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Play and Politics, A Serious History of Education

Play and Politics, A Serious History of Education

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Published by Trevor Strong
This paper proposes that an emphasis on play in learning, particularly in its higher forms, is a political as well as pedagogical decision and suggests that strict hierarchical societies tend to discourage play and questioning while less hierarchical societies are more open to it.
This paper proposes that an emphasis on play in learning, particularly in its higher forms, is a political as well as pedagogical decision and suggests that strict hierarchical societies tend to discourage play and questioning while less hierarchical societies are more open to it.

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Published by: Trevor Strong on Jul 24, 2013
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Play and Politics: A Serious History of Education

by Trevor Strong



Play and Politics: A Serious History of Education

Play is an important form of learning. Its ubiquity in the animal world, especially in social and intelligent species, suggests that it provides some sort of evolutionary benefit. It makes sense that a young animal might want to practice a skill in a non-threatening environment before its use is necessary or apparent. The good feeling an animal receives for doing this behaviour (often called “fun” in humans) encourages it to repeat the action repeatedly in order to master it. Play has eluded simple theoretical explanations, but it has been defined descriptively as behaviour that fits the following criteria (Burghardt, 2005):      It does not contribute to current survival. It is self-rewarding. It differs from “serious” forms of behaviour. It is performed repeatedly. It occurs when the animal is not surrounded by immediate threats.

Humans are a particularly playful animal and have a long period of childhood during which play activity is most obvious. Even in adulthood the urge to play does not disappear, but is transformed into more complicated play-based behaviours such as inquisitiveness and creativity. Through culture, humanity has expanded play beyond its roughhousing origins into such activities as games, arts, and humour. It might be expected that such a powerful and versatile way of learning would lie at the heart of most systems and philosophies of education, but this is not the case. Play is often ignored, sometimes discouraged, and even when it is promoted it is often confined in an effort to achieve a particular pedagogical goal. Play is fun, yet education is often serious. Why is this? I suggest that the attitudes towards play and education are politically-



based, with rigid people and societies tending to discourage play, and more open people and societies encouraging it. Being playful is different from being serious. In the serious mode of thinking a person (or animal) takes a stimulus at face value. For example, if someone is attacking you, and you take it seriously, you will either run away or fight back with intent to drive off the attacker. In play, the action (or idea) being presented is both real and not real at the same time: play is paradoxical. In roughhousing, an animal will acknowledge that the other animal is attacking, but because it has determined that it is not a “real” attack, it responds playfully, returning the attack without causing harm. In humour (which is often manifested as a form of verbal roughhousing), a seemingly aggressive statement can be used to bond instead of attack as long as it is received playfully. In art, a representation of an object can be created that both is and is not that object. In intellectual pursuits, mental play can allow us to create scenarios that do not exist, yet do exist at the same time—Einstein’s thought experiments being one example. This is not to say that playbased behaviour cannot produce profound results. It is through play that boundaries are tested and sometimes even overcome. By treating a boundary—whether physical, psychological, or cultural—playfully, a seemingly permanent barrier can be found to be porous or even nonexistent. Play can lead to the elimination of the assumed. Play, in the broadest sense of the word, is a powerful learning tool. But because play can be used to test boundaries, some cultures discourage it in all but its most basic forms. The purpose of education is often to indoctrinate—to inform youth about society’s rules and expectations and to ensure that they conform to them. This type of education is inherently conservative; it seeks to preserve the social order. This helps explain the serious tone of much education—education is the system that ensures the cultural survival of a people and for this to



