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We Read Theory So You Don't Have To

Theory Bites 1: The Child and its Enemies

by Theory Reader

We're trying something new this month! Today's episode is about youth liberation, and Elysha, Nate, and Tom discuss Emma Goldman's The Child and Its Enemies.

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Twitter: @workstheorypod


Produced & edited by Allyson

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Works in Theory - Theory Bites - The Child And Its Enemies

[00:00:00] ELYSHA: Hello, and welcome back to Works In Theory Podcast, we've got a new section that we're trying out on the show this week. We're calling  Theory Bites because it bites, but they're also small. We're going to be doing shorter essays and articles rather than entire books to try and give you a little bit more variety and us a little bit more variety in the show that we're putting on.

So, we're hoping that these theory bites can be enjoyed on their own or as part of a well-rounded meal with some of the longer Works In Theory episodes. As usual, I'm Elysha and I'm here with Nate and with Tom.

TOM: Hello!

ELYSHA: And today our first Theory Bite is on an essay by Emma Goldman called The Child And Its Enemies.

TOM: Yeah, this is written in 1906. And I thought it was really good. It had a lot of really just well-written like the language that Goldman uses. You can tell that Goldman writes, [00:01:00] right? It's not It's not a strictly, in service of getting a point across, but it's done really well.

NATE: Yeah, definitely. I don't know if it's just people wrote better back in like the 19th century or something, or if she's in particular a good writer, but yeah, it was really a joy to read. It makes me look forward to reading more Emma Goldman stuff. 

ELYSHA: I think there are plenty of writers who wouldn't be looked at with such praise by at least me from the early 1900s. So I think Emma Goldman is a great writer.  

NATE: So the piece again is called The Child And Its Enemies. This is going to be the first of a couple of pieces we're going to read on the general topic of youth liberation and very early on, she's got a quote that sort of like sums up her thesis in this she says: 

"Is the child to be considered as an individuality or as an object to be molded, according to the whims and fancies of those around This seems to me to be the most important question to be answered by parents and educators."

And so that's sort of, where she's going to be going with [00:02:00] this. The idea is she's obviously going to come down on the side that like children are human beings. They have, you know, their own intrinsic drives. They have their own personhood and autonomy and a lot of the institutions of our society, especially the school try to. Turn the child into an object don't they don't treat the child as a person, but as a commodity or again, an object. 

ELYSHA: And not just any object, but one who needs to fit within the restraints and respectability of that social era and society.

NATE: That's right. She says, 

"Every institution of our day, the family, the state, or moral codes sees in every strong, beautiful, uncompromising personality, a deadly enemy."

ELYSHA: Yeah, that's a powerful line for sure.  Bringing back the idea that education isn't benign. It's not just about teaching basic skills like reading or math or whatever else you [00:03:00] learn in school. It's a very critical piece of our like formation as young people  and our experiences in school. The way that these skills are presented, the way that like our aptitudes or whatever are measured or like the way that we're treated in school makes a big difference. Probably in how the rest of our life goes.

TOM: Yeah, there's a lot of you know, talk from people about children and their future. And like, this is when people are molded and when they're most like when people get their most I guess are instilled with ideas. Right? But we don't really talk about that we structure things in a way that  really puts people in a certain direction of,  obeying and  not questioning which again, every time I say these kinds of things, I feel like I become the conspiracy theorist, but it's, I mean, it seems very obvious like that you know, [00:04:00] school is, is largely not about trying to figure things out. It's about trying to memorize and regurgitate what other people have figured out. Whether or not that's true for all of those things is why now there's a big debate about critical race theory because the right is, is very upset. I'm going way, way, tangent. This is nothing to do with 1906.

ELYSHA: It doesn't have to, we don't live in 1906. We're looking at this through 2021. In fact. To just give ourselves away. Cause I have no idea when this is actually going to be released. It is July 11th, 2021.

Kind of tying on into that, because the idea that school is where we go as young people and young people on the whole are very, very curious and excited about the world and like interested in making their mark on the world or with the world. And the quote here is:

"...when with [00:05:00] large wondering innocent eyes, the child wishes to behold the wonders of the world about it in the schools and in the family life and whatever quickly lock the windows and doors and keep the delicate human plant in a hot house atmosphere where it can neither breathe nor grow freely."

