|The Most Basic
Freedom is the Freedom to Quit
Schools will become moral institutions
only when children are free to quit.
|by Peter Gray
We like to think of human rights in affirmative terms, so we
speak most often of our rights to move toward what we want: our
rights to vote, assemble freely, speak freely, and choose our own
paths to happiness. My contention here, however, is that the most
basic right - the right that makes all other rights possible - is
the right to quit.
Quitting often has negative connotations in our minds. We grow
up hearing things like, "Quitters never win, winners never
quit." We're supposed to stick things out, no matter how
tough the going. I rather like this variation, which I heard
somewhere: "Quitters never win, winners never quit, but those
who never win and never quit are idiots."
If we move our minds out of the quagmire of competition
(indeed, we can't win tennis matches by quitting) and think of
life's broader goals - the goals of surviving, avoiding injury,
finding happiness, and living in accordance with our personal
values among people we respect and who respect us - then we see
that freedom to quit is essential to all of these goals. I am
talking here about the freedom to walk away from people and
situations that are harmful to our well-being.
Freedom to quit is a foundation for peace, equality, and
democracy in hunter-gatherer bands.
I first began thinking about the crucial value of the freedom
to quit a few years ago, when I began studying hunter-gatherer
band societies. These societies, which lack police, prisons, or
any formal means of forcing people to follow rules, nevertheless
live in remarkably ordered, peaceful ways. Their principle values
are those of equality (no person is regarded as inherently better
or more worthy than another and there are no chiefs or other
bosses), sharing (food and material goods are shared equally among
the band members), and autonomy (people of all ages are free to
make their own decisions, from day to day and moment to moment).
[For documentation of all of this, see this
article.] Why don't the stronger people selfishly exploit or
enslave those who are weaker? What prompts people to care for one
another, even when they aren't related?
|There are many reasonable answers to these
questions, depending on the level of explanation we are seeking;
but the ultimate answer, I think, lies in the freedom to quit. As
anthropologists have repeatedly pointed out, band hunter-gatherers
are highly mobile. Not only does the whole band move regularly
from place to place, to follow the available game and edible
vegetation, but individuals and families also move from band to
band. Because hunter-gatherers don't own land and don't own more
personal property than they can easily carry, and because they all
have friends and relatives in other bands, they are always free to
move. People who feel oppressed in their current band, and who
find no intra-band route to overcome that oppression, can, at a
moment's notice, pick up their things and move out, either to join
another band or to start their own band with a group of friends.
Hunter-gatherers, like all people everywhere, depend on one
another for survival. Nobody can survive alone, at least not for
long. But, in a world where people can easily move away, you must
treat others well or they will leave you. You can't force them to
work for you, because if you try to do that they'll just walk
away. You can't cheat them, or bully them, or denigrate them - at
least not for long - because if you do they'll quit. If you want a
cohesive band, which everyone does want because that's the best
route to survival, you have to see things from the perspective of
the other band members and strive to please them; you must
compromise with them when you disagree, and you must share your
food with them on days when you are lucky in hunting and they are
Hunter-gatherers are famous for making decisions by consensus.
They must talk things out and reach general agreement before
embarking on actions that affect the whole band. What does
consensus mean in this case? It means simply that everyone is
willing to go along with the decision; they may not fully agree,
but they won't walk away from the band because of it. So, for a
hunter-gatherer band, democratic decision-making doesn't arise
from some high moral philosophy; it arises from necessity. To
survive and thrive, you need a cohesive band; and to achieve that,
you need to make decisions that don't offend people so much that
they will quit.
Freedom to quit is a foundation for democracy and human
rights in modern nations.
It is much harder for us non-hunter-gatherers to move, but we
still can move and with sufficient oppression will, even from one
nation to another. Nations in which leaders routinely oppress
their own people can get away with it through laws that make it
impossible for people to leave.
Within two months after the Russian revolution of 1917, the new
government enacted laws against emigration. That was the beginning
of the end of any chance for democracy within the communist
regime. The same thing happened in the other communist block
countries, and we see it today, for example, in North Korea.
Governments can brutalize people who can't leave. When people can
leave, governments have to figure out how to make people want to
stay; or else there will be nobody left to govern. The first to
leave are often those who are most competent and valuable.
Freedom to quit is a foundation for marital harmony.
The quitting principle applies not only at the level of whole
communities and nations, but also at the level of the family. Lots
of research reveals strong negative correlations between domestic
violence and freedom of divorce. Wife beating is much more rare in
hunter-gatherer bands than in the neighboring agricultural
communities. The main reason, again, is freedom to quit. A
hunter-gatherer woman can and will leave a husband who bullies
her. Divorce is easy and rather frequent in hunter-gatherer bands.
A woman can return to the band of her parents, or move to another
band where she has friends and relatives, and that automatically
terminates the marriage. If she has kids and they want to go with
her, they will. Because everyone in the band shares food, and
because women forage as well as men, a woman is not economically
dependent on her husband, any more than he is upon her.
||So, if you are a man in a hunter-gatherer band and
don't want to lose your wife, you have to treat her well. That is
not so true in primitive farming societies, because in those
societies the men own the land, so women who leave have no means
to support themselves. To survive, women in those societies often
have to put up as best as they can with brutal husbands.
