The More Things Change…

Mr. Wired and I are spending a lazy summer Sunday afternoon listening to NPR, while Krista Tippett interviews an expert on children’s play, who tells us, wonder of wonders, that play is good for children.  Mr. Wired finds it annoying that Stuart Brown, the expert in question, is claiming credit for this discovery, when it was a commonplace while we were growing up.

Actually, it was a commonplace long before that. Froebel, the first official child psychologist, coined the phrase “Play is the child’s work” in the early 1800s.  Two hundred years earlier, John Commenius said some of the same things.  And Huizinga’s Homo Ludens, which quotes both of them, was published when Mr. Wired and I were in grade school.

That bothers Mr. Wired more than it bothers me.  Yes, it’s true that academic scholarship is supposed to be dedicated to giving credit where credit is due, rather than claiming three-hundred-year-old ideas as one’s own.  The rabbinic tradition says, BTW, that teaching something in the name of the person from whom one learned it hastens the redemption of the world.  I take this seriously, to the point where I publish all my blogging under Talmudic copyright—use my stuff as much as you like, just mention my name (or at least one of my pseudonyms) when you do.

But these days, we don’t want to know where good ideas came from originally.  The people who promulgate good ideas now want to be able to claim credit for them, at least if the only other contenders are safely dead or in the public domain and therefore not likely to sue.  If a scholar can’t take credit for passing on somebody else’s good idea, s/he won’t bother publishing it in the first place.  [In the case of the value of children’s play, that means a lot of young first-time parents won’t have access to that useful information and their children will be stuck in preschool 8 hours a day, without recess, learning their letters and colors and shapes beginning at age 3 and then popped in front of a TV set for the rest of the day.]  Scholarly ego, in short, serves the same sort of evolutionary purpose as the peacock’s display plumage, or the self-interest of Adam Smith’s pin manufacturer.  By allowing the scholar to promote himself, we allow him to promote ideas we all need to hear about.  Okay, we have a copy of Homo Ludens somewhere on our shelves, left over from my grad school years.  Our neighbors upstairs, raising a four-year-old and a toddler, don’t.  They need to hear these ideas somewhere. Their kids need them to hear those ideas even more.  Feeding a pseudo-scholar’s fraudulent ego is a small price to pay for that.

Jane Grey

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