NATE: This is just turning into a string of quotes, but at the risk of that, here's one more: 

"...every effort is being made to cramp human emotion and originality of thought in the individual into a straight-jacket from its earliest infancy; or to shape every human being according to one pattern; not into a well-rounded individuality, but into a patient work slave, professional automaton, tax-paying citizen, or righteous moralist."

And so sort of what all of this is getting at is this idea that the school was being used to take, like, what is,  this sort of innate like Elysha, you were talking about the innate curiosity, like originality like self-directed learning of a child  and [00:06:00] squelch it and put it into a certain mold. Create, you know, citizens of a capitalist state, basically. 

ELYSHA: Yeah. And it's kind of like Tom was saying, it makes me feel like a weirdo conspiracy theorist sometimes too, because it is just like, school is just so foundational to the way that we're brought into the world. You are a very young age and you go there for many hours a day and reading pieces like this, that really speak to the idea that the state and those who write the  curricula, they're looking to. Give folks the skills that will allow them to participate in society in the way that is like clean and easy and simple and to their whims.  They want you to be able to do basic math or be literate and then go on to, I mean, in our recent sort of generation, we go onto more education and more education [00:07:00] because that's all of a sudden, a very big deal, but more in the era that our piece is written in education wasn't a K-12 sort of thing that everyone did for  up until you're 18 or whatever it is, but you would get the education that is mandated and then go off and get a job or have more kids and just live within this like tightly curated and restrained...

NATE: Yea, absolutely. 

TOM: This piece sort of goes in all directions. It kind of hits every place. Especially I thought the railing against leftist, like railing against radical parents. Like here it says:

 "Radical parents though emancipated from the belief of ownership and the human soul still cling tenaciously to the notion that they own the child, that they have the right to exercise their authority over it. So they set out to mold and form the child, according to their own conception of what is right and wrong, forcing their ideas upon it with the same [00:08:00] vehemence that the average Catholic parent uses."

There's a whole kind of area at the end where Goldman talks about you know, you're basically doing the same thing that everyone's doing, but you know, the problems that you see in other people you're exhibiting them yourself. Your child can regurgitate and they know the names of radical leftists or whatever. That doesn't mean that they agree with it. And it doesn't mean that they're not going to just, you know, become reactionary basically later because you have basically forced them to believe a thing. And I, I thought that was a really good call out.

NATE: Yeah, for sure. Yeah. And so like taking a step back for a second, she is like, you know, the piece is called The Child And Its Enemies. It's not called the child in school. And so part of what she's talking about is that it's not just the school, but even like the family, the family itself is, is acting in this sort of way to  not allow the child to develop of its own accord, but to, to mold it in a certain [00:09:00] direction, again, like as if it's an object to be molded, not like living, breathing one of my favorite lines in the whole book she says:

"Scriptures tell us that God created Man in his own image, which by no means has proven a success. Parents follow the bad example of their heavenly master. They use every effort to shape and mold the child, according to their image. They tenaciously cling to the idea that the child is merely part of themselves, an idea, as false as it is injurious."

We hear that and we're like, oh Yeah. you know, I, I know for my part, at least my parents were Catholic and obviously they tried to raise me to believe in Catholicism and things like that. But you know, she wants to make sure that we're not just thinking, this is an aspect of like conservative or religious parents, but that, you know, just parents of any stripe, including radicals, who, by trying to force their child to be a radical, they're doing the exact same thing. Even if we might believe it's in a better direction or something.

ELYSHA: I feel like I can throw back to our Dewey episode because that one is already released into the ether. [00:10:00] And in that we talked a lot about the importance of learning. To use tools versus learning to memorize facts. And tools like critical thinking skills that you can make your own judgements that, you're setting like a solid, and this is where I'm obviously still like biased towards like, people are good and what we need to do in order to establish like a good, like moral baseline is  instilling values about sharing and mutual aid. And those are things that, you know, ideally it doesn't super matter if your parents are voting on what one end of the spectrum or not like the idea of, learning to see the world and make your own decisions that like, ideally against where the like leftist bend is.

