The Meaning of Play

The Meaning of Play [Chapter 1, A Clearer View, pp. 3-30]

Back in 1965, a small group of us started discussing a set of ideas about education and schooling. That was when we began to become self conscious of the fact that rather than just being critics, we were actually beginning to formulate some kind of philosophy of education. When we go back and read the papers that we wrote in '65-'67, we find that some of them have worn well with time, but many of the areas to which we are now sensitive were completely unexplored. The beauty of Sudbury Valley is that, over the years, there have been a tremendous number of people who have provided input into the thinking about the school. If you want some idea of what I’m talking about, you can just look in the sewing room at the collection of bound volumes of the Sudbury Valley School Newsletter (now called Journal) from the start in 1971. By now hundreds of essays have been written over the years by a great many people, refining the ideas that underlie the school.

We’ve had a lot of opportunities to re-think our ideas. We give talks to university groups, to organizations, to conferences, and each time we prepare to do such a thing, we have to reexamine what we’re saying in light of our most current thinking. This makes change and development the order of the day in every area.

There is another major arena in which there has been a great deal of refinement of thinking about the school’s philosophy and practice – the School Meeting. There, through the mundane discussion of everyday affairs, just about every aspect of the school’s philosophy gets a thorough going-over at one time or another. It really never ceases to amaze me – and I know this is true of everybody else who has been part of the school – that here we are, thirty years later, and we still have School Meetings in which the debates are fresh; not always pleasant, but fresh, in which issues that one thinks had been settled long ago, are raised again, reexamined, and sometimes recast.

In this series of talks, I have picked six areas that I consider important to the school, in which my own thinking has undergone a great deal of change and development over the years. Tonight’s subject is “The Meaning of Play”.

Initially, play had a bad rap as a concept in the educational world. It was looked down on, considered not serious. That’s reflected in the dictionary definition: “To occupy oneself in amusement, sport or other recreation. To act in jest or sport”. You can see that’s clearly something a serious educator would say has no place in education. It’s almost antithetical to education. Education is something serious. Education is learning. It’s the acquisition of knowledge, not to be confused with “fun”, “jest”, “recreation”, “sport”, etc.

So for a long time play, from an educator’s point of view, just didn’t belong. I remember growing up in schools that had a fifteen minute recess in the morning and another in the afternoon. We went to school from 9:00AM to 3:00PM, and recess was the only time we played. It was very clear that during recess we were being given a chance to do what we didn’t do the rest of the time!

The problem for educators was that children seemed to like to play. In fact, people of all ages seem to like to play. Little kids like to play, as do older kids, and even teachers! Everybody likes to play. It plagues the educational system, the system is forever battling against this natural drive to engage in play, a tendency that the unruly clients of the system seem unable to overcome.

The natural attraction people have to play was a central preoccupation of educational reformers in the post-World-War-II era. That was a time when thinking people started reexamining education, and for good reason. It didn’t take a great deal of insight to realize that something was off kilter, because the most sophisticated people in the world, from the European point of view – the people with the highest level of education and cultural refinement – had been engaged by 1945 in some thirty years of continuous mutual slaughter, filled with hatred and every brutality that could be conceived. That the most advanced nations educationally should coincide with the most brutal, led everybody who was interested in education to realize that something fundamental had to be reexamined. That was the golden age of educational reform and its momentum has carried forth to this day.

One of the trends in educational reform was to seize upon this universal desire of people to play, and to incorporate it somehow into schooling. The idea that learning should be fun, that learning and fun should be combined, that somehow joy should be insinuated into the learning process, was a result of this recognition that something had to change, and that one place to start was with the universal desire to play. The Progressive School movement, in the ‘20s and ‘30s, first promulgated this idea, and after the War it really picked up steam. The idea was basically simple: stick to the original concept of what schooling is about, but incorporate “recreation” as a seduction. The old Hebrew day schools used to be blunt and up-front. They had parents send their kids to school the first day with honey on their chalkboards. There the bribe was open. You go to school, you get sweets. You do well, you get sweets. In the modern incarnation, the bribes were more sophisticated, and it was hoped that people wouldn’t notice that the fundamental agenda hadn’t changed.

