Lord of the Factories

Lord of the Flies is an allegorical novel. … Using as an example a group of British schoolboys stuck on a deserted island, … the book portrays their descent into savagery. … Left to themselves in a paradisiacal country, far from modern civilization, the well-educated children regress to a primitive state. …

The central theme is the conflicting impulses toward civilization—live by rules, peacefully and in harmony—and towards the will to power. … Jack endeavours to empower himself instead by turning his choir group into “hunters”, who are responsible for hunting for meat and taking care of the fire. … Jack’s tribe gradually becomes more animalistic, emphasising the practice of applying face paint from coloured clay discovered by Samneric and charred remains of trees. The narrative voice in the story reveals to the reader that these painted faces represent the hunters’ masking their more civilized selves in order to liberate their inner “savages”. … The pig head … the “Lord of the Flies” … discloses the truth about itself — that the boys themselves “created” the beast, and that the real beast was inside them all.

This famous novel suggests that it is only our “civilized” rules and culture that keep up from the fate of our “savage” ancestors, who were violent dominating law-less animals.  But though this may be true regarding our distant primate ancestors of six or more million years ago, it is quite unfair slander regarding our face-painting forager ancestors of ten thousand or more years ago.

While our kids are segregated into schools where light monitoring lets them terrorize each other and form dominance hierarchies, forager kids are mixed among forager adults, who enforce their strong social norms against violence and domination.  At school, our kids are rated and ranked far more often than most adults will tolerate, even though this actually slows their learning!

It seems that modern schools function in part to help humans overcome their (genetically and culturally) inherited aversions to hierarchy and dominance.  Modern workplaces require workers who are far more accepting than are foragers of being told what to do when, and of being explicitly ranked, and our schools prepare kids to accept this more primate-like environment.  It is “primitive” social norms that overcame the violent domination of our primate heritage, and our “civilized” schools teach us to repress such prudish forager norms.

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  • http://habitatchronicles.com Chip Morningstar

    I find it weirdly self-referential that Lord of The Flies is itself a noteworthy component of the very educational program you criticize.

    When my oldest son was subjected to this book in high school, he got in quite a bit of hot water with the teacher when he responded to a question about what Lord of The Flies tells us about human nature with the observation that as a work of fiction it could say anything at all that the author chose to make up, and therefore it may tell us nothing.

    • Grant

      The issue of fictional evidence aside, it cannot say anything about human nature because it doesn’t cover humanity. It only covers the male gender.

      Where I went to school it was generally (though not always explicitly) understood that literature teachers rewarded those who raised their status. Of course the whole idea of using fictional entertainment to understand the world is inane, but you wouldn’t say that to their faces.

  • anon

    Modern workplaces require workers who are far more accepting than are foragers of being told what to do when, and of being explicitly ranked

    Do you have any source for this? Anecdotally, folks who like explicit ranks and rigid command structures tend to go military, not industry. Industry tends to reward those who can internalize the goals of the business and create valuable organizational capital.

    • Gil

      I agree anon, it’s a case of answering one anecdote or tale with another one. I mean, how many businesses have to nice against their will because it’s the law to do so? After all, hierarchies are natural. Some hierarchies just happen to be more rigid than others. Then again I argue that all hierachies allow people to be reasonably free provided they act appropriately according to their current rank. Or, to put it another way, it you try to try to as though you’re a a higher-ranking officer or act as though you’re the same rank with a higher-ranking officer in an alleged “we’re all cool” loose hierarchy and you’ll still get hell.

    • Anonymous Worker

      Anecdotally, everybody knows that every single company, in every country, is rigidly hierarchical, just like the military. Managers (Officers) do all the the work that you just described, internalizing goals and creating organizational capital, of course making sure to stay within the parameters given to them by those who outrank them. A production manager would never disobey the company VP at any company, just as a Lieutenant would never disobey a Colonel, even if the VP (Colonel) gives instructions (orders) that are sure to lead to failure.

      Meanwhile, the workers (enlisted soldiers) do nothing but follow directions (take orders) from their managers (Commanding Officers). They are told exactly what to do, when to do it, where to do it, and how to do it.

      The ranks in a typical business can hardly get more explicit than they already are.

  • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

    Chip, yes, English teachers dislike skepticism on fictional evidence.

    anon, while there is variation among jobs today, and most managers are well advised to avoid explicit ranking, foragers are even more adverse. Read about their lives.