work there must be rules, and these rules must be followed instead of questioned. Things a society deems sacred or taboo can only be interacted with seriously. You cannot play with the sacred. There is, however, another vision of education. This is education as a search for truth or virtue by testing ideas instead of accepting them. This form of education involves asking questions instead of receiving answers. Socrates turned conventional wisdom on its head by assuming that he (and everyone else) knew nothing. The dialectal form of thinking he used can be considered a type of mental play, with two people or ideas interacting with each other in order to determine what boundaries truly exist. Socrates considered everyone and everything open to this questioning. Some of those in Athenian society who held conservative views about culture and education accused him of corrupting the youth and of sacrilege against the gods. In their view he was playing with the sacred. Enough of Athens agreed and Socrates was executed. Socrates did not think of himself as a teacher and created no school. That he did not formalize his thoughts is no accident; his questioning approach to knowledge was inherently anti-systemic. He did not even commit his thoughts to writing—it was his followers who carried his ideas forward, Plato foremost among them. Plato used the Socratic Method but did not attempt to directly emulate Socrates. As far as we know he did not wander the streets of Athens questioning people, nor did he refrain from teaching as evidenced by his creation of the Academia. Plato believed in the search for truth, but he wanted this search to benefit all of society. In the Republic, Plato outlines a system of education whose goal is to discover a man of such worth that he could be trained and serve as a Philosopher King. His attempt to combine his idealistic goal with a practical political purpose led to a complicated approach towards play. He advocated play and gymnastics for young children, but for older students play was more limited



and prescribed. For example, he suggested that a child learning music could only pluck and sing the exact same notes at the same time in order to be closer to perfection (Stamou, 2002)—it is hard to imagine a more boring, lifeless and less creative form of expression. Plato believed that dialectal thought (mental playing) was the highest form of learning, but that it could only be attempted after proper training. In order to achieve this, the youth of Athens needed to be exposed only to only the best of everything. Aristotle came to Athens to study under Plato and, although he absorbed many of Plato’s ideas, he did not feel limited to copying them. Instead of conceiving as education as being the search for the ideal, he believed that the most important concern of education was to train a man in the habit of approaching the golden mean. For him a good life required balance. Aristotle was a teacher himself— the tutor of the future Alexander the Great, and the founder of the Lyceum— and a practical man. His emphasis on balance included pleasure and play, and he thought it important that citizens learn to “feel pleasure and pain at the right objects: for that is a true education” (Aristotle, trans. 1943, p.173). Aristotle allowed much more leeway in play than Plato (especially in regards to music) but still emphasized the need for students to be guided towards works, and habits, of quality. The philosophers of Ancient Greece “undertook natural philosophy as play or recreation” (McClellan & Dorn, 1999, p. 56), and did not feel beholden to their mentors’ ideas—they were constantly playing with the boundaries. This boldness of thought withered with the rise of the Roman Empire where education was based on rote learning and the acceptance of standard ideas; symptoms of a society of conformity. Quintilian reacted against this, suggesting that in education the “first instruction be in the form of play; let the pupil be asked questions and praised for his answers” (Quintilian, trans. 1938, p. 200)—Quintilian clearly saw the link between play and



questioning. But Quintilian was not advocating the use of the pure Socratic Method, or even to the balanced, but investigative, nature of Aristotle. Quintilian’s ideas were progressive for his time (and some seem progressive even today) but he sought to create students who would enhance the Roman culture, not question it. After all, all the good ideas were already out there and the most efficient way of learning was to copy the best: “As the Greeks excel in precepts, so the Romans excel in examples, which is better far” (p. 228). If you drew a line representing a continuum of educational approaches from “playful/questioning” at one end to “serious/dogmatic” on the other, Socrates would probably be on one extreme and the early Christian Church on the other. In Christianity all knowledge was considered to be from God, and faith alone was needed for its absorption. Play, therefore, had no role—there was nothing to play with, there was only one way of knowing and that was God, and he was sacred. “We reject everything which rests upon human opinion,” (Tatian, trans. 1956, p. 283) said Tatian, emphasizing the worthlessness of human inquiry. For a member of the Christian faith, knowledge was revealed, not created, as evidenced by the instructions to the Catechumens: “Let him be instructed how the world was made, and why man was appointed to be a citizen therein” (The Apostolical Constitutions, trans. 1905). A student of Christianity was given answers; there were no questions to be asked. Benedict considered, “Idleness is the enemy of the soul” (Benedict, trans. 1896, p. 319), because in idle moments stray thoughts and ideas could enter the mind. His Rule, therefore, strove to keep his monks perpetually busy which, in theory, made playful thoughts impossible. Christian education was based on obedience and fear instead of fun and play: “First of all, then, it is necessary that we should be led by the fear of God, to seek knowledge of His will” (Augustine, trans. 1876, p. 311).



