Escape from Childhood

(Dutton,1974, Holt Associates 1981)


This book is out of print. Only used copies are available.




The words "expect" and "expectation" are on the whole badly misunderstood and misused by most people who write about children. Most people use them as synonyms for "demand" or "insist" or "compel." When they say we should have higher expectations of children, they mean that we should demand that they do certain things and threaten to punish them if they do not. When I speak of expecting a lot of children, I only mean that we should not in our minds put an upper limit on what they may be able to do. I don't mean we should assume that they can, and therefore should, do certain things or be disappointed and worried if they do not - everyone has his own path and timetable into life. I do mean that we should not assume that there are things that they cannot do or be astonished and even threatened when they do them. We should be open to their way of growing, whatever it may be. With this understanding of the world, I believe that if we expected more from children, and they from themselves, they would be able to learn much more about the world around them, much more quickly, then they do now. or, to put it differently, they would go on exploring and learning after the age of three as eagerly and capably as they did in their first three years.


Young people should have the right to control and direct their own learning, that is, to decide what they want to learn, and when, where, how, how much, how fast, and with what help they want to learn it. To be still more specific, I want them to have the right to decide if, when, how much, and by whom they want to be taught and the right to decide whether they want to learn in a school and if so which one and for how much of the time.


No human right, except the right to life itself, is more fundamental than this. A person's freedom of learning is part of his freedom of thought, even more basic than his freedom of speech. If we take form someone his right to decide what he will be curious about, we destroy his freedom of thought. We say, in effect, you must think not about what interests and concerns you, but about what interests and concerns us.


We might call this the right of curiosity, the right to ask whatever questions are most important to us. As adults, we assume that we have the right to decide what does or does not interest us, what we will look into and what we will leave alone. We take this right largely for granted, cannot imagine that it might be taken away from us. Indeed, as far as I know, it has never been written into any body of law. even the writers of our Constitution did not mention it. They thought it was enough to guarantee citizens the freedom of speech and the freedom to spread their ideas as widely as they wished and could. it did not occur to them that even the most tyrannical government would try to control people's minds, what they thought and knew. That idea would come later, under the benevolent guise of compulsory universal education.

EFC Cover