Who is Coercing Whom?

The other day on my way to the kitchen to heat up my lunch, I overheard Dan (staff) explaining to two girls (ages 6 and 7) that it was time for him to take a break for lunch.  They told him, gently but firmly, that he would be able to eat his lunch as soon as his ballet lesson was over.  At this point, Dan, now looking a bit worried, asked the girls to make clearer their expectations of him for this class.  They said that their ballet class required four hours a day, five days a week, of hard work.  I did not stick around to see how this would play itself out.  Later that day, however, I was startled when I looked up and saw James (another staff) awkwardly lurching across the room, flapping his arms in vain, like a thanksgiving turkey trying to achieve lift-off.  Apparently, these girls had now essentially forced James under their tutelage, as well.  

Dan has written quite movingly, elsewhere on this blog, about how much he appreciates the opportunity that the Macomber Center provides for him to stretch outside his comfort zone and to take the role of a beginner.  It provides an atmosphere where it’s okay to be vulnerable, where people feel safe facing their limitations and exposing their insecurities.  But as I watched James being put through his paces by his new ballet instructors, I could see that he did not necessarily share Dan’s enthusiasm for being forced up against his own limits, or this case tripping over them.  No, this spectacle was a testament not to James’ capacity to submit himself to difficulty but to these girl’s sheer force of will, their stubborn determination to impose their own interests on others.  This is when it suddenly struck me; we are by no means a community free of coercion, at least not any more.

The question of coercion is always a hot button issue in any self-directed learning community. The debate most often revolves around the slippery question, what constitutes coercion?  If kids aren’t being explicitly required to participate in certain activities, are they nonetheless receiving subtle messages from the adults about how they should be spending their time?  I find this ballet class quite funny because these little girls have decided that James and Dan should learn ballet, and there is nothing subtle about their tactics.

There is a line of thinking which will be at least familiar to, if not totally embraced by, any self-directed learning community.  It goes like this; for adults to provide any type of offerings, from formal classes or lectures to informal activities like projects or book clubs, is, in effect, to deem certain activities more worthwhile than others.  In other words, so the argument goes, the role of the adults in a self-directed learning community is not to act as arbiters of what is “educational” and what is not, but rather to support the interests of the kids, whatever they may be.  The idea is that, though often well-intentioned, this kind of guiding, mentoring, facilitating, or whatever we choose to call it, can have the effect of preempting the real work, the very difficult work, of kids taking responsibility for their own lives, learning what they find personally engaging and meaningful and then figuring out how to pursue it in a satisfying way.

Whale I am sympathetic to this line of thinking as a reaction against the more pernicious, subtle forms of coercion, I have also seen it lead to excessive anxiety on the part of adults who fear that even the most innocent suggestion - have you ever read this book? You might enjoy it - might be taken as an implicit demand and an absolute value judgment as to the value of reading books over playing video games, for example.  Ultimately, this anxiety about coercion leads to inhibition and prevents meaningful relationships from developing between children and adults; relationships based on genuinely shared interests.  

But what does this little anecdote about the ballet class actually tell us about the question of coercion?  After all, it was obviously a game for the girls and the adults didn’t really feel pressured.  It’s true that the girls were having lots of fun, and it’s true that the adults were enjoying it too, and were more than happy to play along.  But this is precisely the point.  Kids and adults engage in activities together all the time here at the Center.  Sometimes the idea comes from a kid, sometimes it comes from an adult.  It’s never based on what one person thinks another person should be doing, but what one or more people want to do.  Adults here have no problem speaking up if they don’t want to do something, and kids here don’t have any problem speaking up either.  I think the episode of the ballet class speaks volumes about the level of genuine respect that the kids and the adults have for each other as equals.