We're doing that for the good of, not just ourselves, not just immediately, but like [00:11:00] everyone that we possibly can without overwhelming the kid, obviously, because kids can get very overwhelmed. It's not about memorizing facts. And I think that, in this piece, Emma, Goldman would agree with that, is that like the radical parents just cause it's like, you know, or you feel like, you know, the right way to do things like every parent or teacher or like person in authority, feels like they know the right thing. And that's not always the case. And like maybe the right thing could be helping your child to bloom.

NATE: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, I like that you bring up Dewey, because I think that this sort of dovetails with that really well in the sense that what she's talking about is that sort of like more democratic, more like self-led learning, right. Where it's not even necessarily about what the content is, it's about letting the child discover it themselves.

TOM: Yeah, there was that part in here where she said, do your own research -it's a little frustrating because that has become such a cliched nonsense phrase.

ELYSHA: To reframe [00:12:00] that discovery is the fun part.

NATE: Yeah, So continuing on this idea of like self-directed learning and  democratic learning. I want to once again, quote at length here, I think it like makes a very good point because, Elysha, what you were talking about is this idea that obviously we, you know, especially as leftists, we want to sort of direct the child to be like what we think of as a moral person to do the right thing.

And it might sound strange to say that well, by trying to force the child to do the right thing, you're like still forcing the child to do something. And I think that she has like an interesting answer to that. So she says :

"The terrible struggle of the thinking man and woman against political, social, and moral conventions, owes its origin to the family, where the child is ever compelled to battle against the internal and external use of force. The categorical imperatives: You shall! you must! this is right! that is wrong! this is true! that is false!  shower like a violent rain upon the unsophisticated head of the young being and impress upon its sensibilities that it has to bow before the long [00:13:00] established and hard notions of thoughts and emotions. 

Yet the latent qualities and instincts  seek to assert their own peculiar methods of seeking the foundation of things of distinguishing between what is commonly called wrong, true or false. It has bent upon going its own way since it is composed of the same nerves, muscles, and blood. Even as those who assume to direct its destiny. I fail to understand how parents hope that their children will ever grow up into independent self-reliant spirits when they strain every effort to abridge and curtail the various activities of their children, the plus in quality and character, which differentiates their offspring from themselves and by virtue of which they are eminently equipped carriers of new invigorating ideas.

A young, delicate tree that is being clipped and cut by the gardener in order to give it an artificial form will never reach the majestic height and the beauty as when allowed to grow in nature and freedom."

 I think what she's saying is so we might be like, 'well, we gotta like, make sure the child grows up to like, believe the right thing and be a good person.' But what she's saying is that like, well, the child's a human being just like [00:14:00] you, it's capable of coming to these conclusions of what's good and what's right on its own.

And in fact, you may right. And trying to like clip the tree into a certain shape. You may actually be curtailing it. It might be possible for the child to rise above even beyond what you think of as like the good and right things that you know. And by, you know, trying to force it into that mode, you're potentially curtailing it.

ELYSHA: I think it's very well known at this point that none of us actually like have children closely in our lives. But I think something that I've really tried to develop more in like dealing with kids is the fact that, they are absolutely human beings and like, you're not going to, you know, it, it, doesn't, it's always funny to see folks who like super don't have any experience with kids and they're just, they walk up to like a four year old and like, Hey, what's up bud?

And then Buddy's like, 'I got new shoes." That's not meeting the kid necessarily where they're at. You don't [00:15:00] have the same structures and formalities in conversation and in navigating the world with a young kid, as you do fellow adults often. I just feel like a lot of the time, like less is more in pruning a tree.  You don't need to sit there and lecture at length about whichever, like moral thing you are trying to instill whatever value it is that you're trying to like share. 

NATE: I think you're exactly right. That it's like, if you just treat them as human beings, then you're on the right path. You don't need to, force them or mold them in any sort of way or talk down to them or act like they don't know what they're talking about or what they're thinking. 

ELYSHA: Yeah, because kids know about freedom and they know when you're trying to limit them and they push back against that. That's like all they do. And it's great. And it's a matter of navigating and negotiating that as like you both [00:16:00] develop in the world that you currently live in.

