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The book I’ve been reading this week for my thesis research, The Survival of a Counterculture: Ideological Work and Everyday Life Among Rural Communards, by Bennet M. Berger (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981) was a find on the Brookline Booksmith $1 cart by Hanna while I was on vacation visiting family (thank you H, for thinking of me!). Even though it was published the year I was born, and written by a sociologist rather than an historian, I am still finding a lot of really good observations and theoretical musings that help me clarify my thinking about the interaction of philosophy and practice in human communities.

Berger set out to study the place of children within “hippie” communes, and although his observations range far and wide in this particular book — not focusing on children to the exclusion of other aspects of commune life, he still spends a good deal of time describing adult interactions with young people. The following excerpt is from his third chapter, “Communal Children: Equalitarianism and the Decline of Age-grading.”

In treating the history of the concept of childhood, social scientists have emphasized the differences between [the pre-industrial] status of children . . . where they are regarded simply as small or inadequate versions of their parents, totally subject to traditional or otherwise arbitrary parental authority . . . [and on the other hand] the modern, industrial, middle-class view of children [in which] children are increasingly treated as members of a distinctive social category, their social participation . . . increasingly limited to age-homogeneous groups.

. . .

The prevalent view of children at The Ranch (and other communes like it) fits neither of these models exactly. Rather than being members of an autonomous category of “children” or being inadequate versions of their parents, legitimately subject to their arbitrary authority, children and young people (or “small persons,” as they are sometimes deliberately, perhaps preciously, called) are primarily regarded as “persons,” members of the communal family, just like anyone else — not necessarily less wise, perhaps less competent, but recognized primarily, as my colleague Bruce Hackett put it, “by lowering one’s line of vision rather than one’s level of discourse.”

Berger’s later descriptions of adult-child interactions at The Ranch illuminate and refine this general philosophical approach to understanding young people in the context of the communal structure — obviously there are nuances to each portion of this description (how is the “less competent” aspect dealt with? what does it mean for children to be seen as potential sources of wisdom?). But I was struck by the re-orientation necessarily in a community where this is the starting point for adult-child interaction, rather than one of the first two positions described (and in our modern American society, the modern, industrial, middle-class ideal dominates, whether or not it is upheld religiously in daily practice). What would it be like to interact with kids primarily “by lowering one’s line of vision rather than one’s level of discourse”?

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