How strong this movement is can be seen from the huge flap in Massachusetts just a short while ago. John Silber, the state’s famous and often notorious education czar, engaged in a tremendous battle with a class of elementary school children who had the gall to write him on the theme of learning as fun. He erupted in a severe reply which was widely publicized, to the effect that people have it all wrong. According to Silber, learning isn’t supposed to be fun! It’s supposed to be strictly serious, and the schoolchildren who wrote him were admonished to straighten out their act and get the fun out of it. Now, if not sooner!

When Sudbury Valley opened, we knew, of course, as did everybody else, that kids would play a lot if they were allowed to be free, if they didn’t have any externallyimposed agenda. We knew that if you really let kids control their own time, they would engage in a lot of play. We accepted that, but we were to a certain extent affected in our thinking by the prevailing notions at that time. We said, “It’s okay that they play,” not because learning is fun, but because play itself is educational. Play may be recreation and fun, but it fulfills “legitimate” educational goals, such as the development of certain motor skills, social skills, and other useful talents. Perhaps they’ll play all day, but that’s okay because it enhances certain aspects of their education.

Not surprisingly, we encountered a lot of objection from some parents in the school and from a lot of people who came to interview or consider sending their kids to the school, because they had the same problem that Silber had. Their attitude was: “You may say that play is okay and that it enhances certain educational goals, but life isn’t fun. And if kids don’t learn that life isn’t fun early on, they’re not being prepared for the world. The world is full of hard knocks, and presumably the consequence of that view is that the best way to raise kids is to give them a lot of hard knocks; or at least not to let them play.”

What I want to focus on today is how our understanding of play deepened, because it’s very different from where we started. Let me open with the question, “What is play, really?” With all due respect to the editors of the American Heritage Dictionary, I think they missed the essence of play completely. I think that the essence of play is the indeterminate portion of the activity. Play is an activity that has a significant part of it not determined, free from prior boundaries. If you examine the way the word “play” is used in its broadest sense in our language, you’ll see that it is applied over and over again to activities where everything isn’t specified, where you’re not in a rigid box, where there’s an unknown piece. That, of course, includes joy and entertainment, but it includes things like “playing with ideas”. It includes even such a thing as “giving a little play” in a rope. Whenever something isn’t taut, there’s a little “play” in it. That’s a good image to keep. When it’s not fixed, when it’s not rigid, you’re involved in an activity that has an element of play.

As I see it, there are two major kinds of play. One I’ll call “an undetermined activity within a very broad framework” – “free play”, we might call it. For example, kids get together and say, “Let’s play ‘house’.” They’ve got a broad framework. They’re not playing “horse”, they’re not playing “fishing”, and they’re not playing “train”. They’re playing “house”. So the overall general framework is set. But within that, at the outset, it’s open-ended. We make it up as we go along. Will there be a father and a mother? Will there be uncles, grandchildren? A whole gamut of things is left open at the beginning. Or a more sophisticated example – for somebody like Jules Verne – let’s play “invent a submarine”. “Let’s design an underwater vehicle”. That’s all we know about it, but it’s a broad framework.

I’ve been at Sudbury Valley School for thirty years and still I was absolutely floored the other day by two girls who are well into their teens, coming up to me all excited and showing me a vehicle that they had designed. They had played “let’s invent” and they had drawings and plans. They had come up with this broad idea and they sat down and talked about it. They drew, they changed their drawings, and they modified their plan. To tell you the truth, I was shocked, because I had never encountered this directly in somebody that age in the school. I’ve encountered it with older people for whom it’s okay, at $80,000 a year or so, to play “let’s invent a submarine”. I’ve encountered it in little kids. But never directly with that age group, and it only hit me then that this must be going on all the time with people that age. It’s just that you’re selfconscious about it in your teens. It looks childish and you’re not being paid a high salary to do it, so you keep it to yourself.

The second kind of play is undetermined activity within a narrow framework. That’s an activity where there are a lot of boundaries, but there’s still a good deal of freedom of action within them – for example, any game with rules. “Let’s play Monopoly”. What’s the “play” in Monopoly? There are all these rules. You can’t just do what you want. You have to roll the dice, move the pieces this way, go to jail, get out of jail, and all that. But a lot is not determined. Part of it by the throw of the dice. Part of it by how you strategize.

Or consider, “Let’s play computer games”. That seems like an especially highly determined environment, at first sight. It’s so determined that people who don’t know very much about computer games always claim it’s mind numbing, because they focus on the images on the computer screen and the repetitiousness that they see in those images. They consider the activity to be robot-like, and they miss the “play” in it, the undetermined part.

