“Schools will become moral institutions only when children are free to quit.” – Peter Gray, PhD, author of Free To Learn:Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life
We like to think of human rights in affirmative terms, so we speak most often of our rights to move toward what we want: our rights to vote, assemble freely, speak freely, and choose our own paths to happiness. My contention here, however, is that the most basic right—the right that makes all other rights possible—is the right to quit.
Quitting often has negative connotations in our minds. We grow up hearing things like, “Quitters never win, winners never quit.” We’re supposed to stick things out, no matter how tough the going. I rather like this variation, which I heard somewhere: “Quitters never win, winners never quit, but those who never win and never quit are idiots.”
If we move our minds out of the quagmire of competition (indeed, we can’t win tennis matches by quitting) and think of life’s broader goals—the goals of surviving, avoiding injury, finding happiness, and living in accordance with our personal values among people whom we respect and who respect us—then we see that freedom to quit is essential to all of these goals. I am talking here about the freedom to walk away from people and situations that are harmful to our wellbeing.
Freedom to quit is a foundation for peace, equality, and democracy in hunter-gatherer bands.
I first began thinking about the crucial value of the freedom to quit a few years ago, when I began studying hunter-gatherer band societies. These societies, which lack police, prisons, or any formal means of forcing people to follow rules, nevertheless live in remarkably ordered, peaceful, ways. Their principal values are those of equality (no person is regarded as inherently better or more worthy than another and there are no chiefs or other bosses), sharing (food and material goods are shared equally among the band members), and autonomy (people of all ages are free to make their own decisions, from day to day and moment to moment). [For documentation of all of this, see this article(link is external),] Why don’t the stronger people selfishly exploit or enslave those who are weaker? What prompts people to care for one another, even when they aren’t related?
There are many reasonable answers to these questions, depending on the level of explanation we are seeking; but the ultimate answer, I think, lies in freedom to quit. As anthropologists have repeatedly pointed out, band hunter-gatherers are highly mobile. Not only does the whole band move regularly from place to place, to follow he available game and edible vegetation, but individuals and families also move from band to band. Because hunter-gatherers don’t own land and don’t own more personal property than they can easily carry, and because they all have friends and relatives in other bands, they are always free to move. People who feel oppressed in their current band, and who find no intra-band route to overcome that oppression, can, at a moment’s notice, pick up their things and move out, either to join another band or to start their own band with a group of friends.
Hunter-gatherers, like all people everywhere, depend on one another for survival. Nobody can survive alone, at least not for long. But, in a world where people can easily move away, you must treat others well or they will leave you. You can’t force them to work for you, because if you try to do that they’ll just walk away. You can’t cheat them, or bully them, or denigrate them—at least not for long–because if you do they’ll quit. If you want a cohesive band, which everyone does want because that’s the best route to survival, you have to see things from the perspective of the other band members and strive to please them; you must compromise with them when you disagree, and you must share your food with them on days when you are lucky in hunting and they are not.
Hunter-gatherers are famous for making decisions by consensus. They must talk things out and reach general agreement before embarking on actions that affect the whole band. What does consensus mean in this case? It means simply that everyone is willing to go along with the decision; they may not fully agree, but they won’t walk away from the band because of it. So, for a hunter-gatherer band, democratic decision-making doesn’t arise from some high moral philosophy; it arises from necessity. To survive and thrive, you need a cohesive band; and to achieve that, you need to make decisions that don’t offend people so much that they will quit.
Freedom to quit is a foundation for democracy and human rights in modern nations.
It is much harder for us non-hunter-gatherers to move, but we still can move and with sufficient oppression will, even from one nation to another. Nations in which leaders routinely oppress their own people can get away with it through laws that make it impossible for people to leave.
Within two months after the Russian revolution of 1917, the new government enacted laws against emigration. That was the beginning of the end of any chance for democracy within the communist regime. The same thing happened in the other communist block countries, and we see it today, for example, in North Korea. Governments can brutalize people who can’t leave. When people can leave, governments have to figure out how to make people want to stay; or else there will be nobody left to govern. The first to leave are often those who are most competent and valuable.
Freedom to quit is a foundation for marital harmony.
The quitting principle applies not only at the level of whole communities and nations, but also at the level of the family. Lots of research reveals strong negative correlations between domestic violence and freedom of divorce. Wife beating is much more rare in hunter-gatherer bands than in the neighboring agricultural communities. The main reason, again, is freedom to quit. A hunter-gatherer woman can and will leave a husband who bullies her. Divorce is easy and rather frequent in hunter-gatherer bands. A woman can return to the band of her parents, or move to another band where she has friends and relatives, and that automatically terminates the marriage. If she has kids and they want to go with her, they will. Because everyone in the band shares food, and because women forage as well as men, a woman is not economically dependent on her husband, any more than he is upon her.
