The importance of sovereignty—the ownership of authority in one’s own domain—is a central tenet in Walker Percy’s “The Loss of the Creature,” the second chapter in his book The Message in the Bottle: How Queer Man Is, How Queer Language Is, and What One Has To Do with the Other. According to Percy, we have surrendered our sovereignty to any number of experts, and we “receive experience” (54) as filtered through their opinions and observations. We waive the right to see and know for ourselves, and instead use others’ stories, photographs, and experiences to formulate our own ideas, never confronting the actual thing ourselves. He describes the impossibility of truly seeing when fettered by the constraints of the “preformed symbolic complex” (47), which is, essentially, the baggage that we bring to an experience. He spends much of the essay demonstrating the extent to which we have relinquished our access to our own experiences, and offering solutions for how we might regain this primacy.
Our challenge, according to Percy, is to overcome the “preformed complex” in order to recover the ability to truly see and experience. While his premise is sound, a lengthy observation in a preschool might have altered Percy’s mission. Percy overlooks young children, a huge segment of our population that is, for a time, largely untouched by this phenomenon of loss of self-determination. They often have the ability to see without the interference of prefabricated mental images, and do not easily surrender their own authority to anyone. Why does Percy not consider that if we focus on the very young, sovereignty might be protected and fostered from the start rather than restored only after its destruction?
In the preschool, the individual’s sovereignty enjoys an unfettered reign. This is evident on a very basic level when a child asks me, her teacher,“Did Sam go out?” When I answer that her friend is still inside, I am initially surprised to feel her push past me to look for him herself. Then, I remember where I am. As the little girl returns, she announces, “You’re right. He isn’t out there.” Among the four and under set, neither my advanced age, nor elevated stature, nor superior status in our classroom is particularly important. While she trusts me, this child must still see for herself that her friend is not where she believes him to be. Moreover, she clearly sees her agreement as something that increases my credibility in this exchange! There is no evidence of this non-expert surrendering her right to do her own “seeing.”
Preschoolers are that rare segment of the population in which deference to “a privileged knower’s” (54) expertise at the expense of one’s own is an abomination rather than the norm. In this window of time in early childhood, each opinion, or certainly one’s own opinion, is critical in determining the correct solution to a given problem. It is not, in this case, redundant to refer to a “correct solution.” While only one answer satisfies the question, “How many…?” the confident, young child is as apt to question an adult’s counting as her own. There is always room for interpretation, and the most meaningful and truest response is one’s own. What another has determined may or may not be useful to him, or may be stored away for proving or refuting at another time.
Often the small child plainly notices what we do not. A three-year-old, for example, having heard an unfamiliar word, asks her mother, “What is a louse?” Her parent, a scientist, gives a textbook definition of the creature, and we are all stunned when her child (who does not wash or comb her own hair) brightly replies, “I know that kind of thing. Actually, I think I have a louse!” She is correct, but having no prior knowledge of the reputation of the parasite, she experiences delight rather than alarm about this fact. As Percy might predict, the mother has a clear grasp of what the specimen called “a louse” is but does not seem to have a practical use for this information, as it does not help her to see the vermin before her very eyes. Conversely, the child actively discovers that she knows what an actual louse is, even if she is only now learning the word. Her ability to see has not yet been compromised—it is certainly not lost.
According to Percy, an adult can regain the ability to see. Percy identifies a dialectical tension between access and planning that, he claims, makes seeing virtually impossible when any template is followed. The thing is packaged for consumption—in the case of a lesson, a tourist site or a specimen—and the non-expert becomes a consumer of that pre-packaged knowledge. When someone’s theory supplants a thing for us rather than supplementing our understanding of it, we surrender our sovereignty and defer to a “privileged knower” (54). The meaningful experience garnered by actual confrontation with an object—“penetration of the thing itself” (47)—is lost, and we become consumers of others’ ideas. In the event that we recognize our loss, recovering sovereignty is possible by forging altogether new paths, by delving deeply into a familiar one, or by experiencing a misfortune that disrupts one’s intended means of access. By Percy’s logic, this mother will forevermore be able to identify a louse! Yet, the young child who has not yet succumbed to inevitable consumerism has immediate access.
The child becomes the authority on her own surroundings and interests by observation rather than by acceptance of others’ ideas. When motivated by curiosity and guided by their own eyes and ears, children often make accurate inferences based upon their own interpretations of their experiences. They seem to assume the role of ultimate authority with far less effort than their adult counterparts; eavesdrop on a small child and you will find that many ideas are prefaced by exclamations like “Here’s a great idea!” or “I know!” or the loud command “LET ME SEE!” How might we foster and maintain this exuberance in preschoolers so that it remains beyond the earliest years? Must this sense of the unassailable validity of one’s own opinions, interpretations and accomplishments be lost?
