Saturday, February 23, 2008

Politics of a Lego town

Here's a fascinating essay on the politics of a Lego town built by a group of 5-9 year old kids in an after school program. The town started out dominated by an oligarchy of Lego enthusiasts who excluded other kids and fiercely competed amongst themselves for the precious resource of "cool pieces". After some pretty drastic social intervention from the teachers (including banning the Legos for a time--what a bunch of killjoys), the Lego town was reborn as a radically egalitarian and communitarian enterprise:

From this framework, the children made a number of specific proposals for rules about Legos, engaged in some collegial debate about those proposals, and worked through their differing suggestions until they reached consensus about three core agreements:

  • All structures are public structures. Everyone can use all the Lego structures. But only the builder or people who have her or his permission are allowed to change a structure.

  • Lego people can be saved only by a "team" of kids, not by individuals.

  • All structures will be standard sizes.

With these three agreements — which distilled months of social justice exploration into a few simple tenets of community use of resources — we returned the Legos to their place of honor in the classroom.

Reihan, writing on Sullivan's blog, has a negative reaction to this:
But that, of course, is the trouble with radical egalitarianism. It is ultimately driven by intense hostility towards "the children at the top of the Legotown hierarchy" rather than a dispassionate critique of "the system at work in Legotown." Challenging and reformulating Legotown means changing which kids are at the top of the Legotown hierarchy. Instead of kids who are good at building things with Legos, it will instead be the kids who please the teachers with their dedication to radical egalitarianism. And so it goes.
Now I could be sympathetic to both egalitarian and elitist moral arguments. On the one hand, I like fairness. If I was a kid playing with Legos and building a town with other kids, I would want some structure in place to make sure I got my fair share of Lego resources without having to constantly fight other kids for them. On the other hand, if the stuff I built was way cooler than the crap other kids were building, I'd deeply resent the fact that my expertise and work was not rewarded with superior access to Lego resources.

I think the article describing the Lego towns suffers from a glaring omission: There are no pictures of the Lego towns described. The authors of the article treat these Lego-related power interactions as purely political and moral exercises, with absolutely no consideration of the actual end product itself. It is as if they were discussing the relative merits of two political systems without any reference to the actual conditions those political systems create. Maybe if you're a teacher, the purpose of Legos is to instill children with egalitarian moral principles. But when I was a kid, Legos were for building cool shit.

The authors of the article would make a much stronger case if they could show that the Lego town built along egalitarian and communitarian principles was better than the Lego town dominated by a narrow elite. But they never do. Indeed, they never discuss the relative aesthetic merits of any of the Lego constructions at all. Any discussion of Lego politics that does not base its arguments at least in part on the end quality of the product is completely missing the point.


Anonymous Bonnie 'Prince' Ollie said...

I actually had a similar reaction to it. Not that I wanted to see a picture of Legotown, but it was more that I wanted more acknowledgment of the non-political dimensions of this exercise with the kids. The teachers talk about spending an hour with the kids talking about the socio-political dynamics of their Lego play, but it's almost as if it didn't occur to them that the kids just wanted to play Legos again. It seems like "Carl" in the story was arguing against his inherent social "power" as a Legotown builder, not because he was uncomfortable with having it, but because he saw what was going on and knew that would help everyone get the Legos back. I would like to think I was pretty intellectual for an 8-year-old, but I would have not appreciated taking away the community's games to prove a political point. The real wielders of power in this scenario were the teachers, and benign as their reign seems to have been, there's also something a bit fucked about taking toys away to engage in social experimentation on your students.

I'd consider myself a liberal, but this seemed like far-left ideologuery taken too far. Really fascinating article though, and pictures would have certainly brought it to life.

8:59 PM, February 23, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'd like to see how two groups might progress if one was "free market" and one was "socialist". Would a juvenile Donald Trump ("juvenile in age not personality--we already have one like that)crush the competition while the coop side produces the eqivalent of Communist block housing? Perhaps the repressed Lego people would need to create their own mini-Lego toys as outlets for their imagination. Then the Lego people would have to monitor each other like East German informants. Some would escape to the "free zone" only to find that nothing is free but the right to compete in a system rigged for the powerful.Such dueling economies could teach kids on many levels,

3:06 PM, February 26, 2008  

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