomplete until graduation from masters or doctoral studies. But a K-8 deconstructionist curriculum which eschews abstraction in favor of a more "hands-on" pedagogical approach can have immediate results with children of Kindergarten age.
Such a curriculum would entail the use of group learning activities. Students would be arranged by the instructor into an "interpretive community." A certain student (preferably one who seems to indicate an unwholesome parental influence at odds with that community, such as religious superstition, patriarchal attitudes, unacceptable physical variations, etc.) would then be selected for a Deconstruction Learning Opportunity (DLO). The DLO is designed to encourage members of the interpretive community to express their cognitive dissonance with the deviant student through vigorous kinetic contact or by the deconstruction of the selected student's homework projects or personal fetishes (i.e. rabbit's feet, photographs of parental figures, crucifixes, etc.) The elegance of such a curriculum is that it can be ongoing and concurrent with other learning units throughout the year. The benefit is that this will strongly reinforce an intuitive understanding of the fundamental relationships of power upon which society is predicated--something no abstraction could ever hope to accomplish. Moreover, it will internalize in the members of the interpretive community a sense of personal power and autonomy which they will very likely continue to explore outside school. And, of course, it will encourage the deviant student to apply him or herself to the formation of values congruent with higher learning.
Which brings us to the next curricular issue: multiculturalism. Of course, this is a topic which has long lent itself to bourgeois interpretation. Indeed, under the influence of the Christian hegemony still latent in American society, multiculturalism might have threatened to embody a static "live and let live" attitude which allows very little room for the social dynamism postulated by Hegelian and Marxist theoreticians. This attitude is based on the crude belief that "ties of common humanity" somehow constitute a more valid basis for community than the more self-actualizing model of "Victim Community in Class Conflict with the Dominant Cultural 'Norm'".
Now an abstraction like "common humanity" is very difficult to justify rationally, much less teach to children who can neither see nor understand the concept of an extended human family. And, as it happens, current thought is retreating from such an unworkable ideology in favor of conceptual models which are rooted in more concrete realities.
For the purposes of K-12 pedagogies, these concrete realities are grounded in the tangible fact that students vary widely in physiognomy, speech and dress. This being the case, students should be encouraged to view these characteristics (and not some vague religious concept like "common humanity") as the realistic defining traits of the "truly human". They should be directed to use the skills acquired in the ongoing unit on deconstruction to form intramural ethnic interpretive communities in order to explore the ways in which American culture oppresses them with demands to "eat their vegetables" and "respect others"--demands which (according to the latest intellectual trends in academe) are designed solely to preserve the stability of mainstream majority culture. This multicultural community formation may be done first by the use of reinforcers which affirm the uniqueness of each ethnic interpretive community in simple and rhythmic terms accessible to young children (Team chants such as "We're Number One! Hey! We're Number One!" or "Brown eyes good! Blue eyes bad!" or Paul de Man's favorite, "Seig Heil! Seig Heil!") Later, young adolescents should be encouraged to identify more closely with their interpretive community by means of some insignia (red or blue handkerchiefs, for example) or a self-chosen group label such as, say, "Jet," "Shark," "Crip," "Blood," or "Klan." This will lead to further vigorous kinetic interaction between communities and will provide additional "hands-on" lessons in the ideology of multiculturalism as it is currently viewed in widening segments of American academe.
Finally, of course, there is the critical need to accustom young minds to the gender feminist ideology currently regnant in many circles of American academe. Fortunately, this task is made much easier by the fact that indigenous elementary school culture already contains many elements which can be directed by the astute pedagogue into a basic grasp of this all-important ideology. Indeed, many feminist teachers have already exploited what may be called the "Cootie Connection." By means of this, 5 and 6 year old pre-women might be drawn apart from the oppressive influence of male students for a half hour each day and guided through "empowerment experiences." These experiences would encourage pre-women to express the ideology of gender conflict via simple poetry ("Boys have cooties./Boys have worms./Don't touch boys or you'll get germs."), and through various learning projects aimed at bonding pre-women into a self-identified interpretive community of Woman-in-Conflict-with-Patriarchy. This would, of course entail the necessity of creating a pedagogical environment committed to redressing historic wrongs via some form of aggressive affirmative action. Male students would have to be made aware that societal structures of gender injustice are ultimately the result of what they are, not of what they do and that measures of redress (such as toy redistribution, gender-specific grading scales and disciplinary measures) are therefore permanently necessary in order to make restitution for historic injustice. Male students who exhibit signs of retrogressive or reactionary behavior would be prime candidates for a DLO.
The above proposal is, of course, not a global restructuring of elementary education. But it is, I think, very near the heart of what that invaluable educational philosopher Rousseau was aiming at: a community conformed to the General Will. If rigorously pursued such a curriculum will, more than ever, release upon our children the dynamic forces for change at work in higher educational thought and unite them with those forces in what C.S. Lewis calls "an indissoluble embrace." Then almost anything will be possible.
Copyright 2001 - Mark P. Shea