Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The 11+ Exam: Dialogue on children, community, and war

A friend of mine, identified only as F-- wrote me this in response to my description of the circle, the neighborhood I grew up in. He wrote:

Lovely memory. But I remember as the son of a poor beginning lecturer at Manchester University, living in a working-class neighborhood where everything was also out in the street, the dark side of community. When I aced the 11+, the old Brit exam that separated kids forever into white-and blue-collars, a bunch of the kids I'd begun to get to know waited for me and beat me up. So the basic ground rules have to be good or community turns into tribalism and witch hunt. The silent neighborhoods are a sad compromise.


To which I responded:


That 11+ exam I have pondered for decades--it's one of those things you learn about early and that is discussed a lot over here, especially in educational circles. Surely I would have failed it--though perhaps not. Though I spent my whole time in school day-dreaming, I was well instructed at home in everything which was considered important (history, literature, Latin, grammar--everything but math, and that I could do on my own). Maybe I would have aced it too.

I remember once all the kids ganged up on one boy (working class, despite the class system being supposedly nonexistent over here) and were pelting him with icy snowballs, and I (heroic class) took his side, though they were all friends of mine, and I was prominent among them, all boys--we, the pelted and I, remained friends always. It is indeed the ground rules that need to be understood, and those boys that beat you up probably understood them well. Now was the only time in their lifetime they would get the jump on you, I bet the underlying rationale was, condoned by their parents, but obviously not by yours--and you were the sacrificial lamb. I am thinking the 11+ exam is an example of the adult world interfering with that of children, justified with bias and abstract rationale having nothing to do with the relations among children and everything to do with what adults thought "best" for all concerned.

Just about that time (I was eleven exactly at the time you were, remember) Little League was invented over here, and all my friends (boys) joined. I remember looking at them through a chain-link fence--they were all sitting in a row on a bench with uniforms on and looking up and listening to an adult who was looking down on them and lecturing them. I felt so sorry for them! For one thing, they wouldn't have me, and I was the best batter and first baseman--and fastest runner-- in the neighborhood! (I had just heard girls weren't allowed--I couldn't believe it--that was really stupid of them, I thought) And for another thing, they had to sit there instead of getting up and playing! It was all wrong.

I do think the interference of adults in childhood's self-rule in community began what has ended in obesity and all sorts of other aberrations of human psychological development. My own kids agree with me, and tell me about fellow college students who are unsupervised for the first time in their lives. The lack of community in this age reflects, I think, a fossilization of habits, including habits of thought, which have outgrown the environment they were first spawned in. I love the way facebook (etc) is becoming the new community--youth will have an out!

As for the phenomenon of WAR--please explain its necessity to a STATE to me. Isn't it the height of wrong-thinking, force? (I was raised by a hawk and during this this last war struggled to justify it on your account ("If F-- concurs with Cheney, I must be missing something....) I struggled with it the way Robert Frost struggles with his dualities always. I want your thoughts on why it is ever justified. Isn't it something we as a species, given what we are, we can and should rise above? Isn't that the essential Christian message?


To which F-- replied:


How wise you are about children, ground rules, and adult interference! But I think children are capable of cruelty on their own, too. Even if one doesn't believe in the Fall, or believes as I do that the Fall is the same as the creation itself, and started in the Big Bang, and is indeed a happy fall in the long run--freedom still implies that people can and do choose to do bad things.

Which also, when it comes down to it, is the only justification there could be for war. You went to war with snowballs when the working class kid was being pelted. One consequence of those boys ganging up on me--and two other incidents, one where like you I took the side of a Jewish kid who was being picked on, the other when I defended my younger brother B-- who got into trouble with some yahoos--was that I ended up preparing myself by martial arts to be able to defend myself and others, and since that time have never been bothered physically by anyone.

The Iraq war was a bitter trial for me. As you were being loyal to me, I was being loyal to B--, who was out there fighting. Although at first it seemed to be justifiable, as halting the atrocities of Saddam Hussein against his own people and other nations, I came to see it as a mistake on balance. Despite the fact that it looks as if our basic war aims are going to be realized--an elected government in Iraq, a sort of ally in a very dangerous part of the world instead of a bitter enemy, one possible source of WMDs eliminated--we lost far more than we gained and we got pushed into actions and justifications that were unworthy of our ideals. And many people died, and as a citizen and voter I have their blood on my hands, and have had to confess it.

But if we had stopped Hitler in 1933, maybe we would have saved 8 million Jews and tens of millions of other Europeans. Rwanda. Darfur. Do we have their blood on our hands too?

Perhaps this mortal condition is precisely the one where nobody has clean hands. Maybe the seeking of perfect cleanness, of perfect justification, is itself one of the great drivers of murder. Think of the Chosen People and the abomination of Canaan, that must be cleansed. The Crusades. Or ethnic cleansing. Or the purifying Holocaust, that would lead Europe back to its blond innocent heroic noble blue-eyed guiltless condition of Dasein. Or the noble ideals of the Gulag. If we accept that we are dirty and try to do the decent thing, knowing that whatever we do is going to have foul consequences, we may be less in danger of committing really huge crimes.


I just thought it was a mighty interesting exchange!

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