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Learning at its Best

The Puritanical Trap

So, I’ve been thinking about the Jesus story lately – not so much from the religious perspective but from the social perspective. I’m thinking about power and agency and autonomy. I’m wondering how a man who deliberately preached non-violence ended up with the death penalty and why his followers, after codifying a system of orthodoxy, have advocated violence in his name over so many centuries.


It sounds like a great idea. Maybe, on some level, it is. However, life is messy. Relationships are confusing. Nuance and paradox don’t fit neatly into simple categories. And so the response to this messy context is a militant defense of “the pure.” It’s why Jesus gets nailed for hanging with hookers and Socrates is told to drink hemlock and my neo-con friends will go to any length possible to convince me that hooded sweatshirts are indeed a sign of a criminal (even if St. Francis of Assisi wore one).

I’ve heard it in several contexts and communities, spanning many philosophies. People throw around phrases like, “If you really believed this, then you would take it seriously” or “look at the cognitive dissonance. Why can’t you simply follow your philosophy?”

What purists miss is that every great idea that begins as a utopia eventually hits a logical extreme that results in a dystopia. Both in fiction and in life, we’ve seen the dangers of socialism, anarchy, libertarianism, capitalism, pragmatism, meritocracy, globalism, parochialism and pretty much any other -ism that humans have embraced with a puritanical zeal.

Ultimately, purists eventually hit a point of becoming puritanical. It’s why conservatives create the violent and xenophobic Tea Parties and why radicals eventually tried to defend armed guerilla groups that murdered innocent civilians in the name of liberation.

It’s why unschooling purists think it’s okay to call teachers slave-drivers and child-abusers and why public school advocates push the union to attack home-schooling, continue to support laws that punish parents for un-schooling and ultimately use the same pejorative language about “child abuse” against those who believe in alternative education.

I’m not sure what the answer is in education, but I know this much: whatever I suggest and support I need to question and balance with alternative perspectives. I want change, but if change becomes puritanical, we will end up moving toward a dystopia.


About John Spencer

I teach. I write. I live. I want to do all three authentically.


8 thoughts on “The Puritanical Trap

  1. I think this piece could be the introduction to a collection of your writing at the Cooperative Catalyst. I am glad you continue to remind us of the power of nuance, of questioning our own beliefs and continued reflection of our owns processes.

    Thanks John.

    Posted by dloitz | April 5, 2012, 8:56 pm
    • Thanks, David. I have found myself getting puritanical at various points, though. I don’t think passion is wrong. It’s a great thing. Same with anger. But there’s a danger in the puritanical philosophy.

      Posted by John T. Spencer | April 5, 2012, 9:02 pm
  2. Mess and nuance and complexity make us long for simplicity–purity, which puts some moral force behind that simplicity. This is especially true in areas where we know less.

    Thank you John.

    I’m thinking about how we can bring a perspective of creativity and abundance to the work we need to do in education. How can we get out of this passive aggressive responding to others (and being pissed off about it), and always feeling that there is not enough?

    That’s what captivating me right now. That’s the only way I want to stay in the work, increasingly.


    Posted by Kirsten Olson | April 6, 2012, 7:31 am
    • I’ve never seen how longing for simplicity connects to purity. It makes sense. The mess can feel overwhelming. We need space. But instead of turning to humility or nuance or a different kind of simplicity, we look for rigid rules and extremes of “Am I doing enough?” to make a point and validate that internal drive.

      Posted by John T. Spencer | April 6, 2012, 8:46 am
  3. John,

    While visiting relatives in small north-central Indiana town heavily populated by (various) Brethren and Mennonite and other denominational adherents, I met a Sikh.

    I was startled to find him there. After striking up a conversation with him, I found he was quite a “purist”. I also found him “far more Christian” than the area’s general populace.

    Perhaps it is not “purity” or “puritanism” that presents the thorny issue but, rather, an individual or group’s imposition of their view of “purity” upon others.


    Posted by Brent Snavely | April 6, 2012, 8:33 am
    • I could see where that was the case. Purity isn’t a bad thing, really. It’s the sense of simplistic purity and the way it is pushed on others – the puritanical side of things that become dangerous. Most Sikhs I have known have a great sense of nuance and paradox. Even in pushing for purity, their faith tends to accept balance and paradox in a way that most “Christian” environments miss.

      Posted by John T. Spencer | April 6, 2012, 8:44 am
  4. I watching a preview for a new documentary about Mr. Rogars, and he was famous for saying “I will take Simple and deep over shallow and complex” I wonder if it is depth that we are looking for simple depth. Do we often make the shallow complex as avoid the depths of simplicity…..

    The smile of a child can pull you to the depths more than a lesson plan.
    The shift from knowing to being never feels simple but often when you look at the masters you see how simple it all looks.

    I know there is some connection to mindfulness and Eastern Philosophy….here somewhere.

    Another thought, One of the reasons I connected with John Holt was the way he talked about education just make it seems so easy, mostly in his last book. The way he made you feel silly for taking all this pedagogy so serious. When instead it is really about children being in relationship with adults.

    Anyway I think this is a fun conversation to have, and think as Kirsten says maybe it time to find the playfulness in all our conversations about education…..

    Now it is time for me to go play with the 17 month old, that I get to hang with everyday. …. He takes education super serious…. 🙂


    Posted by dloitz | April 6, 2012, 11:29 am

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