Where do the children play?

There's a moment midway through PAUL GOODMAN CHANGED MY LIFE that really struck home for me. We see a series of photographs of him as a teenager, as a young man, with a striking, unusually beaming grin. All through his young years, his lifelong friend Taylor Stoehr tells us, Goodman was "the happiest person, with the most pleased smile on his face, filled with all that juice of life." He didn't stay the happiest person, but that youthful vitality remained a part of his character and a motif in his thought and writing.

I think he was able to retain a certain childlike quality in part by being an outsider and keeping himself free from authoritarian structures. While he did go to school and, in fact, excelled there, his sense of self seemed to be bound up in his life at play in the city streets—and his phantasmagorical self, Horatio in The Empire City, was a devoted truant and street urchin. As an adult he was never pushed into a suit, into a career. Committed to doing what he loved, he consigned himself to the writer's quest for decent poverty and insisted as a matter of principle that it was perfectly fine not to want to devote yourself to making money. Living through World War II did not make him submit to the war effort and he continued to thumb his nose at Uncle Sam even when it cost him. You could say his bisexuality and habit of cruising gave him an outsider's perspective on the institutions of marriage and family even while he was inside them.

And so, Goodman's "anarchist attitude" had a lot in common with a childlike principle of playfulness. It's founded on an instinctual resistance to authority figures and hierarchical institutions, a smart-alecky skepticism toward bigshots of all types. There's a kinship between the kind of anarchy you encounter in a Paul Goodman essay and the kind you find in a Marx Brothers movie.

And what were the goals of this anarchism? "Politically," Goodman wrote in Crazy Hope and Finite Experience, "I want only that the children have bright eyes, the river be clean, food and sex be available, and nobody be pushed around." And of course, as Goodman saw it, the bright-eyed children part was directly related to the nobody-pushed-around part—for as he wrote in "Freedom and Autonomy," coercion and "the intervention of top-down authorities, whether State, collective, democracy, corporate bureaucracy, prison wardens, deans, pre-arranged curricula, or central planning...may be necessary in certain emergencies, but it is at a cost to vitality."

So I think of Goodman's values and ideals as I hear in my head that great Cat Stevens song, and its simple question: "Where do the children play?" This very question concerned Goodman. In Growing Up Absurd he writes about "child-useless landscaping....The newer high dwellings make the streets inaccessible to small children. The automobiles make the streets dangerous....The city, under inevitable modern conditions, can no longer be dealt with practically by children." And this was the fifties! Half a century later, the cities and suburbs have lost still more innocence; the children's navigable worlds seem to have narrowed still further. Justin Hyatt's point about reining in the ubiquity of the automobile is well taken.

And in these times, it's just as important on the spiritual level as the physical: the kids need room to grow, to play, to learn who they are, to keep their spirits free. We had better help keep that juice of life from getting squeezed out of them.

PS: And here's education hero (and Goodman fan) Deborah Meier way ahead of me: her new book is called Playing for Keeps: Life and Learning on a Public School Playground. Defend Recess!!