It’s obvious we can’t always sharply distinguish an undetermined activity within a broad framework from one within a narrow framework, because there’s every kind of degree in between. For example, in every case of play, whether it’s within a broad framework or a narrow framework, there are rules. Play and rules are not incompatible with each other. On the contrary, they’re always found together. There are always “rules of the game”. The question is, how many rules there are. Some of the rules are man made, some are made by nature. If you want to play at inventing a submarine, you’ve got the properties of water that you have to deal with. What makes it play is that, no matter how many rules, no matter how broad or narrow the framework, there’s an indeterminate part of the activity that allows for a lot of freedom of action.

Seeing play in this light helps explain why play is always closely linked to the concept of curiosity, to which we at Sudbury Valley were very sensitive from the beginning. Curiosity is the innate drive that people have to explore the unknown – in other words, to explore the, as yet, undetermined. Inherent in the exploration of the unknown is an indeterminate activity. Curiosity drives play, and play feeds on curiosity. They’re very closely interlinked. We’ve frequently quoted Aristotle’s statement, made some 2,000 years ago, that human beings are by nature curious. But what we didn’t appreciate until much later is that being naturally curious links closely to the idea of play. Curiosity implies the desire to play, because they both involve indeterminateness.

It’s an observed fact that play is universal. It’s freely chosen by people of all ages. People enjoy it. People devote enormous amount of energy to it. They focus on it. They don’t complain about the amount of effort they put into it. Worth noting in this connection is an observation that many of us have made in this school when dealing with so-called “attention-deficit disorders”. Over and over again with children who supposedly are lacking ability to pay attention to something for an extended period, if you ask their parents whether they play, the answer is invariably, “Oh, yes. They can play for hours.” They can carve wood, play computer games, write, do all sorts of play activities, for hours on end. But they can’t pay attention to their school work. The point is that focusing is a side effect of play. Play is so engrossing, so involving, it absorbs your whole personality, your whole psyche. Only if I encounter a child who is unable to carry out the activity of play with focus and with energy, do I know that I’ve encountered a situation that is potentially a serious problem from a health point of view.

What makes play so central to the human race? What is its evolutionary function? My contention is that the survival and enhancement of the human species is centrally linked to play. Here’s how I see it: human beings as a species are unique, with respect to the extent to which they have a pro-active interaction with the environment. Human beings have the ability to interact with the environment in a way that is aggressively interactive – to manipulate the environment, understand it, create models of the environment, modify it, and have it feed back information to them. One of the ways humans interact with the environment is by seeking to affect conditions in a way that will enhance human welfare.

So, it’s part of human nature – the pro-active interaction with the environment – to be able to seek ways to change the environment through the exploration of the unknown. And the way mankind progresses is by looking for new, as yet undetermined, factors, taking advantage of them, developing them, bringing them within the realm of human knowledge, and then going on from there to new unknowns.

There is no change in condition without innovation. That’s a tautology. There are, again, not surprisingly, two kinds of innovation that progress humanity. One is openended innovation, free-form invention, and the other is innovation within a more determinate framework.

Let’s look first at open-ended innovation within a broad domain. An example is the invention of the microscope. Huyghens was an optician. He was a highly skilled craftsman. He was on the cutting edge of optics, and lenses, etc. So he had the broad framework of optics, of light, and related fields. He was “playing” with these, in the deepest sense of the term. It was an accident, in a sense, that he discovered that a certain configuration of lenses gave incredible enlargements – an accident in the sense that he didn’t expect it to happen before he did it. There was nothing in the theory of optics at the time that led him to believe that this would occur. That’s what I mean by open-ended innovation. He had a broad framework within which he was working. But his curiosity, his play, his experimentation led him to a point where he could make something that could see very small objects.

To appreciate this, I recommend to you to try to invent the microscope. I say this half-jokingly because I taught college physics for many years, and one thing that students do in most introductory physics labs is build a microscope. You give the kids lenses and you say, “Make a microscope”; of course, there’s a lab manual that tells them what to do. Even so, it’s very, very difficult. You can’t see anything most of the time. It doesn’t work unless they’re just the right kinds of lenses, the right kinds of distances and the image that you’re looking at is just in the right place. The same is true of a telescope. Putting two lenses together is a really difficult game to play, a really difficult kind of invention.