 Kind of on the same idea of how challenging it is in the ways that we have, or I have anyway, like being conditioned, how challenging it is to take that step back and let people explore things on their own. It says here just after that quote about radical parents and like trying to just still be forcing this morality on people:

" What is more astonishing is the fact that parents will strip themselves of everything, will sacrifice everything for the physical wellbeing of their child. We'll wake nights and stand in fear and agony before some physical ailment of their beloved one, but will remain cold and indifferent without the slightest understanding before the soul cravings and yearnings of their child.  Neither hearing nor wishing to hear the loud knocking of the young spirit that demands recognition.

On the contrary, they will stifle the beautiful voice of spring of a new life of beauty and splendor of love. They will put [00:17:00] the long lean finger of authority upon the tender throat and not allow vent to this silvery song of the individual growth of the beauty of character, of the strength of love and human relation, which alone make life worthless."

TOM:  I felt at that point that Goldman was kind of saying, you know, I don't think that parents are monsters that are doing these things. They're kind of just doing what society says we should do. And like they care for their children. Right. But, they're not caring. Like most parents take it to the you know, well, as long as I'm protecting the child, as long as I'm, you know, feeding them and housing them and clothing them, then like, I'm a good parent. That's basically like all you gotta do. But then, you know, controlling children nobody really talks about that.

When people do talk about it, it ends up being dismissed as like,....

ELYSHA: Because children to be objects, right. Like their property. And we're still fighting against that basic notion.

TOM: But I liked that Goldman kind of [00:18:00] laid out a little bit of sympathy, I guess, for parents like that they, that Goldman understood that.  It is somewhat conscious, but it's not a conscious, like malevolent effort.

NATE:  At the very end here, she likes sort of takes the tact where she's not even as much, well, like you said, she's not like beating people over the head being like, you're doing this wrong. You're bad people for doing this, but she points out that like, if you try to do this, if you try to direct your child in any direction, whether it's toward religion or toward conservatism or toward socialism, you run the risk of the child, just like rebelling against you to rebel against you. And basically just like producing the exact opposite of what you're trying to produce. And so you might as well just try to give them free rein anyway, and, you know, set a good example. 

ELYSHA: Yeah I love that. Setting a good example is just so powerful and like trying to take the do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do approach is probably how you get kids or anyone to just do the exact opposite.

NATE: Yeah. 

ELYSHA: I mean, not that doing the exact opposite of what you're told [00:19:00] is always a negative consequence, but generally speaking.

NATE: Oh, no. In fact, she says when talking about kids tending to do the opposite of what they're told, she says:

"Such a condition of affairs may be very painful to the parents who wish their children to follow in their path. Yet I look upon them as very refreshing and encouraging psychological forces. They are the greatest guarantee that the independent mind at least will always resist every external and foreign force exercised over the human heart."

It's almost like , this tendency of children to resist being controlled is like a guarantee that like, there's always going to be like a spark of freedom in humanity that you're never going to be able to really like beat people down to create a totally like compliant populace because every new generation that's born is going to be filled with children that hate to do with their parents tell them. 

ELYSHA: Youth stuff is just wonderful. And I'm always hopeful for the future largely because of the work of youth. 

NATE: Yeah. The children are the future. 

ELYSHA: Cool. Hey, that sounds like a great natural conclusion to this very first Theory Bites episode. 

[00:20:00] NATE: Yeah, absolutely. If I can, I'm gonna end with one more Goldman quote at the very end of the essay, she says:

"If education should really mean anything at all, it must insist upon the free growth and development of the innate forces and tendencies of the child. In this way alone, can we hope for the free individual and eventually also for a free community, which I'll make interference and coercion of human growth impossible." 

ELYSHA: Thanks Nate. And thanks for being here for our very first Theory Bites. Again, we are hoping to release these ones kind of in between our main episodes, but as we're figuring all of that stuff out, you'll probably just see this pop up as one of our monthly releases, but we really appreciate you being here for what is effectively our first attempt at podcasting. And we're hope you're having at least almost as much fun as we are.

,We'll see you next time or you'll hear us next time. Or however that goes.

TOM: We will see you, but you will not see us. That's [00:21:00] how it works. So don't worry.

ELYSHA: Exactly. Surveillance. It's everywhere.

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Ep 10: The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees (w/ Left Shelf)

by Theory Reader

Theory Bites 2: Youth Liberation & The First Prison

by Theory Reader