Back to Kindergarten! A Modest Proposal for a College of the Future

A visit to that marvelous Century of the Child design show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York last summer set me to musing all over again. Marvelous, I say, albeit a bit of a missed opportunity ...

A visit to that marvelous Century of the Child design show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York last summer set me to musing all over again. Marvelous, I say, albeit a bit of a missed opportunity. And musing, as it happens, not so much about children past as about colleges future. Regarding that latter, as you will presently see, my musings have in the meantime grown somewhat ornately utopian. But for starters, maybe, that missed opportunity, because the exhibit’s very first vitrine contained the seeds of an entire show all its own, one whose contours barely got hinted at in this iteration.

Spread before us there, at the very outset of the exhibition, were a sampling of artifacts from the kindergarten movement of the latter half of the nineteenth century: some wooden blocks, a bit of paper-tile work, colored thread grids, a few teachers’ workbooks—with two or three mild paragraphs by way of explication. Nothing, that is, to suggest the literally world-transforming dimensions of the drama being played out across such seemingly staid objects. To learn about that, it might be best instead to consult the writer/collector Norman Brosterman’s revelatory 1997 volume Inventing Kindergarten. (That is, if you can find it: scandalously, the Abrams book has been allowed to fall out of print, but it’s well worth trawling for on the used-book websites.) As it happens, the objects in the MoMA vitrine all derived from the museum’s recent acquisition of part of Brosterman’s capacious collection.

And “Inventing” is the precise word, for, as Brosterman explains, it’s not as though kindergarten always existed. It had to be invented and it even had an inventor. For most of European history, no one had bothered educating children before the age of seven, as it wasn’t until around that age that one might be confident they would survive into adulthood, so why bother? By the 1830s, however, it was becoming clear that if kids had made it to age four, they’d likely make it altogether; and this realization had a catalyzing effect on one German educator in particular, a charismatic crystallographer, of all things, named Friedrich Froebel. Over the next several decades (through his death in 1852), Froebel elaborated an ever more specific theory and practice for the deployment of kindergartens (his term), small schools for children starting around age four, in which the kindergartners were the teachers—the gardeners of children—and the gardening took the form of guided free play: no tests, no drills, no grades, not even any reading, ‘riting, or ‘rithmatic. Just patterns and patternings (remember, Froebel started out as a crystallographer): a sequential exposition of and exposure to form and the formful.

Key to Froebel’s method was a succession of “gifts,” twenty of them in all, small boxes containing progressively more challenging materials and activities, which the kindergartner gave her charges, each in his or her own good time, as they became ready for them. The first gift, for example, consisted of colorful hand-crocheted wool balls from which emerged looped strings, perfect for tossing at kittens or spinning about one’s finger and in the process learning about centrifugal force. The second gift consisted of a trio of little palm-size wooden objects—a sphere, a cylinder, and a cube—through play with which the child would gradually come to realize, for example, that the cylinder was sort of like a sphere and sort of like a cube. The third, fourth, fifth, and sixth gifts consisted of different sets of wooden blocks (golden rectangles, cubes, triangles sliced along their vertices, and so forth). Then it was on to colorful paper parquetry tiles, and sticks, rings, jointed and interlacing slats, and eventually drawing exercises, and pricking exercises, and sewing (threads through sheets of stiff paper with grided pinprick holes), and cutting and weaving and folding papers, and peas work (dried peas and toothpicks), and finally modeling clay—each gift elaborating on discoveries afforded by the one before, and all pitched to a spirit of adventure and self-expression.

Froebel's seventh gift  triangular and quadrangular tablets of colored paper

Froebel’s seventh gift  triangular and quadrangular tablets of colored paper

And the thing of it is that though Froebel didn’t really live to see it, during the decades following his death the kindergarten movement spread, initially throughout Switzerland and Austria and the German states, then throughout Europe, and presently (initially by way of German enclaves in the Midwest: the brewery towns of St Louis and Milwaukee) throughout the United States as well, where an entrepreneur-enthusiast named Milton Bradley took to mass-producing the various boxed gifts. By the 1880s, indeed, this sort of kindergarten was the predominant form of pre-school in the Western World.

But it’s only now, in the last half of Brosterman’s book, that things really start to take off. Because that’s where he starts placing images of constructions or parquet work or sewing pages by unknown five-year-olds of the 1880s side by side with avant-garde masterpieces from the 1910s and 1920s—works by Albers and Mondrian and Kandinsky and Klee and Frank Lloyd Wright and Gropius and Le Corbusier and Buckminster Fuller—and you can hardly tell the difference. And indeed, as Brosterman mines the biographies and memoirs and late-career interviews of all of these twentieth-century masters, it turns out that, in case after case, they had a hugely influential mother or uncle or neighbor who taught kindergarten, that they’d all attended kindergarten, and each one in his own way testified that the germ of his entire vocation had been planted in those kindergarten experiences (Buckminster Fuller attributing the idea for the geodesic dome to his early games with dried peas and toothpicks, the lines and dimensions of Wright’s Unity Temple and Fallingwater deriving explicitly from those of the blocks he’d played with as a young child, and so forth).