Computers are another example of what I call open-ended innovation. The idea of a calculating machine goes back to the 19th century, but that’s a far cry from the particular way computers are put together. Mathematicians in general are a breed unto themselves; they spend their entire lives playing. The people who invented the computer were playing with open-ended innovations, and they had no idea where they would lead. Today, it is hard to realize how far into the unknown they were probing. You can get a feel for it if you read the history of computers. After the first large computer had been put together (by large, I mean, LARGE; I mean a computer that took up much more room than the school’s barn, most of it filled with radio tubes), people said to Chairman of IBM, “This is a very interesting machine. Obviously it can do a lot. Do you envision a considerable market for this?” And he replied, “Not really. I can imagine four or five such machines being needed in the world.” Even more remarkable is the story of the history of personal computers. The founder of Intel, the chip makers, was asked, “How come you guys didn’t invent the personal computer? You had it in the palm of your hands.” The chip is the computer, basically, for all intents and purposes. “You had the chip.” And he answered, “We knew we had it, so we sat around and brainstormed about what a personal computer could be used for. Nobody could think of any use except for collecting recipes. I said to my colleagues that I could not see my wife sitting in the kitchen with this gadget, filling out recipes. So we dropped it.” I believe that story because it has the ring of truth. It’s typical about open-ended innovation. It’s so far out. It’s extremely new. It’s a leap. It doesn’t fit anything.

My last example is the invention of electromagnetic waves, by James Clerk Maxwell. He devised formulas which predicted, among other things, that electromagnetic waves could travel through space at the speed of light. These formulas were published in the 1860's and nobody paid any attention. He was a very famous man. Everybody recognized him as a leading figure in physics. But the idea of the waves just sat there. It was over 25 years later that a German experimental physicist by the name of Hertz happened to wonder whether there actually might be phenomena like that. He figured out an easy way to find out. He set up a little experiment, guided by Maxwell’s equations, that would create a spark at one place and cause an effect somewhere else. He plugged it in, started it, and it worked! So he published a paper which said that electromagnetic waves exist – and everybody went back to sleep. It didn’t mean anything within the prevailing framework of physics at the time.

Let’s look at the other kind of innovation, that occurs within a more determinate framework. We have a name for that in our culture. We call it “Research and Development” (R&D). A very interesting point was made a while ago in the Economist magazine. One of the editors wrote a little piece on R&D vs free-form invention. R&D has a bit of a bad rap, like computer games, like all play within a narrower framework. R&D is the stepson of “real” invention in the hierarchy of the cognitive world. Who are considered to be the geniuses? The inventors. What do second-rate people do? They do R&D. That little piece in the Economist pointed out that really significant advances, in terms of the human progress that I’m talking about, are always made in the R&D field. Great inventions, in and of themselves, have minimal impact on cultural progress. History books exalt them and talk about the great genius of inventors. But the impact on society, on human advancement, really comes from the genius of R&D because R&D focuses on innovating within the new framework which the invention created.

All microscopic biology came from Huyghens’ invention. It’s all R&D, a parade of people making one slide after another, cutting up samples and doing all sorts of seemingly repetitive and boring work, from which ultimately emerged all the discoveries and inventions that constitute cellular biology. Electromagnetic waves were dormant until a fellow named Marconi, an R&D guy from Italy, actually used them to send messages across the Atlantic. After that, people grasped that this was a gigantic advance in human communication.

Of course, there’s no sharp dividing line between the two kinds of innovation. The case of x-rays is an amusing example of the crossover when somebody doing R&D happens across an open-ended innovation. It’s a wonderful story because Roentgen, the fellow who discovered x-rays, was probably one of the most boring physicists who ever lived. His field was viscosity and the way he spend his time was dropping little metal balls through tubes of liquid, watching how fast they dropped. I’m exaggerating, but that’s about as exciting as it was. I don’t want to go into details of the story but in his lab it so happened that he came across x-rays. In his own field, he wasn’t an-open ended innovator, but he noticed this phenomenon, which I’m sure others before him had seen, and he became curious enough to “play” with it. In fact, he was so excited – this was the only exciting thing that ever happened in his life – that he locked himself into his lab for a week. He refused to let anybody in because he was afraid somebody would scoop him. He made them leave his food outside the door. After a week he published a paper and he was never heard from again, basically, because the second he published his paper, everybody who knew about the field he had stumbled onto leapt in and did their R&D and swept way ahead. But he’s the discoverer; they’re still called “Roentgen Rays” in Europe.