  • Erisiantaoist

    While the primitive–modern continuum may not be unambiguously indexable by a scalar, this seems like taking one style of forager society as normative and extrapolating in both directions along one of the applicable dimensions.
    But it’s certainly an interesting observation about quick evolution.

  • lemmy caution

    Civilization is a mixed blessing, but it does cut down on the stabbings:

    http://whippersnapper.wordpress.com/2009/06/27/breaking-hunter-gatherer-societies-were-incredibly-violent/

    The egalitarian norms of hunter gatherers may stem from a desire not to piss anybody off. Because they could stab you.

  • anon

    lemmy caution, by this standard, inner city UK schools must be genuine forager societies.

    “Is this a dagger I see before me?”–“aye, gimme yer trainers and wallet.”

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10546265581296919974 Rob

    Golding’s former neighbor: “Even the best democracies agree that when a major war approaches, democracy must be put on hold for the time being. I have a feeling that climate change may be an issue as severe as a war. It may be necessary to put democracy on hold for a while.”

  • terry_freeman

    The purpose of today’s schools is to reinforce the military/political way of doing things. We borrowed the model from the Prussians, who borrowed from Sparta; both were militaristic, and geared their education toward producing “good soldiers” who would follow orders.

    The industrial/consumer thing is grafted on to that purpose. The main purpose is to mold children into obedient citizens who will do what their political masters want.

    Think about the “pep rallies” – are they not the same stuff as political rallies? It’s all about identifying with “your” party to the exclusion of “their” party.

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

    John Taylor Gatto & other “unschooling” advocates have been making that sort of point about school for a long time. Randall Collins & others have also noted that the school environment (like prison) causes violence.

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  • Grant


    It seems that modern schools function in part to help humans overcome their (genetically and culturally) inherited aversions to hierarchy and dominance.


    Is ‘function’ the right word here? It seems like you’re saying schools are purposefully run the way they are in order to prepare students for hierarchies later in life.

    It seems more likely that schools are the way they are because children are mostly powerless to change them. Strict hierarchies may be a natural result of a general lack of freedom of association (e.g. people in captivity; schools, prisons, etc.).

    • Anonymous Worker

      Somebody decided that schools should create a general lack of freedom for students. Is it not likely, given that this “somebody” was doubtlessly a member of the ruling class, that this attribute of school was intentional?

  • Michael M. Butler

    [Reposted from Facebook:] Heinlein’s /Tunnel in the Sky/ was probably a response to /Lord of the Flies/. I prefer the former. The lesson is, possibly, you get the kind of society you’re prepared for.

    As a child at the age where reading the latter book was part of the compulsory curriculum, I noticed that the author couldn’t even be troubled to research the accuracy of the “fact”, key to the plot, that a nearsighted person’s eyeglasses can be used as burning lenses.

    They can’t.

    At that point I reached the same sort of conclusion that Chip’s son did, with about the same sort of response from the teacher.

  • http://www.vsspro.com Floccina

    It seems that modern schools function in part to help humans overcome their (genetically and culturally) inherited aversions to hierarchy and dominance.

    If so I wonder if and how much it work.

    While our kids are segregated into schools where light monitoring lets them terrorize each other and form dominance hierarchies,

    The above has always perplexed me. Why did those who ran the schools that I went to allow and in some cases even encourage such behavior. People who do not like home schooling defend the status quo on socialization grounds but adult society seems far more polite to me than school.

    • Jayson Virissimo

      How is putting a child in a room with unsocialized child going to socialize them? Wouldn’t it make more sense to leave them with their grandparents?

      • Jayson Virissimo

        unsocialized children*

  • http://www.permut.wordpress.com Michael Bishop

    “At school, our kids are rated and ranked far more often than most adults will tolerate, even though this actually slows their learning!”

    I call, again, for the detailed evidence behind the second half of this claim.

    • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

      If you want that evidence, why don’t you go look up the citations from the source where I got the quote? Why do you think it should be me that looks them up for you?

      • http://www.permut.wordpress.com Michael Bishop

        I’ll check the book out tomorrow.

  • Pan

    Violent dominance displays are far more common among captive wolves than they are among wolves in the wild. The same thing happens in schools, however I disagree that kids learn to be obedient. Rather they become more fervent and antagonistic status seekers.

  • Jagor karinte

    I thought the point of lord of the flies was to dispel the myth that children are little angels.

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