The answer is that some amount of this childlike quality must indeed be lost: what is a perfectly acceptable degree of narcissism in a young child is a character defect in an adult. The goal then would be to bring these enviable qualities—confidence, originality and fidelity to one’s own ideas—into balance with the ability to appreciate the contributions of others. The aim would be for the child to weigh and synthesize another’s input without completely subordinating his own. The empathy and discernment ideally exemplified in an adult might be elicited without bringing the small child down a notch, or by “teaching” in a manner that inspires self-doubt. Watching and listening to children reveal how much they comprehend and cobble together without our intervention. What if we allowed them to formulate the questions before we offered up the answers? In a perfect world, there would be a fusion of the child’s own sovereign impressions and the carefully weighed viewpoints of others, none considered to be the expert, as the emphasis would be placed squarely upon the interconnectedness of the knower and the facts of what is known.
The loss of sovereignty gradually occurs as a child is increasingly allied with conventional viewpoints, but for the first five years or so most children are content to march to their own internal rhythms. Only after years of observing the ways of the world does the child begin to alter himself to suit established tastes: tantrums are abandoned in favor of “appropriate” behavior, self-consciousness and modesty develop, the awareness that sometimes there is only one correct answer becomes indelibly imprinted on the mind, we stop trying things that might look foolish. The child’s sense of sovereignty is undone bit by bit on a daily basis: we correct pronunciation rather than merely modeling the real words, reject mismatched clothing choices, “teach” them things they will almost certainly learn again later rather than engaging them in subjects that are relevant to their current daily lives. We use “big girl” and “big boy” as forms of the highest praise, we boast of their precociousness and label normal behavior the “terrible twos.” We applaud their ability to mimic and recreate symbols—representations of letters, numbers and objects—but are hardly as enthusiastic in our praise of originality, color choice or vigor. I am suddenly especially cognizant of this tendency during my own gut-wrenching art classes.
I recently began taking a basic drawing class. My classmates run the gamut from first-year students fulfilling requirements to older professionals with an interest in learning new skills. I do not think that any one of us would identify him- or herself as an artist. Our first assignment was to “do some scribbling” in order to loosen up our hands. There was a pervasive sense of discomfort in the room. I saw others steal furtive glances at my sketchpad, as I silently wondered if I was even doing it correctly. I relate this discomfort to the most prevalent lapse in sovereignty witnessed among preschoolers: the loss of authority over their own creative efforts.
While three- and four-year-olds are usually overwhelmingly comfortable with their own opinions about a multitude of topics, there is one very common exception: many relinquish that autonomy in regard to their drawings and paintings. In preschool, “scribble” or “scribble-scrabble” is a double-edged description of someone’s artwork. While sometimes it is used to indicate a fact—that the drawing is random and non-representational—it is more often a condemnation that the maker cannot yet draw a realistic approximation of a three-dimensional object. As soon as they are able, many children give up the practice of daring, free-form self-expression in favor of rote representations of universally appreciated hearts, rainbows and bright yellow suns with distinctive rays.
Many of us—children and adults—have traded our unique modes of self-expression for the praise of cherished experts—friends, teachers, siblings and parents. The child who abruptly abandons scribbling in favor of praise-garnering rainbows resembles Percy’s sightseer. The artist no longer experiences the pleasure of discovery, but merely experiences the satisfaction of having the representation conform to the ideal, or, in the case of non-conformity, displeasure at it not being “what it is supposed to be” (47). Some of us give up, dubbing ourselves “bad artists.” Over time, this type of criticism of one’s own expertise and deference to others’ begins to bleed into an increasing number of situations. Soon we are not unlike Percy’s tourists upon arrival at an anticipated site: unhappy at the perceived limitations of our abilities, dissatisfied on account of the disparity between actuality and our expectations (47). Is there any way to avoid this outcome? How might we adapt our way of relating to children that might inure them to the seemingly inevitable loss of self-determination? And what could be gained by encouraging children to maintain this sense of sovereignty?
Percy ultimately exhorts the educator “to help the student to come to himself not as a consumer of experience but as a sovereign individual” (63). Yet, does this not sound suspiciously similar to that about which Percy warns us? Entrusting teachers with the duty of restoring the student’s sovereignty is akin to the foxes guarding the henhouse—in effect, leaving the deprogramming of the students to one faction of brainwashers. Is this not exactly what Percy describes as “the surrender of the horizon to those experts within whose competence a particular segment of the horizon is thought to lie” (55)? What if we took it on as a societal responsibility rather than giving the authority to any one group of individuals?
If we all were to commend the complexity and ingenuity of the thought process as much as we do the correct answer, if we all were to explore and dissect failed attempts with the same fervor as successful ventures, if we all were to truly appreciate the labor and processes involved in learning, would the sheer numbers of innovative solutions to the world’s woes increase exponentially? What if the next time a child starts playing alone, we watch her as intently as she watches us, and give the undivided attention she craves without overshadowing her efforts? It is, perhaps, impractical to think of indulging each child’s every intellectual whim, or even to follow most interesting ideas to fruition or to the point of fizzling out, but it is also bound to be unnecessary. Given proper encouragement and consistent interest, children would be motivated to pursue their own paths independently, just as an adult is motivated to do work that is worthwhile. What if it were the norm to think “outside the box” because no box had been established? Rather than a handful of innovators, perhaps we would have multitudes! What would Walker Percy think of that?
Percy, Walker. “The Loss of the Creature.” In The Message in the Bottle: How Queer Man Is, How Queer Language Is, and What One Has To Do with the Other. New York: Farrar,Straus and Giroux. 46-63.