The Renaissance combined the philosophies of the free-thinking Greeks with the faith of the control-oriented Church, leading to complicated and tension-filled ideas about play. Erasmus believed that subject matter should be of interest to the student, but that the child should only choose from the best available (Erasmus, 1529). Like Plato he felt that play must be controlled. He added that he had discovered the reason why this control was needed, a problem that had “sorely puzzled the ancient philosophers” (Erasmus, 1529, p.366)—children were drawn to the bad influences because of “Original Sin.” Erasmus thought that students should be “beguiled” into learning by catering to their interests so that their studying would “hardly be distinguished from play” (p.367). Erasmus was not alone in his guarded approach to play. Comenius promoted direct interactions with objects, somewhat similar to play, except that the form of these interactions had to have “exact order in all things.”(Comenius, trans. 1896, p.420). And Luther, although he advocated radical reform and the widening of education to the entire population, was concerned that good books would soon be “crowded out by the multitude of ill-considered, senseless, and noxious works” (Luther, 1524, p. 391). These thinkers thought that students could play, but only under careful supervision and guidance. The synthesis of Christianity and Greek philosophy, combined with the rising wealth and complexity of society, created new demands and ideas about education. Locke, like Socrates, considered virtue to be the greatest goal (Locke, 1823, p.446). But Locke’s approach to achieving virtue was reactive instead of active. For Socrates virtue was a thing that could be discovered, for Locke it was something to be imprinted unto a person through experience. Therefore, instead of advocating going out into the world and exploring and challenging ideas, Locke felt it was best for a student to be protected from bad influences and only exposed to good examples. If a student fell into the wrong sort of crowd you would have to “undo again, and strip



him of that he has got from his companions, or give him up to ruin” (p. 444). Needless to say Locke advocated an extremely controlled environment where the student could not pick his own playmates. Others, taking their inspiration from Nature, held a freer view of play. Pestalozzi promoted discovery and experience with his students and abandoned the static styles of teaching used by the church. “Let your child be as free as possible, and seek diligently for every means of ensuring his liberty, peace of mind, and good humour” (Pestalozzi, trans. 1905, p. 477). This freedom to use play and discovery was rooted in his egalitarian view of humanity, that all people were basically the same. Froebel, the creator of kindergarten, was perhaps the most forceful advocate of play calling it “the purest, most spiritual activity of man at this stage, and, at the same time, typical of human life as a whole—of the inner hidden natural life in man and all things” (Froebel, 1826, p.499). He thought education should not be “prescriptive, categorical, or interfering” (p. 497), and advocated patience when dealing with children’s questions. Froebel’s support of free play was rooted in his belief that “Man is by no means naturally bad, nor has he originally bad or evil quality and tendencies” (p. 502). Where Erasmus had based his theory of play on the assumption of Original Sin, Froebel based his on the concept that humanity was essentially good and therefore had nothing to fear from play. The struggle between play and seriousness, questions and answers, is evident in the career and thoughts of William T. Harris, an influential American educator. Harris was deeply committed to helping America achieve the greatness he felt was its destiny. He was a cultural conservative who strove to create uniform values for American students, but who also recognized that individualism was important in the modern industrial world and that free thinking, at least to some degree, needed to be developed. He was a strong advocate of



