Imagination, play and un-justification

Noam Chomsky, world-famous linguist and probably the best-known living public intellectual in the 21st century, said in an interview published in Truthout in 2013 entitled Noam Chomsky on Democracy and Education in the 21st Century and Beyond:

Kids don’t know how to play. They can’t go out and, you know, like when you were a kid or when I was a kid, you have a Saturday afternoon free. You go out to a field and you’re finding a bunch of other kids and play ball or something. You can’t do anything like that. It’s got to be organized by adults, or else you’re at home with your gadgets, your video games. But the idea of going out just to play with all the creative challenge, those insights: that’s gone. And it’s done consciously to trap children from infancy and then to turn them into consumer addicts.

I ran into Chomsky, actually, in Market Basket, an employee-owned in Cambridge, MA on Valentine’s Day this year. Probably the most exciting celebrity sighting of my life and certainly one that left me blathering. Chomsky debated philosopher and social theorist Michel Foucault in 1971 and created the innatist theory of generative grammar, a theory of language learning which continues to be referenced in courses in language acquisition including the one I teach at Hunter College. He’s in his 80s now and it’s amazing to see him discuss modern geopolitical topics such as the political relationships between Israel and Palestine or Turkey and Kurdistan. Coming to the comment he made in the interview I excerpt above, I wonder what it is like to be a child nowadays, and whether what Chomsky is saying is true. It seems true, though it’s also true that parents are doing their best, and love their children, and defend their parenting decisions as being backed up by the best-informed and newest discussions of child development and health. The “it’s-just-the-way-things-are-now” trope is likewise bandied around, and I wonder if nostalgia isn’t the go-to for any generation past its own childhood years, glad not to return and yet wishing the now were somehow still for them.

However, I have to wonder…I didn’t have “play dates” as a kid. Granted, I grew up in a very rural town in a very wooded area, where there were no kids nearby and my single mother wasn’t there to shuttle us around to various social things. Still, I walked in the woods constantly, made up games with friends, sibling and/or cousins, explored and roamed alone, smelling moss, stroking tree trunks, listening. I wrote poetry. I breathed in the ripe body of a snowy midnight, blazing deep blue under a hoary moon, and didn’t rush back under my covers.

How to prove that was worth it, rather than what the newer generation does now, as its own normal? Is the lament for a loss of freedom, a lack of play unless structured (which might negate the term and replace it with “recreation”), a parsing of moments into qualified or “wasted” spending of time…Bourdieu said something about how before we labeled time according to consumption, to wage-oriented work, there was no such thing as “wasting time.” The student conference I attended included a smart student paper about the argument for being lazy, for fighting for the freedom from having to prove that we are either productive or consuming (or both) always. I saw a friend not long ago who, glazed yet somehow slightly self-righteous, stated that she was always tired, “so tired.” When I asked her about options for change, she showed no desire, or else ability to imagine things any other way, and told me more about how long her days were.

To be ambiguous…to be undefined…to be unjustified…even for a few moments. This must mean something. To be free…what is it to be free, to be a time spender, without having to make every moment productive? Enslaved by our fear of poverty, of losing our jobs and our stability, and maybe even of losing the top-down control over our lives which consumer society positions as a means of creating the illusion of safety, of membership. What then? What could we inspire, encourage, bring forth in our children?

Odilon Redon [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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