Thursday, August 09, 2007


The case of the Legotown teachers clearly highlights the worst sins of the postmodern left: Dogmatic thinking, hypocrisy, covert authoritarianism and a lack of scientific integrity and curiosity on the part of the authors, Ann Pelo and Kendra Pelojoaquin.

In an upper-middle class Seattle suburb, a group of 5 to 8 year old children collaborated to build Legotown, "a massive series of Lego[™] structures."
Children dug through hefty-sized bins of Legos, sought "cool pieces," and bartered and exchanged until they established a collection of homes, shops, public facilities, and community meeting places. ...

[T]he Legotown builders turned their attention to complex negotiations among themselves about what sorts of structures to build, whether these ought to be primarily privately owned or collectively used, and how "cool pieces" would be distributed and protected. These negotiations gave rise to heated conflict and to insightful conversation.

The authors give short shrift to these "insightful conversations"; reporting only a single conversation, an instance of intelligent, reasoned negotiation:
"I'm making an airport and landing strip for my guy's house. He has his own airplane," said Oliver [age 8].

"That's not fair!" said Carl [also age 8]. "That takes too many cool pieces and leaves not enough for me."

"Well, I can let other people use the landing strip, if they have airplanes," said Oliver. "Then it's fair for me to use more cool pieces, because it's for public use."
This would have been an incredible opportunity to document how these children conduct negotiations and diplomacy (presumably) without violence in a natural setting. But rather than observe and record this amazing opportunity, or even use it as an opportunity to teach and interact, the authors become concerned only that some children appeared not to participate in the activity.
Other children were eager to join the project, but as the city grew — and space and raw materials became more precious — the builders began excluding other children.

Occasionally, Legotown leaders explicitly rebuffed children, telling them that they couldn't play. Typically the exclusion was more subtle, growing from a climate in which Legotown was seen as the turf of particular kids.
The scientist must grind his teeth in frustration: Which children were explicitly rebuffed? Which children were subject to more subtle exclusion? How were they excluded? Who was included and how? The authors present their conclusion: Legotown was seen as "turf," and "the children were building their assumptions about ownership and the social power it conveys — assumptions that mirrored those of a class-based, capitalist society," but they present no data or argument whatsoever to support this conclusion.

As best I can tell from the sparse information the authors present to us, the children were enacting a social structure which looks like some sort of anarcho-socialism. The unbuilt Legos were not subject to anyone's arbitrary control; their use and disposition was—on the basis of the only evidence actually presented—rational discourse and popular consensus about the their efficient use to fulfill a common goal.

The only criteria presented for justifying the teachers' concern was the exclusion of some of the children when resources became scarce and the construction became complicated and elaborate. But the excluded children didn't seem to be particularly distressed:
The other children didn't complain much about [being excluded]; when asked about Legos, they'd often comment vaguely that they just weren't interested in playing with Legos anymore.
The teachers seem not at all concerned with the children's happiness, only their own dogmatic judgment: The Legotown society, by virtue of mirroring a class-based, capitalist society, was taken on faith to be "unjust and oppressive". It's difficult to figure out which offended these teachers more, the lack of absolute equality of participation or that the excluded children failed to perceive and be outraged by their own "oppression".

There's quite a lot of cognitive development that goes on between 5 and 8 years old, and 8-year-olds start developing their own individual interests. Standard Legos are at best only barely age-appropriate for 5 and 6 year-olds; younger children are not at all cognitively capable of making complex structures; and it's at least plausible to believe that not all 7 and 8-year-old children will be interested in the increasingly complex negotiations necessary to grow this massive structure. The teachers appear to give these natural differences no consideration whatsoever.

We do, of course, expect teachers to not only passively observe and record, but also to actively guide children's intellectual, moral and political development. The teachers might participated in this social structure, they might have given some gentle, indirect guidance to integrate the younger, less-interested or less-socially-competent children into the process without blatantly violating the autonomy of children's own social efforts.

They did not do so. They simply sat back with mounting concern over the children's political incorrectness until a fortuitous crisis allowed them to destroy the children's own social system and give them an opportunity to exercise their ham-handed authoritarianism to indoctrinate the children.
Then, tragedy struck Legotown and we saw an opportunity to take strong action.