It is no secret that, in modern societies, the legal and
economic freedom to divorce is the primary force against domestic
violence. When divorce was illegal, wife beating was common. When
divorce became legal but was still not financially feasible for
most women, wife beating continued. Wife beating declines only
when women are both legally and financially free to leave their
husbands. A recent
example of this effect has been documented in Spain. In 2005,
a change in Spanish law made divorce easier than it had been
before, and the rate of domestic violence against women dropped
significantly. It didn't drop just because of actual divorces; it
also dropped because men who didn't want to lose their wives
started treating them more kindly.
There was a time when stories and songs glorified the woman who
"stuck with her man," no matter how bad he was. The man
eventually came around through the sheer power of her love and
devotion. But, truth be told, men become better when their wives
might leave them than they are in conditions where wives will stay
no matter what.
Freedom to quit distinguishes employment from slavery
The same principle also applies in the workplace. If you can't
quit your job because you are owned by or legally bound to your
employer, or because economic necessity prevents you from
quitting, then your employer can brutalize and exploit you and get
away with it. If you can walk away, then your employer must treat
you well if he or she wants to retain your services. The legal and
economic capacity to quit is the force that tends to equalize the
relationship between employer and employee. There is no mystery
In school, children are not given the freedom to quit, so
what are the consequences?
In general, children are the most brutalized of people, not
because they are small and weak, but because they don't have the
same freedoms to quit that adults have. Anthropologists tell me
that this is not so true in hunter-gatherer cultures, because
children there, to a considerable degree, can quit, much as adults
can. Children who are treated unkindly by their parents can move
into a different hut, with different adults, who will treat them
kindly. They can even move to a different band. Hunter-gatherers
don't hold to the notion that parents own their children. Nearly
everyone enjoys children, and the whole band shares in the care of
every child; so children are not a burden. Even very young
children who are mistreated by a parent or another caregiver can
move away from that caregiver, or be taken away, and find safety
in others' arms. That is not true in our society, and domestic
violence against children is a serious and continuing problem.
|But now I want to turn to the violence we do to our
children by forcing them into schools. When schooling is
compulsory, schools are, by definition, prisons. A prison is a
place where one is forced to be and within which people are not
free to choose their own activities, spaces, or associates.
Children cannot walk away from school, and within the school
children cannot walk away from mean teachers, oppressive and
pointless assignments, or cruel classmates. For some children, the
only out - the only real way to quit - is suicide. As writer Helen
Smith put it in her book, The Scarred Heart, in describing
the suicide of a 13-year-old girl who had been regularly bullied
in school: "After missing fifty-three out of the required one
hundred and eighty days of school, she was told that she would
have to return to school or appear before a truancy board which
could then send her to a juvenile detention center. She decided
the better alternative was to go into her bedroom and hang herself
with a belt. ... In times past, she could have just dropped out of
school, but now kids like her are trapped by compulsory
|Lots of words have been spent on the problem of
school bullying and related problems such as students' general
unhappiness, boredom, and cynicism in school. Nobody has found a
way to solve these problems, and nobody ever will until we grant
children the freedom to quit. The only way to solve these
problems, ultimately, is to do away with the coercion.
When children are truly free to walk away from school, then
schools will have to become child-friendly places in order to
survive. Children love to learn, but, like all of us, they hate to
be coerced, micromanaged, and continuously judged. They love to
learn in their own ways, not in ways that others force on them.
Schools, like all institutions, will become moral institutions
only when the people they serve are no longer inmates. When
students are free to quit, schools will have to grant them other
basic human rights, such as the right to have a voice in decisions
that affect them, the right to free speech, the right to free
assembly, and the right to choose their own paths to happiness.
Such schools would look nothing at all like the dreary
institutions we call "school" today.
For more, see Free
While homeschooling and unschooling are legal alternatives in
the US, Canada, The UK, Australia, New Zealand, much of Europe,
and many other countries (see
here), school teachers and principals often discourage
parents from withdrawing their child, sometimes with inaccurate
information, intimidation, or fearful prophesies about the
child's future if homeschooling is chosen. In reality,
unschoolers and homeschoolers have consistently outperformed
their schooled peers, both academically and socially. Parents
considering homeschooling can find more reliable information
from local and online homeschooling support groups than from
For more information on alternatives to school, see our articles
and post comments and questions here
Ph.D., a research professor of psychology at Boston College, is a
specialist in developmental and evolutionary psychology. He is the author
of an introductory textbook, Psychology,
and Free to
Learn, a book about children's natural ways of educating
themselves, and how adults can help (Basic Books, 2013). For more
information and articles, visit his blog Freedom
Published on August 29, 2013 by Peter Gray in Freedom to
© Peter Gray, Reprinted with permission of the author.
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