kindergarten, and introduced the concept to American school, but he also valued habits over inquiry stating that “the school pupil simply gets used to established order and expects it and obeys it as a habit. He will maintain it as a sort of instinct in after life, whether he has ever learned the theory of it or not” (Curti, 1935, p.591). He maintained the basics of reading and writing, but also encouraged art instruction, although this was “as a means of cultivating the feelings and curbing the appetites” (p. 581). In this he was following the well-worn path of Plato, Quintilian, and Erasmus, his goal to expose students only to what was (as far as he was concerned) best and moral, so that they could be useful and conform to society. Overall his educational methods “tended to encourage, not independent thought, but devotion to the existing order” (p. 592). The progressive movement reacted against status-quo educators like Harris. Francis Parker, an early proponent of progressive education, wanted to create experiences that mattered for students. He believed that “real work is interesting, like real play” (Parker, 1882, p. 611). His association of work and play—that they could be almost the same thing—placed a value on the person more than the system. This emphasis on play was grounded in his world-view. Echoes of Socrates can be heard in his statement that “he alone is really learning who feels the immensity of the truth, and realizes that all he knows, or can know, in this world, is but as a drop to the great ocean of truth” (p. 608). John Dewey, one of the most influential of the Progressives, suggested that a teacher should not simply guide students but should also find their students’ inherent goals and motivations and then adjust their teaching to this. This relativist approach is not in agreement with educational systems that seek to install conformity of both moral and intellectual culture. When Dewey said, “It is not true that some subjects and methods and acquaintance with certain



facts and truths possess educational value in and of themselves” (Burtt, 1960, p. 623), he refuted the long-standing belief there were universal cultural truths that could not, and should not, be questioned. He advocated for an open-ended system of education which developed the student’s ability to think and adapt. “What is important is that the mind should be sensitive to problems and skilled in methods of attack and solution” (Dewey, 1910, p. 631). For Dewey, a student’s mind was almost always in some state of play with the world. The ideas of progressive education had profound political implications and generated strong reactions. George S. Counts, a progressive himself, argued that progressive education should go further than simply educate, that is should also formally promote progressive values such as the need to alter, if not dismantle, the capitalistic system and replace it with a planned, socialized economy: “To my mind, a movement honestly styling itself progressive should engage in the positive task of creating a new tradition in American life” (Counts, 1932, p.262). Conservative educators reacted strongly against progressive education. William Bagley attacked its relativism, claiming that in progressive education, “The need of common elements in the basic culture of all people, especially in a democracy, has in effect been denied” (Bagley, 1938, p.640). He believed that America needed an approach that taught “essentials” through a “systemic program of studies and activities” (p. 644). Bagley considered democracy under threat from totalitarian regimes and to meet these needs an educational theory needed to be “strong, virile, and positive not feeble, effeminate and vague” (p. 646). For Bagley education was a serious business indeed. Education is still serious. It probably always will be. The political importance of educational systems will always make them the plaything of politicians, patriots, and interest groups. In recent years we’ve been told that creativity and innovation are the keys to student



success, yet we have also been told that students and schools must be accountable, consistent and measurable. Chomsky noted that the American school system is saddled with two opposing purposes: to make good obedient workers, and to make creative and original thinkers (Chomsky,1995). This seems to also apply to Canada and has led to the creation of a system that is inherently at odds with itself; where creativity is formally encouraged, but where the practices of the system frustrate and limit that very creativity. Our schools still seem to operate under the assumption that “idleness is the enemy of the soul” and keep students constantly busy with assigned work; seldom allowing them to simply explore, discover, and challenge. If we want our students to be adaptable we need to give them real freedom to play—physically, socially, intellectually, philosophically. A sandbox is not enough, they need a forest. It was said of Harris that his conservative approach to education was all “the more striking because he realized that he lived in an age of transition” (Curti, 1935, p.597). I think our current approach to education is striking in a similar way.




The Apostolical Constitutions, (trans. 1905). In Black, H., Lottich, K., & Seckinger D. (Eds.) (1972). The great educators: Readings for leaders in education. Chicago: Nelson-Hall. Aristotle, (trans. 1943). Nichomachean Ethics. In Black, H., Lottich, K., & Seckinger D. (Eds.) (1972). The great educators: Readings for leaders in education (pp. 163-179). Chicago: Nelson-Hall. Augustine (trans. 1876). The Confessions of St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo. In Black, H., Lottich, K., & Seckinger D. (Eds.) (1972). The great educators: Readings for leaders in education (pp. 307-315). Chicago: Nelson-Hall. Bagley, W. (1938). An Essentialist’s Platform for the Advancement of American Education. In Black, H., Lottich, K., & Seckinger D. (Eds.) (1972). The great educators: Readings for leaders in education (pp. 632-647). Chicago: Nelson-Hall. Benedict, (trans. 1896). The Rule of St. Benedict. In Black, H., Lottich, K., & Seckinger D. (Eds.) (1972). The great educators: Readings for leaders in education (pp.316-320). Chicago: Nelson-Hall. Burghardt, G. (2005). The genesis of animal play: Testing the limits. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Burrt, E. (1960). The Core of Dewey’s Way of Thinking. In Black, H., Lottich, K., & Seckinger D. (Eds.) (1972). The great educators: Readings for leaders in education. Chicago: Nelson-Hall. Chomsky, N., & Barsamian, D. (1996). Class warfare: Interviews with David Barsamian. Monroe, Me: Common Courage Press.