Hilltop is housed in a church, and over a long weekend, some children in the congregation who were playing in our space accidentally demolished Legotown. [emphasis added]
Again, they simply fail to observe how these children react to the demolition of all their hard work? They naturally suffer shock and grief, but do they become demoralized? Angry? Vengeful? How are they going to manage the rebuilding? The authors give us little information; they report only a single, measured, apparently intelligent response to a suggested clean-up effort:
The Legotown builders were fierce in their opposition. They explained that particular children "owned" those pieces and it would be unfair to put them back in the bins where other children might use them.
The teachers responded:
We met as a teaching staff later that day. We saw the decimation of Legotown as an opportunity to launch a critical evaluation of Legotown and the inequities of private ownership and hierarchical authority on which it was founded.
Why was the decimation seen as an opportunity for critical evaluation? These are 5 to 8-year old children: The teachers can critically evaluate anything any time they please.

The decimation did present an opportunity. Not an opportunity to engage in critical evaluation, but an opportunity to exercise arbitrary hierarchical power under cover of responding to the crisis; they exploited the children's emotional response to the loss of their work and achievement to redirect outrage at what the children would have otherwise seen as the arbitrary exercise of the teachers' power.
We didn't want simply to step in as teachers with a new set of rules about how the children could use Legos, exchanging one set of authoritarian rules with another. Ann suggested removing the Legos from the classroom. This bold decision would demonstrate our discomfort with the issues we saw at play in Legotown. And it posed a challenge to the children: How might we create a "community of fairness" about Legos?

Children are not stupid. When the teachers arbitrarily exercise the coercive, hierarchical authority of their position (not to mention their size) to oppress children by confiscating something they care deeply about, they are not demonstrating their "discomfort", they are sending a crystal clear message: You will use your considerable intelligence to figure out what we want you to say, you will say it, and you will convince us of your absolute sincerity. Submit or lose your Legos for good.

The details of the unsurprisingly successful effort to have the students parrot their teachers' dogma are unimportant. Once the teachers blatantly exercise their arbitrary authority, the idea that whatever follows is in any way "democratic" is a joke. The children quickly latch on to the teachers' dogma of absolute equalitarianism. Instead of the earlier, sophisticated conversation regarding the trade-off between coolness and ordinary-ness, public and private use, the children—with the teachers' enthusiastic approval—make static rules counting such trivialities as bumps and bricks.

After ensuring the children parrot the correct dogma the indoctrination proceeds with an intellectually dishonest bait and switch. The teachers again use their hierarchical authority to create a game predicated not on rational negotiation but on randomly determined arbitrary power (arguably a better model for our own capitalistic society).
Our intention was to create a situation in which a few children would receive unearned power from sheer good luck in choosing Lego bricks with high point values, and then would wield that power with their peers. ...

We introduced the Lego trading game to the children by passing a bin of Legos around the circle, asking each child to choose 10 Legos; we didn't say anything about point values or how we'd use the bricks. Most children chose a mix of colored Lego bricks, though a few chose 10 of one color. Liam took all eight green Legos, explaining that green is his favorite color; this seemingly straightforward choice altered the outcome of the game.

When everyone had their Legos, the teachers announced that each color had a point value: The more common the brick color, the fewer the points it was worth, while the scarcest brick color, green, was worth a whopping five points.
Naturally, the children were considerably dismayed.
Before we could launch a conversation as teachers, the children's raw emotion carried us into a passionate exchange.
Drew: "Liam, you don't have to brag in people's faces."

Carl: "The winner would stomp his feet and go ‘Yes' in the face of people. It felt kind of mean."

Liam: "I was happy! I wasn't trying to stomp in people's faces."

Carl: "I don't like that winners make new rules. People make rules that are only in their advantage. They could have written it simpler that said, ‘Only I win.'"

Juliet: "Because they wanted to win and make other people feel bad."