There is a close correspondence between the two kinds of innovation and the two kinds of play, because the two kinds of play are the progenitors of the two kinds of innovation. This doesn’t mean that every open-ended play will create a cultural revolution of innovation, and it doesn’t mean that every play within a narrower framework will lead to a great R&D development like the PC, but the two activities are closely related, by nature.

Aristotle, who was so clever in so many ways, intuitively recognized this. He understood the importance of undetermined activity for human progress. He called it “leisure”, but he really meant the ability to perform activities that have no fixed bounds. Aristotle pointed out very simply that culture depended on leisure and that the extent to which the human race is able to enjoy leisure is the extent to which the human race is able to move beyond its confines and to advance.

The Greeks liked their leisure and they truly believed that leisure created culture. The best place you can see that is in their schools – for example, as pictured in Plato’s dialogues. Read “The Symposium”, one of the great philosophical pieces of all time. It’s a discussion of great philosophical ideas and it takes place in a drunken orgy. Literally. An orgy in which the main theme was, can anyone drink more than Socrates? This was another way of proving what a great philosopher Socrates was! The point is that great thinking comes out of non-structured, open-ended play. The Greeks weren’t embarrassed about it. They didn’t have a hidden agenda. They didn’t say, “We’re playing, but as a side result we’re getting motor skills.” The leisure activity produced the culture and where there was no leisure, there was no advance of culture as far as the Greeks could see.2

From this perspective, human history really has two major eras: All of history until now; and the post industrial age. During the first era, permission to play was only granted to a small, powerful elite. The reason for this is that the full efforts of the vast majority of the human race were required for survival work. The elite who could afford leisure usually maintained their special status by some kind of brute force; but since you can’t rule the whole human race just by force, you have to use psychological mechanisms too. You have to convince the people they shouldn’t want leisure. The denigration of play is part of this massive campaign against leisure. The thing to do is work. The thing to do is your “duty”.

Why did 95% of the population accept this state of affairs for so long? History holds the answer. When society moved from hunter/gatherer to agricultural, much more changed than economic factors. All kinds of evolutionary behavior that the human race had developed to adapt to its initial hunter/gatherer situation had to undergo transformation as well. What enabled this to happen was the great material gains provided by the transition. In particular, people had more food than ever before. This provided a little surplus for an elite, which in turn led to substantial non-material gains – namely, the beginning of a broad-based culture. You have art, you have theatre, you have music, you have literature, you have advanced technology, you have accurate recorded history, you have a judicial system. The reason most of the population could accept their situation is that, overall, they gained more than they lost. How many people throughout the agricultural era got up and left the farms to go back to tribal life? You don’t find people leaving the cities of Syria and Egypt en masse and saying, “Forget all this. Let’s go back to the Sahara Desert or to the Central African jungle because life is much better there. We can be freer.” They stayed put because, even though they didn’t have the freedom and personal status that they had as hunter/gatherers, the gains were tremendous. It’s a kind of cultural cost-benefit analysis: people tolerate a radically new state of affairs because on the whole they’re better off than they were in the older state of affairs.

When you get the transition from an agricultural to an industrial society, you have the same kind of situation. You have another leap forward, more material gains and more cost. Instead of people being slaves to the land, they’re slaves to the factory. They work longer hours, but they live better than ever before. Once again, how many people streamed out of cities to go back to farms? Why did people emigrate in the other direction? Because however miserable their urban lives were, the gains were worth the cost.

So for thousands of years, only a small fraction of the population was in a position to have the leisure to contribute to the growth of culture in any profound way. This situation was maintained because the rest of the population, overall, benefitted more than they paid. They were able to eat better, dress better, live better, and be healthier than ever before. From the vantage point of the 20th century, life in the 1700's may not look very appealing, but to somebody living then, life in Liverpool looked a lot better than life on the farm. And to somebody living in the year 3000 B.C., living in Babylon felt a lot better than living in the mountains of Kurdestan.

