Changing the World

Introduction | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 | Chapter 7 | Chapter 8 | Chapter 9 | Chapter 10 | Chapter 11 | Chapter 12 | Afterword

A Vision of a Circleway Village

12. Education, Punishment, and Play

Everywhere we have gone so far we have found small playgrounds with children laughing and running together, and always some adults joining in and following the children’s lead.  Now we pass another larger playground with a number of different games going on among children of varying ages from perhaps five to eleven or twelve years old.  Again a number of adults are on hand; mainly it seems to make judgments in disputes. 

One boy just got hurt and begins to cry.  Without any call from an adult the other children immediately stop the game and run to him.  They inspect his hurt and see that it needs no further medical attention, but all circle around to give sympathetic attention to the boy and actually encourage him to cry more and louder.  Some put their arms around him and put their heads against his.

Then someone hands him a towel to wipe the tears and snot from his face, and he makes some remark we can’t hear, but it must be funny because he laughs.  Then they all laugh, tousle his hair and hug him and all run back to resume the game.

Someone remarks about how different the play is in this playground from the ones he remembers from his boyhood.  If he had cried, he says, he would have been called a baby or a sissy and would have been taunted and laughed at and totally humiliated, so he learned to clench his jaw and swallow his hurt to keep his pride.  He said it was wonderful to watch these children really caring for each other, the older ones helping the younger to learn and encouraging them.  He wondered how they learned that.

“Actually it was more a matter of them not learning the isolating and hurtful ways of the dominant culture.  We human beings are naturally loving and caring, as long as we have never been threatened and we have no cause to fear.  Our whole Circle Way culture can best be understood by seeing how we raise and educate our children.  Each child is so highly prized she never has to lose the complete appreciation, confidence, and joy she has in herself from birth.

“They all get lots of special time from many adults and have no need to seek attention.  Rather they learn from an early age, both by the models of adults and older children and by natural inclination, to give attention and loving care to others in need.

“They also learn that is a good thing to spontaneously express their feelings, to laugh, to shout, to cry, for instance, as long as that expression does not attack or hurt another.  They learn by example and instruction that when they feel insulted, frustrated or injured by another, not to confront him with their anger and hurt, but to seek another person and vent all their feelings safely and fully.  Then they are able to connect with the injurer and discover more understanding and a mutual agreement how to avoid such happenings and have closer relations in the future.  They learn that the expression of feelings is healing and must be respected and encouraged.”

“But are your children never restrained or punished?”

“Restrained, yes, surely; punished, never.  Of course there are limits that must be understood.  They are necessary for safety, for health, to avoid the mistreatment of exploitation of others, of all beings, of the natural environment.  Certain limits must be imposed from birth to protect the infant, but we baby-proof the environment as much as possible by putting some things beyond the reach of crawlers and toddlers to give them as much scope to explore and experiment as we can and avoid the imposition of “no-no” as much as possible.

“We have completely rejected the philosophy of punishment as inefficient and harmful to society as well as the individual.  We notice it has been the source of most of our social ills.  The first time a child is punished two fearful new feelings are installed.  First, that there is such a thing as an enemy, someone who will do us harm, and second, that there might be something very wrong with us.  It is no longer a safe and reliable world.  We learn to fear our fellow human beings.”

“But isn’t that a good idea?  You can’t just trust everyone.  People are scary sometimes, and they will do you harm. And don’t we know our parents love us and punish us because they love us?”

“There are people in the outside world that are scary that’s true.  But not in the Village.  Our children will learn humankind’s horrible history eventually, as they will learn that every human baby is born good and caring and fun loving and creative. But because that society out there does not protect their babies nor treat their children with the respect and care we do, many of them get a little crazy and hurt themselves or others.

“It’s true most parents love their children and believe that punishment is a way of helping them to be better, and most children understand that.  But children don’t buy into the nonsense that punishment is good for them.  Did you, when you were a child?  You have to get pretty brainwashed and hurt to accept that.  The fact is that both children and animals learn and can be trained faster, easier, and more thoroughly using appreciation, praise and encouragement.”

“You must have children that were born and raised in that society before they came here.  I imagine that could present a problem – how do you handle children who act up to get attention, who are angry and destructive and want to hurt others?”