So, if you are a man in a hunter-gatherer band and don’t want to lose your wife, you have to treat her well. That is not so true in primitive farming societies, because in those societies the men own the land, so women who leave have no means to support themselves. To survive, women in those societies often have to put up as best as they can with brutal husbands.
It is no secret that, in modern societies, the legal and economic freedom to divorce is the primary force against domestic violence. When divorce was illegal, wife beating was common. When divorce became legal but was still not financially feasible for most women, wife beating continued. Wife beating declines only when women are both legally and financially free to leave their husbands. A recent example (here(link is external)) of this effect has been documented in Spain. In 2005, a change in Spanish law made divorce easier than it had been before, and the rate of domestic violence against women dropped significantly. It didn’t drop just because of actual divorces; it also dropped because men who didn’t want to lose their wives started treating them more kindly.
There was a time when stories and songs glorified the woman who “stuck with her man,” no matter how bad he was. The man eventually came around through the sheer power of her love and devotion. But, truth be told, men become better when their wives might leave them than they are in conditions where wives will stay no matter what.
Freedom to quit distinguishes employment from slavery
The same principle also applies in the workplace. If you can’t quit your job because you are owned by or legally bound to your employer, or because economic necessity prevents you from quitting, then your employer can brutalize and exploit you and get away with it. If you can walk away, then your employer must treat you well if he or she wants to retain your services. The legal and economic capacity to quit is the force that tends to equalize the relationship between employer and employee. There is no mystery here.
In school, children are not free to quit, so what are the consequences?
In general, children are the most brutalized of people, not because they are small and weak, but because they don’t have the same freedoms to quit that adults have. Anthropologists tell me that this is not so true in hunter-gatherer cultures, because children there, to a considerable degree, can quit, much as adults can. Children who are treated unkindly by their parents can move into a different hut, with different adults, who will treat them kindly. They can even move to a different band. Hunter-gatherers don’t hold to the notion that parents own their children. Nearly everyone enjoys children, and the whole band shares in the care of every child; so children are not a burden. Even very young children who are mistreated by a parent or another caregiver can move away from that caregiver, or be taken away, and find safety in others’ arms. That is not true in our society, and domestic violence against children is a serious and continuing problem.
But now I want to turn to the violence we do to our children by forcing them into schools. When schooling is compulsory, schools are, by definition, prisons. A prison is a place where one is forced to be and within which people are not free to choose their own activities, spaces, or associates. Children cannot walk away from school, and within the school children cannot walk away from mean teachers, oppressive and pointless assignments, or cruel classmates. For some children, the only out—the only real way to quit—is suicide. As writer Helen Smith put it in her book, The Scarred Heart(link is external), in describing the suicide of a 13-year-old girl who had been regularly bullied in school: “After missing fifty-three out of the required one hundred and eighty days of school, she was told that she would have to return to school or appear before a truancy board which could then send her to a juvenile detention center. She decided the better alternative was to go into her bedroom and hang herself with a belt. … In times past, she could have just dropped out of school, but now kids like her are trapped by compulsory education.”
Lots of words have been spent on the problem of school bullying and related problems such as students’ general unhappiness, boredom, and cynicism in school. Nobody has found a way to solve these problems, and nobody ever will until we grant children the freedom to quit. The only way to solve these problems, ultimately, is to do away with the coercion.
When children are truly free to walk away from school, then schools will have to become child-friendly places in order to survive. Children love to learn, but, like all of us, they hate to be coerced, micromanaged, and continuously judged. They love to learn in their own ways, not in ways that others force on them. Schools, like all institutions, will become moral institutions only when the people they serve are no longer inmates. When students are free to quit, schools will have to grant them other basic human rights, such as the right to have a voice in decisions that affect them, the right to free speech, the right to free assembly, and the right to choose their own paths to happiness. Such schools would look nothing at all like the dreary institutions we call “school” today. (For more, see Free to Learn(link is external).)
What to you think? When has quitting served you well? When has the inability to quit led you or yours to suffer? Do you agree or disagree that true school reform is only possible if school attendance becomes truly optional? This blog is a forum for discussion, and your stories, comments, and questions are valued and treated with respect by me and other readers. As always, I prefer if you post your comments and questions here rather than send them to me by private email. By putting them here, you share with other readers, not just with me. I read all comments and try to respond to all serious questions, if I feel I have something useful to say. Of course, if you have something to say that truly applies only to you and me, then send me an email.