Paper weaving artwork by an anonymous kindergartner (c. 1890), from the Norman Brosterman Kindergarten Collection

Paper weaving artwork by an anonymous kindergartner (c. 1890), from the Norman Brosterman Kindergarten Collection

More recently, the physicist and science writer Margaret Wertheim, cofounder of the LA-based Institute for Figuring and an early champion of Brosterman’s work, has taken to probing further, into the backgrounds of the physicists and other scientists who took part in the great revolutions of the early and mid-twentieth century (people like Caltech’s legendary Richard Feynman), and here too she’s been uncovering countless references to the seminal importance of kindergarten (Feynman’s mother Lucille, for example, had trained as a kindergartner), a cascade of references that Wertheim had herself been turned on to by a marvelous post on UMass Lowell professor Sarah Kuhn’s Thinking With Things blog.

What we are given to understand across Brosterman’s and now Wertheim’s and Kuhn’s work is nothing less than the way many of the greatest avant-garde breakthroughs of the twentieth century were being incubated in the kindergarten classrooms of the nineteenth.

Which in turn is what has gotten me to musing about colleges at the outset of the twenty-first. (I will set aside, for the moment, any thought on the comparative aridity of most contemporary pre-school practices, though perhaps the MoMA show will have helped to give people much-needed pause in that regard as well.) No point rehearsing at any great length all the problems and challenges facing post-secondary education these days—the exponentially spiraling costs; the hypertrophy of administrators (not unrelated to the first, incidentally); the exploitation of adjuncts and graduate students; the spirit-sapping pressures on the students (both before and after they arrive); grade inflation to the point of meaninglessness; the privileging of ever more esoteric research over general education; the mind-deadening regimentation of the syllabus (or else its opposite, the diffusion of oversight and responsibility for individual outcomes); the relentless compression of space and time for daydreaming and general dalliance; and so forth.

I just find myself wondering if the nineteenth-century conception of kindergarten might hold some clues as to a way out. I just find myself fantasizing. (There’s a hell of a good universe next door, let’s go!)

What if we were to found a new college? (I know, I know: I’m reminded of a conversation I once overheard, geesh, coming up on four decades ago, sitting at an outdoor café in Carmel: two women of a certain class and a certain age—not my class by a long shot, and younger it occurs to me than I am now—conversing at the neighboring table, till at length, after a long pause, one of them tentatively said to the other, “The thing is, I don’t want a job. I want … I want … I want to found something.”) But seriously. What if we were …? (I suppose I come by this way of thinking honestly: I was a student during the glory decade following the founding of the University of California’s experimental campus at Santa Cruz, and at Cowell College there we used to talk about foundings all the time.) What if …? (I remember, for instance, studying the history of medieval monasteries, the sort of thing we were really into, there among the redwoods; how they’d get founded and grow but then inevitably start to rigidify and ossify, until presently, with everything all gummed up and ground down, a group of adventurous monks would launch out and journey forth, eventually founding a whole new monastery somewhere else, gloriously animated by fresh ideals and flush with eager promise.)

Cowell College, University of California, Santa Cruz

Cowell College, University of California, Santa Cruz

As long as we’re just blue-skying here, why don’t we conjure ourselves, at least at the outset, a faculty of fifty for a student body of, say, six to seven hundred. The main thing would be the selection of the faculty, and here a simple criterion would prove central: whether they were the sort of people who would be willing to take active part, at least once every four years on a rotating basis, in the concentrated freshman core course, because that core course would prove the very soul of the place, the originary essence of the experience on offer.

And as far as that core course goes, I take as my entry point the premise that any kid arriving at college nowadays has likely just survived at least two years of sheer academic hell: the eleventh and twelfth grades of high school having been given over to high-pressure test preparation, test taking, too many AP classes and exaggerated GPA expectations, and all the rest of contemporary college-selection hysteria. (In my current capacity as the director of a humanities institute, I’ve long been threatening to convene a conference around the theme of “Sub-Saharan Clitoridectomy or North American College Application Process: Which is Stupider?,” prior to which we’d recruit three anthropologists from Africa to come live, say, in Westchester County, for six months just to observe late secondary school education and its attendant processes, and then offer up a report on the harrowingly bizarre rituals they’ve gotten to witness, the anxiously freighted rites of passages imposed on the youngsters—all supposedly, as with clitoridectomies, for their own eventual good.) That is, I am working from the assumption that as they arrive on campus, the survivors of such regimes have been entirely drained of free-floating curiosity let alone the love of learning, and that that is the first thing the college is going to need to reinstill.

I am working from the assumption that survivors of the College Application Process

have been entirely drained of free-floating curiosity let alone the love of learning, and that that is the first thing the new college is going to need to reinstill.

