SkylarkSings ~

Simon Sez

"The mere habit of obedience is not preparation for life in a democracy."

-- Maria Montessori (1915)

I don't think I've played Simon Sez in more than 35 years. I can't honestly say that I've missed it. I don't have any especial expectation that I'll walk into work on a particular Monday morning, and there will be my boss waiting to have a go at us. Or least I hope not, and I'd have even less desire for it to happen on a daily basis.

I remember it pretty well, though, as I expect does most everyone who's ever played. Folks line up and take orders from "Simon", which can either be in the form of copying his physical action or, alternatively, obeying a specific verbal command. If, however, a command is given which is not prefaced by Simon's signature mark of authority -- the words "Simon Sez" -- the command is not to be obeyed.

The whole idea is to catch you out while, in the course of complying with all the correct commands, inadvertently acting upon the one which contravenes Simon's authority. When folks "disobey", they are progressively banished from the game until, finally, there is a single person left standing, the "winner".

Usually, those unfamiliar with Simon Sez, or who are hard of hearing, or slow to convert verbal commands into accurate, near-instantaneous responses, find themselves relegated to the sidelines almost immediately. As a rule, the commands begin simply, and then get more complex and farfetched and, in a utilitarian sort of way, less useful. "Simon Sez scratch behind your left ear with your right index finger" or a speedy "Do this" following on a chain of "Simon Sez's" grasping one's belly with alternating hands will usually knock out at least a few of the contestants.

The thing is, Simon has to manage to keep all the remaining participants engaged and involved. If all the contestants continue to move on command after command, they will soon weary of the game. So they must be kept in a state of active alert, engulfed by fear (of the game variety) that if they do not remain in a condition of vigilant expectation, they will be among the next to be eliminated. This diversion rewards the quick-witted and agile, wily and acute, a neo-Darwinian representation of the survival of the 'fittest'.

Perhaps I grew up just a spoilsport, but though I was actually quite adept at Simon Sez - fitting all four of the adjectival descriptions above - I do not remember either myself or any of my friends requesting to play once we'd been taught the rules. This was some adult's idea of a good time, and though I can remember some vague enjoyment in finding yet something else I was good at, and an occasional laugh, I can't imagine ever thinking that this would be a fun thing to suggest to my friends that we do on our own.

The games adults choose for children and those kids choose for themselves often vary considerably. Adults tend to teach "culling sports", from Simon Sez to dodgeball, that quickly turn large numbers of participants into sitters, but at the same time requiring that the group be kept intact. Can anyone ever remember the early dodgeball or Simon Sez culls being invited by adults to go off and play something else (or even read a book!) while the rest of the game was going on? It is as if adults conceive of it as being really fun to cheer on the remaining participants, when, in fact, the sitters have long ago become resentful, or, if always an early spectator, simply resigned.

In contrast, watch what kids do to culling sports when left to themselves. In most neighborhoods, Tag rapidly evolves to Freeze Tag - no participant is ever totally "out" unless all are, simultaneously, and, once unfrozen, all participants are expected to assist in the liberation of others, even those more agile or athletic than themselves. Hide 'n' Seek mutates to the point that when you are found, you simply become one of the seekers.

The little amusement that comes from Simon Sez, other than for those of us who got an adrenalin rush out of competitively complying with increasingly complex (and ultimately meaningless and quickly forgotten) commands, stems from the degree to which it serves as metaphor for the rest of a child's existence, especially that of school. Consider that every day, for six hours a day, 200 or so days a year, you were told where and when to sit, when and where to stand, when and about what to talk and when to be quiet, when to read and when to close the book, when to be inquisitive and when to be a cipher, when to write, add, subtract, paint, sing, eat, listen, defecate, or put your head down. Failure to respond to Simon's commands is punishable, one quickly learns, and as children, malleable as we are, we learn to conform to the ground rules. Some of us even "enjoy" it. And if you are "culled", you are not likely to be invited to do something else, but simply required to do more of the same, but with progressively lowered expectations. If you or anyone else you know today ever feels at a loss of what to do with yourself, consider that it is because you have been trained not to know. Manufacturing this state of unknowing is called "socialization", and it breeds ignorance of one's own needs, thoughts, desires, hopes, and aspirations. If you really want to know what you should be feeling or thinking (or consuming!), you should go ask Simon.

I am willing to set aside my question as to whether an extended 12-year exercise in Simon Sez is a particularly effective way for a child to learn, no less a necessary one. Suffice it to say that I have seen no evidence - anywhere - that it is. Industrial education was and is from day one education on the cheap, with its primary goal not to be found in the content of any of Simon's commands, but in obedience to the commands themselves. The objective is the production of a docile, compliant workforce, who will not rebel, and who will seek our life satisfactions solely through the production and consumption of material goods. And the first and foremost requirement of such an education, now and when it was conceived more than a hundred years ago, is that one become habituated to obedience. Let's not dress it up: doing things which are just plain dumb because you are ordered to "builds character" and "prepares you for life."

