Wednesday, March 19, 2014

What Would Rousseau Say?

Teaching Middle School after years of teaching older students has been an epiphany for me.  While it is new and the comparisons are fresh in my mind, I’m making note of some of the biggest distinctions between middle schoolers and older high schoolers.  These thoughts of mine are sometimes open-ended; I don’t have any big answers.  But I do have plenty to mentally chew upon and I intend to do so.  Today’s topic is rather a big one: the nature of humanity.  

When I taught 11th and 12th graders and we learned about the formation of governments, it was first necessary to have a conversation about humans in the natural world.  Left to our own devices are we good or bad?  Selfish or selfless?  Informed by overviews of the most significant of the Enlightenment thinkers, high school students would talk through the nature of man.  These discussions were always fascinating and one of the elements that always surprised me was the confidence that 16 and 17 year olds have in the basic nature of humanity.  Teenagers often claimed that mankind is naturally good.

Among the 6th graders, as we work our heads around medieval feudalism, I’ve been having similar conversations.  I have asked them, “In a world without structure or a government to rule, how will people behave?”  Their almost universal answer: people are not naturally good and without rules to keep order, there will be trouble.  Big trouble.

It doesn’t entirely surprise me that 6th graders, kids who mostly live in a world of order and structure, believe that the rules make a difference.  One of the hallmarks of middle school is the fact that adolescents are seeking some real freedom and independence, often for the first time.  That they are receiving it on occasion invariably results in some poor decision making.  It’s not all the time, but it happens that children learning to make their way as independent young people name call, taunt one another, tattle, or otherwise seek to distinguish themselves by being unkind.  Freedom entails responsibility and 6th graders are learning their way around this rather complicated fact.

In that suddenly uncertain environment, even anxiety of the smallest kind (will I have a friendly table in the lunch room?  if I lose the cup stacking game, what will the other kids say?), can be unsettling.  Rules, structure and uniformity seems like a much safer option when faced with freedom and the occasional unkindness of humanity.

Just before break, the 6th graders and I started projects to invent our own medieval manor.  They enjoy the idea of being the lords and ladies of their own realm and they are taking care to look out for the needs of everyone in their imaginary estates.   They have seen the unkindness of the real world and are determined to mediate against it when they can.   I find this kindness heartening.  Perhaps it is this instinct that will eventually allow them to be 16 and 17 year olds who see goodness in the natural world?  

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