Hence the core, to be titled Play/Ground—a yearlong course that would take up at least half of the students’ (and the participating faculty’s) workload that first year. Every year, twelve members of the faculty would be peeled off to run the core (a different twelve each year, in a general four-year rotation), chosen to reflect the widest possible range of disciplines: a musicologist, say, and a physicist, a political theorist, a climatologist, a classicist, a microbiologist, a historian of Islam, a sculptor, an information scientist, an economist, and so forth. All the students and faculty in the core would gather together in a large lecture hall every Monday morning for a sequence of three-week minicourses offered, one after the next in turn, by each of the participating faculty, in which said teacher (the musicologist for three weeks, and then the physicist, the political theorist, and so forth) would be expected to take the class on a concentrated tour of one aspect or issue or controversy in their discipline. For the rest of the week, to further explore themes raised by that three-week series of lectures (and then the next and then the next), the class would be broken up into twelve seminars of ten to twelve students, each led by one of the participating faculty (groupings that would meet two or three times a week and stay together through the entire year). Key here would be the fact that in most cases, the faculty leader wouldn’t necessarily be any more conversant with the topic in question than his or her charges: he or she would just have a better sense of how to use the library, how to read, how to hone questions, et cetera. (Though one might imagine a parallel seminar in which the participating faculty themselves would meet on a weekly basis to receive added instruction and compare notes on how the course was proceeding.)

Play/Ground: a grounding, that is, in the spirit of play across a succession, as it were, of gifts. The entire enterprise would be pitched to a sense of discovery and wonder—no grades (at most, pass-fail)—and the entire college would build itself around that Play/Ground core. As I say, faculty would be chosen precisely on the basis of both their willingness and capacity to take part in this sort of teaching (which I am the first to acknowledge is not for everyone), and such a passion for teaching and openness to that sort of cross-fertilization would, one hopes, carry over into the rest of their college work: in other words, not a bad metric by which to recruit a specific kind of faculty. Monday mornings would be kept free of any other campus programming, so that everyone in the college could sit in on the lectures (over the four years of their residence, students thus would have an opportunity to sample almost fifty different three-week minicourses).

The dream being that someday, thirty or forty years on, when, say, a climate scientist gets asked, “How did you ever decide to become a climate scientist?,” she might answer, “Well, I went to this crazy college where my freshman year we got exposed to this whole wacky range of topics, and there was this one series of talks on climate science, and I’d had no prior idea, but I just fell in love with the stuff.”

Now, speaking of climate and the limitations of blue-skying, the actual founding of such a college may just be too much of a stretch. It would at any rate require a stretch in the way we think about such places: no lavish athletic facilities or imperial student unions, for example, or for that matter any cutting-edge science labs, or elaborate theater spaces. Furthermore, if part of the brief were to keep costs and fees down, we’d likely need to locate it someplace cheap: ideally someplace grand that may have fallen on hard times but nonetheless retains a once splendid infrastructure of libraries and concert halls and museums and surrounding colleges, or at any rate the plausible renewals of same: someplace, say, like Detroit, with its newly open spaces, its fine housing stock gone to seed, the sort of place we could command sufficient space and our faculty and staff could aspire to comfortable houses and lives despite the relatively low salaries we’d be able to afford to pay them, at least at the outset. And offering lower salaries than elsewhere might itself help limit the sort of faculty who’d apply. (I’d like to think we’d get a smattering of superb senior or mid-career faculty from top places willing to settle for lower salaries in exchange for the opportunity to escape the sclerotic administration-heavy confines of their home institutions and revivified by the idealistic challenge of founding something new—Santa Cruz certainly did in its heyday. As for the rest, never have there been so many superbly trained young PhDs hankering, almost hopelessly, for gainful employment: we’d have our pick. For that matter, we might not need to confine ourselves to PhDs: rather we’d be seeking out superbly gifted teachers, who come in all sorts of varieties.)

But even if we weren’t able to found an entire college, the thought experiment might not be without its rewards. I tend to doubt it would be possible to get an entire existing college to shift over to this way of thinking: there’d likely be just too much resistance among threatened vested elements of the faculty and the administration. But it might still be possible to carve out an experimental college within a wider university, for example, to which some existing faculty might be drawn. (I’ve always imagined that at Santa Cruz, specifically, architecture may yet prove to be destiny: that even though the original emphasis on smaller individual colleges as the organizing principle of the place has long fallen victim to a wider emphasis on university-wide divisions and boards of study, such that nowadays neither faculty nor students feel any particular loyalty to their ostensibly assigned colleges, still that’s how the place was originally built, with distinct individual colleges, and one of these days a group of faculty and students may once more tap into the originary spirit of the place: why don’t we take over one of these colleges and try something new?)

The wider point though is that new thinking is desperately called for: and where better to go looking than back in the nineteenth century, at some of the freshest educational initiatives ever undertaken. Back, that is, to first things. Back to kindergarten! icon

Featured image: Froebel's third, fourth, fifth, and sixth Gifts  building blocks