Kyla: "I wasn't trying to make other people feel bad. I felt bad when people felt bad, so I tried to make a rule that would make them feel better. It was fun to make up the rule — like a treat, to be one of only three people out of the whole group."
The authors draw a scientifically unsound conclusion from this exercise: "When people are shut out of participation in the power structure, they are disenfranchised — and angry, discouraged, and hurt."

Remember that when the children were "shut out" of participation in the children's earlier, autonomous efforts, they were not "angry, discouraged and hurt." They appeared indifferent. The different outcome in the "capitalism" game seems obviously due to the arbitrariness of the power differential, not to the power differential itself.

The teachers conclude their article extolling careful observation, interaction, and give lip service to the values of equality and democracy.
Children absorb political, social, and economic worldviews from an early age. Those worldviews show up in their play, which is the terrain that young children use to make meaning about their world and to test and solidify their understandings. We believe that educators have a responsibility to pay close attention to the themes, theories, and values that children use to anchor their play. Then we can interact with those worldviews, using play to instill the values of equality and democracy.
It's instructive that the teachers did none of these things. They did not observe in any careful sense how the children themselves used their play to create meaning; they merely rushed to judgment vis a vis an a priori dogma. They did not "interact": They used their authority to ensure that the children would be compliant to this dogma. And their ham-handed authoritarianism made a hypocritical mockery of the values of equality and democracy.

There are times, of course, when any humanist must support teachers directly employing their authority over young children: When children are being violent, physically destructive or intentionally cruel. Even then, a good teacher will employ a more deft touch than shown here. But absent any evidence whatsoever that there was an egregious violation of basic ethics—only a contravention of the teachers' ideological dogma—their authoritarian indoctrination is insupportable and caused a diminution of the children's own social development and autonomy.

[Note: If you wish to republish this essay, you're free to reproduce only the text preceding this note]

Addendum: I discovered the Legotown article through David Thompson. I don't know which to be more appalled by: The teachers' own ineptitude, or Thompson's tendentious analysis. He gets most everything wrong.

First, he trivializes the value of observing children's play and using it as an opportunity to teach. Playing and toys are the essence of childhood, and their importance should be obvious to anyone who is interested in the cognitive development of children. A good social scientist or child psychologist could have extracted an entire Ph.D. thesis or publication just from observing and recording the social dynamics—good and bad—of the original Legotown exercise.

Thompson appears not so much interested in the teachers' authoritarianism per se; he appears more interested that they pushed the wrong ideology. He appears to take the teachers at their word that the children's original play was capitalistic and the subsequent teacher-structured nonsense was socialistic. He's simply wrong: The original play appears to have been anarchic: There was no exercise of coercive power; decisions appear to have been made on the basis of negotiation. There's no evidence whatsoever that the original play was capitalistic, i.e. where power is exercised by virtue of owning the building blocks themselves. Contrast the children's original exercise with the "capitalism" game later imposed by the teachers, where ownership of the blocks themselves was the controlling feature of the game. The original and the final exercises are both socialistic; the first is anarchic, the second is authoritarian.

Thompson justly doubts the children's ability to critically examine the teachers' own dogma, but the problem runs much deeper than that: By imposing their authority, the teachers undermine critical examination in toto. You cannot engage in any kind of critical examination without the kind of autonomy destroyed by the teachers authority.

Furthermore, one could critically examine the teachers' own exercise in "critical examination": There appears to be a complete lack of logical analysis; the only "method" appears to be: If someone feels bad about something, their evaluation and conclusions are automatically true.


  1. This deserves to be read and reread. We are subject these days to a great deal of this "authoritarianism under the guise of egalitarianism." One of the hallmarks of this authoritarianism is a distrust of spontaneous process and an insistence on controlled conscious process. The desire for control always comes from anxiety.

    In this case the capitalist society serves as a stand-in for "original sin."

    Or, in Freudian terms, it is as though the teachers could only "think" egalitarianism and democracy at the level of superego, but not at their proper level of ego. In any case this little Lego example is a potent illustration of a deep epistemological confusion in the American left today, a victory of ideology over naturalism. It is an anxious sense that Utopia must happen but will only do so via control; it is the polar opposite of Taoism.