Now we’re in the second great human era, the post industrial age. That era is defined by the invention of devices which replace all mechanical activity by electronically driven, semi-intelligent activity. It frees an ever-growing percentage of the human race from having to devote themselves to basic survival needs. A small fraction of the work that you do is required to satisfy your basic needs for food, clothing, and shelter. The age of leisure for everybody is at hand. We were brought up with the older concepts, with the remnants of the earlier era’s way of thinking. Children growing up today, however, understand intuitively, if not cognitively, that the future belongs to leisure, and that the challenge of being an adult in the future is being able to use your leisure to the fullest extent of your potential, to be able to use every bit of your skill and innovative capability and creativity. Play is the centerpin of the future. It’s not a side issue. It’s the key to the future.3

People are beginning to appreciate that free play is creative activity. Unfortunately, a lot of times when people write about play, they get caught up in trying to prove that it’s OK by giving a quantitative measure to children’s ability to play and be creative. They put children in laboratories and tell them to be creative in one way or another. I have nothing against that, except that it doesn’t measure what we’re talking about. It’s inherently impossible to measure the benefit of leisure, because the essence of creativity is that it’s indeterminate, while the essence of measurement is precisely that it is determinate. These two cannot coexist. The minute you circumscribe an activity enough to measure it, you’ve lost its true innovative value.

The nature of play within a narrow framework, and its connection to R&D, is a lot less appreciated. A sonnet is perfect example of what I’m talking about. A sonnet is a highly structured form of poetry, yet some of the greatest poetry has been written in sonnet form. The beauty of creativity here is the great artist’s struggle to be innovative within this framework. That’s the R&D challenge. We praise people who succeed in doing that. We call them great poets. If all the students in Sudbury Valley were sitting down and writing sonnets all day, everybody would be thrilled. Nobody would have a problem. We’d have a waiting list of a thousand people. “This is a school where people write sonnets.” But tell people that there are children who sit and play computer games for five hours, and they’re beginning to wonder whether they should let their kids enroll, or mix with other kids who do that. “Don’t go to the barn! It’s OK for you to go to school, but don’t go to the barn.” The challenge for us is to have people see that these are two aspects of the same thing. We’re just not comfortable with certain activities, because we didn’t grow up with them. Adults over thirty years old – I don’t care how computerliterate they are – are not in the same place mentally as young kids relative to the creative potential of maneuvering within computer games. You’ve got to see it to understand it. Personally, I can’t feel it, but I can see it. I can see it in the eyes of the people involved. I can see it in their conversation, in their interactions.

The basic point I’m trying to make is that giving children the freedom to play is giving them the freedom to explore the nature of the innovative process first-hand. To give that freedom is the most direct way to provide an environment in which their lifelong useful adult activities will be foreshadowed, as they enter the era of innovation, leisure, and creativity.

That leads to a final observation. As children grow older in the school, their play naturally progresses to modalities that are more appropriate to adulthood. This is a natural process. It’s a matter of continuity. It’s the same activity, just engaged in a few years later. And all of the characteristics of play – the joy, the focus, the concentration continue into adulthood.

As to the question, “Why is play fun?”, the answer is simply that this guarantees that the human race will go on doing it. Otherwise, why bother doing it? It’s like sex. It’s just as central. Curbing play is just like enforcing celibacy.



1. During the school year 1997-98, as part of Sudbury Valley School’s Thirtieth Anniversary celebrations, a series of six talks was presented on the theme: What We Know Now That We Didn’t Know Thirty Years Ago. This is an edited version of the first talk, presented on October 28, 1997.

2. During the question-and-answer period following the talk, the following exchange took place:
Q. I think some of the problem comes with the use of the word “leisure”, because we define it as time that we can do whatever we want, like ski, or sail. But leisure, the way I see you using the word, can include working a twelve hour day. If, in fact, that’s what you want to be doing. If you love writing pieces to market something, that’s leisure time.
D. That’s right. It means anything not devoted to the absolute essential biological survival.
Q. That’s where we get into trouble because we’re working x amount of hours to get this much leisure time and, in fact, the leisure could be built in all along the way in the work hours, if the mind is free and having a good time.
D. That’s the exact same problem I was referring to with the word “play,” because play really means something much broader. Actually, it’s work in the creative sense.

