In May 2002, the principal of Franklin Elementary School in Santa Monica, California, sent a newsletter to parents informing them that children could no longer play tag during the lunch recess. As she explained, “The running part of this activity is healthy and encouraged; however, in this game there is a ‘victim’ or ‘it,’ which creates a self-esteem issue.”4 School districts in Texas, Maryland, New York, and Virginia “have banned, limited, or discouraged” dodgeball.5 “Any time you throw an object at somebody,” said an elementary school coach in Cambridge, Massachusetts, “it creates an environment of retaliation and resentment.”6 Coaches who permit children to play dodgeball “should be fired immediately,” according to the physical education chairman at Central High School in Naperville, Illinois.7
The Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans, founded in 1947 and devoted to promoting and affirming individual initiative and “the American dream,” releases annual back-to-school surveys.48 Its survey for 1998 contrasted two groups of students: the “highly successful” (approximately 18 percent of American students) and the “disillusioned” (approximately 15 percent). The successful students work hard, choose challenging classes, make schoolwork a top priority, get good grades, participate in extracurricular activities, and feel that teachers and administrators care about them and listen to them. According to the association, the successful group in the 1998 survey is 63 percent female and 37 percent male. The disillusioned students are pessimistic about their future, get low grades, and have little contact with teachers. The disillusioned group could accurately be characterized as demoralized. According to the Alger Association, “Nearly seven out of ten are male.”49
The Haight-Ashbury hippies had collectively decided that hygiene was a middle-class hang-up. So they determined to live without it. For example, baths and showers, while not actually banned, were frowned upon as retrograde. Wolfe was intrigued by these hippies who, he said, “sought nothing less than to sweep aside all codes and restraints of the past and start out from zero.”4 After a while their principled aversion to modern hygiene had consequences that were as unpleasant as they were unforeseen. Wolfe describes them thus: “At the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic there were doctors who were treating diseases no living doctor had ever encountered before, diseases that had disappeared so long ago they had never even picked up Latin names, diseases such as the mange, the grunge, the itch, the twitch, the thrush, the scroff, the rot.”5 The itching and the manginess eventually began to vex the hippies, leading them individually to seek help from the local free clinics. Step by step, they had to rediscover for themselves the rudiments of modern hygiene. That rueful process of rediscovery is Wolfe’s Great Relearning. A Great Relearning is what has to happen whenever reformers go too far—whenever, in order to start over “from zero,” they jettison basic values, well-proven social practices, and plain common sense.
When my son David was a high school senior in 2003, his graduating class went on a camping trip in the desert. A creative writing educator visited the camp and led the group through an exercise designed to develop their sensitivity and imaginations. Each student was given a pen, a notebook, a candle, and matches. They were told to walk a short distance into the desert, sit down alone, and “discover themselves.” The girls followed instructions. The boys, baffled by the assignment, gathered together, threw the notebooks into a pile, lit them with the matches, and made a little bonfire.