  2. It bears repeating, I think, that the original children's game was not at all capitalistic: The teachers objected, rather, to the lack absolute egalitarianism that can come about only by authoritarian control, which they managed to exercise.

  3. ...absolute material egalitarianism...

  4. Now that I've read Thompson's take and the comments, I give you even more kudos on your analysis. The comments focus on points of anthropology that are not really relevant to the issue. And on left-right issues that are even less so: I agree that the conservatives get the issues wrong here (and their belief in the "naturalness" of capitalism is not one which I share). There was one artist, in that long comment thread, who saw what you saw.

    In my opinion what we see with these teachers is a kind of turn of the screw of Foucaultian power. It is the exertion of power at a meta-level which denies that which it is. In a sense this meta-power-power gives even less scope for the individual liberty to criticize it, than does simple authoritarian power. Ultimately the new power is one which does not recognize itself as power, and will not accept a critique of itself as power, yet wants, as the conservatives do effectively point out, particular outcomes.

    In that sense the "spontaneously correct" responses that the children came up with after their play had been pedagogically guided, are in some sense related to Foucault's "confessionalism" in modern regimes of power and knowledge.

    It is not anymore a simple opposition of spontaneity versus discipline, as in some ham-handed authoritarianism. It is a meta-attempt to discipline the very spontaneity of the children themselves, to "structure" it for outcomes. To "get them to find the right answers by themselves," but the answers are still predetermined, not a matter of free inquiry.

  5. Humbition: Your analysis is quite perspicacious. May I republish your comments starting from the 2nd paragraph on the front page of the blog?

    Also, if you have a blog of your own, I'd very much like to read it.

  6. We saw the decimation of Lego-town as an opportunity to launch a critical evaluation of Legotown and the inequities of private ownership and hierarchical authority on which it was founded. Our intention was to promote a contrasting set of values: collectivity, collaboration, resource-sharing, and full democratic participation.

    Jesus H. Christ on a stick with a side of pickles.

  7. "When people are shut out of participation in the power structure, they are disenfranchised — and angry, discouraged, and hurt."

    Remember that when the children were "shut out" of participation in the children's earlier, autonomous efforts, they were not "angry, discouraged and hurt." They appeared indifferent. The different outcome in the "capitalism" game seems obviously due to the arbitrariness of the power differential, not to the power differential itself.

    The fascinating thing here is, as you point out, the teacher's complete misinterpration of what is occurring. When free to choose to participate or not participate, the "excluded" children rapidly found other interests that were nearly as or just as rewarding to them.

    When forced to play within the confines of the system the teachers set up, with a limited number of choices, then the children became sullen or felt the game "unjust." The children created, through sheer social instinct and chutzpah, a classically liberal anarcho-capitalist model, balancing collectivization and individual drive in ingenious ways. Instead of seizing on a perfect opportunity (the "disaster") to create a learning opportunity for community solidarity and progressive capitalism -- a socio-economic with actual possibilities -- they inserted a Marxist frame of view.

    Rather than marvel at the inherent genius of children's play, they substituted their own ideology and schema. That's not pedagogy; that's indoctrination.

  8. I would be honored to have you reprint any of my comments on the "front" page of your blog entry here.

    I haven't so far started a blog, and I don't entirely plan to do so. Maybe commenting will help me get a thick enough skin to do so.

    This is such a good example that it has actually made me rethink some directions in some of my own work in progress.

  9. One of the new rules the children developed: "All structures will be standard sizes."

    What a dark and forboding concept. What happens to those who choose to build non-standard sized structures? Is there a standard sized punishment facility or gulag in their future?

  10. kipp: Imposed collectivism is always grim, but I think the real monstrosity of this exercise is in the covert authoritarianism by which this result was achieved. Had the children autonomously negotiated standard-sized structures, I would be less appalled.

    (And welcome back. I was quite impressed with your dialog with Kenneth.)

    James: I think "indoctrination" is not a strong enough word to characterize what these teachers did. After all, there are some circumstances where few would object to heavy-handed indoctrination, e.g. against actual fighting or overt harassment. Not even "Stalinist indoctrination" really captures the monstrosity; as humbition points out, the covert nature of the authoritarianism is, perhaps, entirely new.


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