3. During the question-and-answer period following the talk, the following exchange took place:
Q. I would like to be optimistic, but I’m a little concerned because I think one can see other points in recent history where we have had the same opportunity presented. I’m thinking, for instance, when we had the entry of women to the work force, it shouldn’t take more than forty hours to feed a family. But, in fact what happened is it has taken sixty to eighty. The total amount of labor that it takes to feed a family is, in fact, going up. It doesn’t seem to me that’s because we’re getting more stuff. Maybe I’m too young to realize how much more stuff we’re getting, but it seems to me in large part that what’s happening is that this economy is creating jobs that are not productive; that an awful lot of the work people are obliged to do in order to eat, is not work to produce the food that’s eaten, not work to produce the clothes that are worn, but work, instead, to sell the food that is eaten, sell the clothes that are worn, basically changing the flow of capital from one set of hands to another without the actual creation of capital. So I have trouble being optimistic about a turnaround in the culture that enables people to be freed from unnecessary labor because, at least the way things have been going, the culture seems to be doing everything it can to make sure that everyone’s got busy work.

D: You just described the turnaround! That, to me, is the most interesting facet of the turnaround, one that is perhaps hardest to recognize. The way I discovered that for myself was when I was thinking about housing. I guess this was about ten years ago, when one of the things that everybody was moaning about was that the American Dream was over, because it’s too expensive to buy a house, etc. You don’t hear quite as much about this today because of the housing turnaround. When I started thinking about that, I said to myself, “Wait a minute, what kind of house did I grow up in the 1930's and 1940's? A house in the year 1500 meant four mud walls and some kind of a grass roof and a mud floor and basically no furniture. Most everyone had a “house” then. A house in 1900 meant something else. In 1930, when my parents bought their house in a very nice suburb of Philadelphia, it was considered a nice, middle class house. Today, it couldn’t be sold! The house of today is something entirely different.

What you’re describing is exactly the turnaround. What people see as not producing “useful capital” is the production of variety. Let’s back up for a minute. What is the problem for an entrepreneur, or any inventor? It’s marketing his idea. I don’t care whether you paint pictures, take photographs, build buildings, you can be the best in the world, if you cannot market yourself, if you can’t get somebody else to be willing to part with cash for what you’re doing, you might as well do something else. The whole point of marketing is to get your product, what you have done, what you have created, out there to enough people that somebody will want to pick it up. The turnaround happens in this age where you have so many new avenues of marketing, so much vaster communication ability than you had forty years ago. The reason people want all these things, the reason people are working so hard, is because there are just so many more interesting things out there to get. It’s not because they’re greedy. It’s because the products are interesting. It’s more aesthetically interesting to own pretty clothes. It’s actually nice to have more than one pair of shoes.

There are so many ways to illustrate this new phenomenon. For example, consider the proliferation of magazines. When I was young, there were Life, Time, Fortune – just a handful. Today there’s a magazine for everything: for bicyclists, for runners, for racketball, tennis, etc. More than one. And they’re all lavishly illustrated and they all have lots of focused ads in them. Puritans look at all this and say, “This is a society of greed. It’s not producing real things.” It’s ridiculous. This is a society in which imagination is running wild. And the fact that people want to work another ten hours a week, in order that they can buy these really neat interesting ideas that they come across, is a sign that they’re more excited about life, in my view. Our society is bubbling with this excitement. But we’re still slightly ashamed of it, because we’ve got this Puritan ethic boring down on us. So while we’re all doing it, we’re saying, “Oh, what a terrible thing. We’ve become so materialistic. We’ve worked so hard. We’re not enjoying it anymore. We work twice as hard. We barely make it.” But in fact, what we’re really doing, when we’re not thinking in those dark terms, is going to the mall to see what’s new! That’s the imagination working, not greed!

Just compare what’s on the shelves in the supermarket today with what I went to a store to buy when I was a kid and there were no supermarkets! So what does food mean today? I have a friend who lived on next to nothing because he lived on food that would have been perfectly standard in 19th -century Ireland. He lived on boiled onions and boiled potatoes! And he did fine. His food budget was nil. If you want to live on potatoes and onions, you can live on very little. Same with a car. A car means something totally different from the tin Lizzie we owned in 1945. You couldn’t even get a thing like that registered anymore. You can clothe yourself very nicely on very little money. But, it doesn’t have the same excitement. It doesn’t have the same meaning.

That’s innovation. That’s play. That’s what it is to be human. That’s what our 19-month old grandchild is doing all day. He’s looking for new excitement in the house. There isn’t a thing that we can keep in the house anymore. The house is a shambles because he wants to look at everything.

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