By Jacob Hundt – Kaleidoscope Fall 2019
“For, to speak out once for all, man only plays when in the full meaning of the word he is a man, and he is only completely a man when he plays.”
-Friedrich Schiller, Letters Upon the Aesthetic Education of Man, Letter XV
According to Friedrich Schiller, giant of German poetry, friend and correspondent of Goethe, author of the Ode to Joy, engaging in “play” is the principle expression of the human spirit. As manifested in the play of children, but all too often lost in the disenchantment of adolescence and adulthood, true play is where we see the purest expressions of human freedom, creativity, and joy born out of active engagement with our material and social environment. Whether in art or sports or the exploration of the world, we feel most alive, and most human, when we are at play. These are the “peak experiences” reported by great athletes and creators, pivotal moments of exhilaration that shape lives and give birth to the highest accomplishments of humankind.
When I read Schiller’s words, I think of the Youth Initiative High School. For the past 23 years, first as a student, then as a teacher, and soon as a parent, it has been my great good fortune to be a part of an educational environment that felt like play, in the powerful and urgent sense that Schiller asserts. When, at the age of 16, I realized that my parents and a group of other interesting and accomplished adults were really going to let us leave our conventional schools and make up a new school from scratch, I encountered one of the major “peak experiences” of my life, setting the course for all that followed. Of course, it was also intimidating and deadly serious, but paradoxically, to be genuine, true play needs to be taken seriously. No one has any fun when some of the participants are just going through the motions, or when the outcomes have been determined in advance. When the 11 founding students of YIHS and our teachers entered class in the fall of 1996, no one knew what would emerge. All we knew was that we were being treated like authentic human beings with real agency, whose opinions and actions mattered. And we were surrounded by empowered and authentic adults, whose opinions and actions mattered as well. The playing field had been set, and together we would create and re-create the rules of the game.
For me, the contrast with the mainstream high school education I had experienced earlier could not have been greater. And it is no mystery why – conventional modern education has been consciously modeled upon, and directed towards, an industrial model of production and life. This model values efficiency, regimentation, standardization, and homogenization; in short, everything that is the opposite of genuine play, and thus the opposite of the human spirit in its fullest expression. The values of conventional education are those of the machine, and machines do not play.
Since becoming a teacher at YIHS, over 15 years ago, I have had the great privilege of being able to continue to play school as an adult with an endlessly rich assortment of fellow players, both students and teachers. Each year has brought new puzzles to solve, new subject matter to explore, and new ideas to experiment with. Whenever I interact with teachers from other schools, including other Waldorf schools, and compare my experiences with theirs, I am humbled and deeply grateful for how much freedom I have had to design and conduct my classes and for how close and dynamic my collegial relationships with both my students and my fellow teachers have been. YIHS is a school characterized by an uncommon amount of joy, the rich, soul-filling joy of people of different ages realizing their full humanity through authentic, free, and creative play.
During the past year, I have stepped partially away from teaching at YIHS to start a new game, perhaps the same game at the next level. This August, a small group of students, including 3 YIHS alumni (Lydia Noble, Emmet Szoczei, and Sequoyah Dockry), gathered in Viroqua to help launch the Thoreau College Semester Program, the next step towards the creation of an undergraduate college inspired by Waldorf education, Deep Springs College, and Henry David Thoreau here in the Driftless Region. To have some of this founding group of students come with experiences at YIHS has been a great blessing. They already know how to play this game – only now in addition to playing school, we are playing house in setting up a self-governing student residence, playing farm in establishing food production in our own gardens, and playing in the woods with Dave Puig on several expeditions and wilderness solos. The seeds of joyous engagement with and deep care for the world that YIHS has planted and nurtured in these students is obvious and I am once again humbled and deeply grateful to be in a position to work and play with young people in such a free, creative, and authentically human context.
Learn more about Thoreau College here.
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