“Well, there’s a lot to learn about children, more than we can get into today.  We do have courses here and at the other villages, for parents and teachers and other allies to young people, and there’s a lot of good literature on that too in our bookstore, some we published ourselves.  What I can say is that we never allow anyone to mistreat anyone or destroy things people need.  We stay very close to all our children and step in to help them when there’s a need.  We will restrain a child lovingly but forcefully, hold him or her in our arms, and let the child use up all that destructive energy screaming, fighting to get loose, shouting hate-filled curses, crying, all the while we stay calm and understanding and caring, until, when those feelings have been discharged and the child is exhausted, we can further assure the child that we really do understand and care about him and maybe even get him to talk about the problem and his feelings.  We let him know that, just as we won’t let him hurt anyone, we will never let anyone hurt him.

“We will do this in a sincerely friendly way, lightly, and maybe with some humor and certainly playfulness.  We will be sure to stay close, to give him special time to do things he likes.  And we will try to see to it that other children understand his struggle and accept and help him.  The acceptance of one’s peers is the most powerful motivator in tribal society, another good reason we need to stay very close to each other.”

The building on the other side of the playground is the school, with classrooms and workrooms for all ages.  The very youngest, what we might call the pre-school and kindergarteners have a little fantasy house of their own, looking like a mixture of fairy tales from many lands.  There are no classes today, Sunday.  Some of the rooms have no furniture, only cushions or mattresses.

“From what we heard today, you folks don’t hold to compulsory education.  The kids don’t have to go to school?”

“That’s right.  Education is something that goes on all the time, because children are born curious and love to learn.  But then they get sent off to school to get learning stuffed down their throats until they learn to hate it.  Human beings are intelligent and have lively minds before school begins its deadening processes and makes them stupid.

“Children here are never forced to go to school, but most of them want to and look forward to it every day.”

“That must be some school!  Not like the one I went to!”

“Well, you see, it’s their school.  They get to decide what to learn, what we will do there, and we get to figure out what resources we need to provide.  We work it out together, as with everything in the Village.  We have teachers who are excited to help them and transmit that excitement in learning to them.  They want to show the children the wonders in Creation, to provoke their thinking.  There were models for this, Summerhill in England, Sudbury Valley in Massachusetts, for instance.  And we keep experimenting, working to improve on it, with the help of the students.  The main thing is to have fun, to have school be a place where we play a lot and laugh a lot and it’s safe for children to express their thinking and their feelings.

“Children want to come because that’s where the other children are and where the action is.  In the outside world school is boring: lectures, homework, tests, grades.  Here school is never boring.  It’s when you are not in school when your friends are and you are trying to figure out what to do all alone that you might get bored and decide to go where the fun is.”

“But how can you avoid big classrooms and regimentation?  Do you have so many teachers?”

“We have as many teachers as there are people – everyone is potentially a teacher.  Of course we don’t all do it in the school, but many of us do put in a few hours now and then to show the children a skill, tell stories, talk about life, take a group on a trip somewhere, organize a group project, or just play with them.  And most of the young people are self-starters.  They are very resourceful and they set themselves their own projects, maybe get others to join a group project of their own.  If there’s a teacher available and interested, great, but if not they will figure it out on their own – maybe check in with an adult advisor now and then.

“You understand that most of what society calls school is only warehousing, keeping young people off the streets while people go to work.  Here parents like to bring their children to their work, just as our ancestors used to.  You know, a person could, not having set foot in a classroom for eleven years, easily learn in less than a year all it would take to pass examinations and get a high school diploma. 

“But what is important for a human being to learn?  How to do things, how to create, that’s easy to teach, but the most valuable thing to learn is how to value yourself and take care of yourself, how to be excited about living and learning, how to enjoy the company of people, how to love.  Isn’t that right?  Our teachers really love young people, love interacting with their developing minds.  We want education to be about more than becoming productive economically.  That is only a small part of a successful life.  We want our education to teach how to have a good life.  About love and relationship, about what brings lasting joy, making deeper connections with everything, with ourselves, each other, plants, animals, earth, the cosmos.  Divining and directing the course of our evolution.

“In our school you can not only learn all the traditional academic subjects, but also take courses in relationships, in conflict resolution, in working for world peace, in social and economic justice, in the care of animals, plants, and the environment.”

“And technology?”

“Oh yes!  There’s plenty of interest for that.  But our young people are very concerned about how technology is used. They think about whether what they work on will really benefit the world. Weaponry does not interest them.  There are other villages that really specialize in technology, and many other studies – oh, medicine and health, for instance.  This village as you have perhaps heard is known for its music and fine and performing arts schools.  The concert this afternoon is a string quartet of teachers playing some especially wonderful classics of the European tradition.”