Comenius, J. (trans. 1896). The Greate Didactic of John Amos Comenius. In Black, H., Lottich, K., & Seckinger D. (Eds.) (1972). The great educators: Readings for leaders in education (pp. 416-428). Chicago: Nelson-Hall. Counts, G. (1932). Dare Progressive Education Be Progressive? In Progressive Education a Review of the Newer Tendencies in Education. The Progressive Education Association, Washington, D.C. Curti, M. (1935). The Social Ideas of Educators. In Black, H., Lottich, K., & Seckinger D. (Eds.) (1972). The great educators: Readings for leaders in education (pp. 577-602). Chicago: Nelson-Hall. Dewey, J. (1910). How We Think. In Black, H., Lottich, K., & Seckinger D. (Eds.) (1972). The great educators: Readings for leaders in education (pp.625-631). Chicago: Nelson-Hall. Erasmus, (1592). The Treatise De Pueris statim ac liberaliter instituendis. In The great educators: Readings for leaders in education (pp. 340-381). Chicago: Nelson-Hall. Froebel, (1826). The Education of Man. In Black, H., Lottich, K., & Seckinger D. (Eds.) (1972). The great educators: Readings for leaders in education (pp.496-502). Chicago: Nelson-Hall. Locke, (1823). The Works of John Locke; A New Edition, Corrected, In Ten Volumes. In Black, H., Lottich, K., & Seckinger D. (Eds.) (1972). The great educators: Readings for leaders in education (pp. 429-451). Chicago: Nelson-Hall. Luther, (1524). Letter to Mayors and Aldermen of All the Cities of Germany in Behalf of Christian Schools. In Black, H., Lottich, K., & Seckinger D. (Eds.) (1972). The great educators: Readings for leaders in education (pp. 382-391). Chicago: Nelson-Hall.



McClellan, J, & Dorn, H. (1999). Science and technology in world history. Baltimore, MA: John Hopkins University Press. Parker, (1882). Notes of Talks on Teaching, Given by Francis. W. Parker, at the Martha’s Vineyard Summer Institute, July 17 to August 19, 1882. In Black, H., Lottich, K., & Seckinger D. (Eds.) (1972). The great educators: Readings for leaders in education (pp.603-612). Chicago: Nelson-Hall. Pestalozzi. In Great Pedagogical Essays Plato to Spencer. In Black, H., Lottich, K., & Seckinger D. (Eds.) (1972). The great educators: Readings for leaders in education. Chicago: Nelson-Hall. Plato, The Dialogues of Plato. In Black, H., Lottich, K., & Seckinger D. (Eds.) (1972). The great educators: Readings for leaders in education (pp. 133-162). Chicago: Nelson-Hall. Quintilian, (trans. 1938). Quintilian on Education. In Black, H., Lottich, K., & Seckinger D. (Eds.) (1972). The great educators: Readings for leaders in education (pp. 195-228). Chicago: Nelson-Hall. Stamou, L. (2002). Plato and aristotle on music and music education: Lessons from ancient greece. International Journal of Music Education, 39(1), 3-16 Tatian, (trans 1956). Address of Tatian to the Greeks. In Black, H., Lottich, K., & Seckinger D. (Eds.) (1972). The great educators: Readings for leaders in education (pp. 278-285). Chicago: Nelson-Hall.

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