Is the nation worried about literacy? Look a little more closely. Almost a century ago, Maria Montessori found a way to take children, even those we today would consider "learning disabled", from the most harrowing home and social conditions, dens of vice and human degradation far worse than can be found virtually anywhere in North America today, even children from multiple cultures, with illiterate parents or none at all, and possessing no shared language whatsoever - and have them writing and reading by ages three, four, or five. (Note: this was never one of Montessori's goals, nor, I dare say, one of mine. It was just a goal sought out by the kids themselves. Today, of course, many Montessori schools, serving middle-class families, have made a fetish of early academic skill acquisition, about which the inventor would be ashamed.) But there were requirements. Teachers had to provide the right tools in the right environments, and then get out of the way. No Simon Sez permitted; teachers were to observe carefully, and make sure their charges were presented with the appropriate materials, but were strictly forbidden from teaching. The child simply learned to become an autodidact and a self-disciplined human being, and acquired the skills independent of adult-inflicted punishment or rewards or words of praise or public shaming. As a society we could do that today if we chose, and the fact that we don't make such a choice (or are never even presented with it as an option) is extremely telling.

The great game of Simon Sez that is public education is fundamentally anti-democratic. I recognize that this is a pretty shocking thing to say in a nation in which, for a very long time, school has been viewed as the great leveler. But I call it as I see it. It is not only anti-democratic because from the first day of kindergarten, the culling machine is busy chewing up those unfamiliar with the language of the game, or who are hard of hearing, or who are slow to convert verbal commands into accurate, near-instantaneous responses, and remain capable of doing so, on book and on schedule, for the next 12 years. It is not only anti-democratic because it stacks the game by pouring resources, both human and economic, into those born with enough privilege to be least in need of them, and withholding those resources from those with the greatest need. It is not only undemocratic because of the forced association of individuals solely by chronological age, without any regard to their individual and particular interests, abilities, hopes, dreams, or aspirations, and because it denies any and all principles of democratic free association.

No, it is fundamentally undemocratic because it perverts the elemental need of the young, and the fundamental need to be served by education, and that is to acquire independence, and as much independence as one's individual developmental proclivities demand. A free society is only free to the extent that its members are able to find and develop those inner resources that facilitate the expression of their own individual and unique humanity.

No one ever put this better than the psychologist-philosopher Erich Fromm:

"The right to express our thoughts, however, means something only if we are able to have thoughts of our own; freedom from external authority is a lasting gain only if the inner psychological conditions are such that we able to establish our own individuality."

When democracy is perverted to mean simply that we are occasionally allowed the opportunity to choose a new Simon, we know that somewhere things have gone off track. As the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer once noted, the Second World War was the inevitable result of good schooling. Perhaps the best thing that can be said of public schooling today is that, as a society, thankfully we aren't very good at it.

Imagine what might happen if the paradigm for education was no longer Simon Sez, but Freeze Tag, where the purpose of learning is to help liberate each other, from our ignorance and misperceptions, our preconceptions regarding our own limitations, to a world of possibilities? What would it be like if the objective was no longer to "find people out" for purposes of exclusion from the game, but rather to invite them into an inclusive community of seekers, and provide an ever-expanding zone of freedom so that they could invent their own?

* * * * *

The reality is that I don't see much in the way of groups of kids playing anything in the neighborhood anymore. The increasingly invasive intrusion of government schooling into their lives and that of their families, coupled with parental management of the minutiae of their children's remaining extra-school existence, has turned many a neighborhood, when it comes to significant gatherings of children, into an empty wasteland.

There is a game that I now remember from my childhood that perhaps provides a counter y to that implied in the Simon Sez one. It is a game called "Ring-a-Levio", and from the little research I've been able to do, it seems to have originated in New York City, probably in Brooklyn, in the late 19th/early 20th Centuries - alongside the institutionalization of mass government schooling - and, also from what I can tell simply by asking lots of people, doesn't seem to have traveled very widely.

Ring-a-Levio is a sophisticated cross between tag and hide-and-seek. There are variations to the game, but here's the version I grew up with. Two teams gather, and a marked area is set aside as the "jail", complete with a limited number of "guards". One team goes to hide. As each hider is found, s/he is brought back to the jail. However, if at any time a member or members of the hiding team can "attack" the jail without getting caught by the guards, get inside the marked area and yell "Ring-a-Levio One-Two-Three", all the prisoners can run free until caught again.

There you have it. Ring-a-Levio. A liberation tale. I can barely tell you how much I would have cherished someone rushing past the guards and getting into my fourth-grade classroom to shout "Ring-a-Levio One-Two-Three" so we could all run out. There was a great world out there.

Still is.