“I’m still interested in your theory about punishment.  What happens when someone transgresses here, does something really wrong?”

“We have good models for effective addressing of such situations among many tribal peoples.  They had no written law and took each transgression as a unique occurrence to be addressed by a circle, a council of elders or chiefs or advisors.  The only law they had was that written in the human heart.  Lao Tse said, ‘Where there is no law there will be no criminals’.”

“Western society will never buy that.  The rule of law is fundamental to the maintenance of justice and equality.”

“Justice and equality.  Yes, those are the words it uses.  But that is only in comparison to past totalitarian and feudal systems.  The legal system still is immoderately unjust and unequal.  The prisons are filled with poor people and minorities that cannot afford the expensive legal teams that keep the rich out of jail.  It’s not a search for truth, it’s a competition, an adversarial system whereby each department of law and enforcement is under pressure to win, to show results, and each individual officer and attorney in those departments is under pressure to win, fixating on conviction too often at the expense of the truth and justice.

“Four hundred years ago there were no criminals on the North American Continent, no criminal lifestyle.   And so no police, no jails, no courts, no lawyers.  Where there is much love and closeness and sharing and no fear, there is no motivation for wrongdoing.

“People would really rather have fun and not hurt each other.  But mistakes can still be made, and then the one who has committed the fault must come to a council where all the facts should be brought out and everyone’s feelings and best thinking heard.  A solution is sought for restitution and healing to anyone injured, as well as how to bring the wrong-doer back into harmony and closeness with the tribe and himself.”

“That sounds absolutely idealistic and unrealistic to me.”

“And yet it did work for human beings for tens of thousands of years.  I think you would be very surprised to see how well it works.  As I mentioned before, the strongest motivator for people living intimately with others is the appreciation and good opinion of their peers.  You probably have an idea of the power of shame, perhaps have felt that at some time, and perhaps can imagine the power of the healing of shame, of that terrible isolation, and the power of acceptance and love. 

“Just imagine if everyone in the world were an accepted member of some circle, if everyone were known and cherished for who they are.  No outsiders.  That would be the healing of crime and anti-social behavior, as it was in earlier tribal societies.  In bad neighborhoods children join gangs in order to find that acceptance – only the gangs themselves are outsiders, unaccepted by society, and so act in the ruthless ways they have been taught by the culture.  All the lone killers and rapists are outsiders, unknown to people, even their nearest kin and neighbors. So when you become a villager here you are home, you are family.  If you get in trouble your family will stand by you and help you through.”

“Do you take in ex-prisoners, then?”

“Yes.  Everyone goes through the same process to become a member.”

“And that works out?” No problems?”

“No more with them than with anyone.”

“Sure, only the poor go to jail, so how do you know who’s a criminal, and who you can trust??”

“Because we put such importance on closeness we get to know each other deeply and thoroughly very soon.  Some of our villagers who had been in prison are our strongest advocates.  America used to have the highest prison population in the world.  Some of our founders made circles in the prisons and helped to start Circle Way Villages especially for and directed by ex-prisoners and their families.  That has already begun to make a big difference in recidivism, in reducing prison populations and converting prisons to factories and hospitals, and in reducing crime rates.”

Behind the school buildings are fields devoted to sports of many kinds.  We are told that traveling to other Circle Way Villages one can find many kinds of sports in different areas of the world, in the mountains, by the sea, on islands, in the tropics.  Human beings have figured out how to play everywhere.  Mountain climbing, ocean sailing, rafting, canoeing, hiking, golf, skiing, whatever you want some village probably has it.

In competitive sports, as in everything, the emphasis in the Village is on friendship, mutual respect, and having fun together.  People strive not to be better than others but to be better than they used to be.  They are as pleased with each other’s progress as they are with their own.

Shouts and laughter are heard from a game of soccer, or association football, in progress between teams made up of men and women, boys and girls.  On a basketball court a game is running with more than five on a side, appearing to have all the young people on one side and all middle-aged folks on the other, with much substitution.  They are all laughing, and it’s hard to tell who is winning – or perhaps that’s not important, as every time a basket is scored by either side they all shout, “Tie score!”

Young adults are vigorously applying themselves to a fierce volleyball match, and the tennis courts are full with people waiting for their scheduled time.  Many elderly folks are enjoying relaxed games of croquet, bocce and shuffleboard.

