A school for touching

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I'm not particularly sentimental. I wouldn't — say — describe myself as "touchy-feely, warm-and-fuzzy" so much as "non-touchy, anti-feely, cold-and-clammy".

But: people need to be touched. Kids, especially.

Obviously you knew that — everyone does! But in most schools touching is dangerous. Encouraging, say, hugging seems to increase the danger of sexual abuse, and the chance of lawsuits.

And so schools discourage (and sometimes ban) touching: both the teacher–kid and kid–kid varieties.

And yet: kids need to be touched! We're evolved for it. Removing touch makes a community less human.

A team of fantastic evolutionary thinkers, led by David Sloan Wilson, David Geary, and Peter Gray, has written a brief and profound essay on how evolution can inform anyone looking to improve schools — "Learning from Mother Nature about Teaching Our Children: Ten Simple Truths about Childhood Education from an Evolutionary Perspective."

Simple truth #9 reads:

Departure from ancestral environments can create unanticipated problems.

Species are adapted to their long-term past environments, not necessarily to their present environments... examples include physical activity and touching. Schoolchildren are commonly required to sit still for extended periods, and touching is sometimes prohibited as a guard against sexual harassment.

These practices have a surface logic in today’s society, but they ignore the fact that physical movement and touching among trusted associates were always part of the human ancestral environment.

(The entire essay is so entirely worth your time I recommend you to pencil it in for the next time you need to jolt of exciting ideas into your life.)

Our bodies are hard-wired to experience touch — touch from someone we trust — as comforting. Touch lowers stress hormones. Touch strengthens social bonds.

More: touch fortifies love.

I think I've made a mistake on this blog. I've gone awry, I think, when I explain what we mean by love as the first of our three big principles. When I've talked about love, I've emphasized the love of content.

But as Rebecca Goldstein pointed out (in an excerpt from Plato at the Googleplex in yesterday's post), teachers are the conduits for love of content. Students learn to love content by loving (and being loved by) the teachers.

Interpersonal love is at the core of our school. And this isn't separate from loving the subjects: they support each other.

They even blur into each another. I'm reminded of how a charter school director described the most incredible math teacher he had met: "He loves students through math."

We need to make a bigger deal of this. We need to talk about how students will be loved at our school.

When Kristin and I married, we banned the word "love" from our ceremony. (Remember when I said I wasn't touchy-feely?) We wanted to make the focus the commitment we were making, rather than our ephemeral feelings. We could do that because, obviously, everyone knew we loved each other. It was a wedding, for crying out loud, held in modern West. Love could be safely assumed!

We don't have that luxury in starting a school. Love — of teachers, of students, of content — is not typically understood to be the core of education. The educational thinkers who do talk about love (of people, of content) tend to be the starry-eyed idealists. The serious thinkers, meanwhile, talk about things like subject-matter mastery.

We don't need to choose between these. In fact, we can't: to pick one is to guarantee you won't achieve either.

So we need to trumpet interpersonal love when we explain the school to interested parties. And we need to build interpersonal into the culture of our school. And so we come back to:

People need to be touched!

Our school of mastery, of thick content knowledge, of intellectual superpowers, will rest (in part) upon hugging.

I don't know how we do this, legally — but we won't adopt policies that work against human nature.

We can't afford to.

Brandon Hendrickson

Seattle, WA