We notice everywhere there are small round summerhouses, some with open sides that can be closed in winter, others with permanent walls and open windows.  Asked about these, our guide tells us these are meeting places for the small circles of the various clans that hold talking circles every morning before breakfast.  The larger circles of each whole clan have large rooms where they gather, usually once a week, so everyone stays in close touch.  Other clan meetings may be called to address issues of the Village, or of individuals, to sing together or otherwise celebrate, to have play days with the young people, schedule work, especially child care, but also cooking, gardening and so on.  Each clan is also responsible for devising and organizing one ceremony or celebration for the whole Village every year.  There are a number of feasts and festivals throughout the year that villagers plan and prepare with imagination and to which many visitors come.

The afternoon concert takes place in a grassy area behind the music school surrounded by the French, English and Rose Gardens, where our senses absorb the aromas of blossoms, the graceful beauty of butterflies, hummingbirds, the softness of sun and light breeze, and the sounds of birds and insects together with those of Haydn, Schubert and Brahms lovingly addressed by the quartet.

Back at the hotel in late afternoon we have reluctantly packed and are waiting for the wagon that will transport us back to the town and our buses and trains for home.

“It’s a lot to encompass in two days,” one of us tells the new guide, there to answer any last questions.  “You people do a fine job showing us so much and helping us understand how it works.  It’s certainly impressive.  Such a complete world, quite different, but full and rich in creativity everywhere.”

“It’s an eye-opener for me,” another says, “You have achieved so much here.  Something to think about.”

“This is certainly nice,” another of our group says, “But part of your vision here is to be a model for the world of peaceful, cooperative living.  You are only a thousand here, and there are, what – another thousand villages like it around the world? “

“Some are larger now, but none larger than 3,000.”

“So maybe they could amount to three million or so in a while.”

“We have more visitors all the time, and more villages keep sprouting up.”

“Say more villages might grow the number to six million eventually.  But there are ten billion people in the world today – and growing.”

“Our idea is that when people notice how happy, how relaxed and safe we are here, and how much fun we have, creating instead of just consuming, they will want to give up the stress of the rat race and join us.  With all the villages in every part of the world having more and more visitors, we figure the growth will be exponential at some point in the future and transform all of society’s notions.  But we need to be growing slowly in order to learn and make it right.  A lot of society’s problems have come from moving too fast and not seeing where we were going.”

“So the Circle Way Villages grew quite slowly?”

“Naturally it didn’t happen overnight.  We started from nothing but a dream and figured it out as we went along.  Building homes, planting and harvesting, creating businesses for everything we need little by little.  Slow growth – but that’s the easy part.  Human beings are builders.  It was the excitement of creating our own world as we want it that carried us over the lean years.  By sharing everything and inviting people to come and help we got by and it just kept getting better and better.  Because we kept to the circle, stayed close to each other, kept on listening and caring and helping each other.”

“What makes the biggest difference for you in your quality of life here?”

“Cooperation instead of competition.  You have no idea what a difference it is to live in a completely cooperative society.  It makes us closer, provides security and whatever we truly want and need.  Living simply we create a life style that is sustainable and healthy.  Plus we all believe it is important to encourage and appreciate and support each other so that everyone feels valued and cared about. “

“One more question.  What is your greatest joy living here – you personally?”

“The children.  My house looks out on one of our little playgrounds.  I love watching them playing while I have breakfast every day.  Running and squealing and laughing, so full of energy and fun.  A reminder to me of what we are really like, all of us, before older people start acting out their distress on us, getting all weird, cold, hard, angry, shutting us down, not listening to us, scaring us, frustrating us, manipulating us with threats and bribes until we learn to act and think like them.  Here, we are committed to keeping from passing as much as we can of the distress our parents passed on to us.

“You know, whenever your energy gets a bit frayed, whenever you may feel a bit low, discouraged, wondering if it’s worth it, all you need to do is go hang out at the playground.  Watch the little ones and restore your faith in the human race.  Then join them, let them teach you to let go of your seriousness and just play.  You will get your hope refill.  And then you’ll be able to lose yourself in creativity and find your purpose again.  We need the children to remind us who we are.”

Climbing onto the wagon we could hear the shouts and laughter from the playgrounds and the sport fields.   We are all quiet.  Thinking perhaps about when we might come back or visit another Circle Way Village, perhaps even join one and change our lives.  Change the world.  A whole society of fun and play and creativity, of closeness, friendliness and love.

As we pass under the gate and look back one more time we notice another sign with a quote from Manitonquat who long ago had a vision of a Circle Way Village:


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