Sometime in 1985, a short essay most people call "That Thing About Kindergarten" won the International Refrigerator Award. It also won the Office Bulletin Board Sweepstakes, the Send-A-Copy-To-Your-Mom Trophy, and even the My-Rabbi-Read-It-In-His-Sermon Prize.
As I write now, "That Thing About Kindergarten" has traveled around the globe—translated into at least twenty-four languages.
And it became the title essay of the book All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, which has sold seven million copies in at least ninety-three countries.
The essay hangs in the halls of the U.S. Congress, on the walls of schools, and in prison cells. You can find it in high-tech scientific laboratories, your doctor's waiting room, and factory cafeterias.
The author of the kindergarten essay had his life turned topsy-turvy by it.
I am he.
Recently, to get some perspective on the whole hoo-ha, I stuck a copy of "Kindergarten" to the door of my own refrigerator (with four industrial magnets—none of those little cute ceramic deals for me—when I stick something to the fridge, it stays stuck). Anyhow... I sat in my kitchen one night and stared at the lines that had altered my life and wondered: Why?
Why these words? Why me?
And most of all I wondered: Is it REALLY true that all I really need to know I learned in kindergarten?
On a quick critical read, the essay might easily be dismissed as a bit simple-minded, naive, cute, intellectually superficial.
The essay breaks the standard rule that important things are supposed to be hard to understand.
On the other hand, the essay asks the question asked sooner or later by every schoolchild staring out the window from a classroom desk and wondering: "Why am I here? Why do I have to go to school?"
We are sent to school to be civilized.
To be initiated into the most profound mysteries of society.
We are sent out of the home to meet the truth of the world.
Almost always the "world" turns out to be school. And no matter what that place of beginning in the world is called—day care, kindergarten, first grade—the experience is the same.
From the first, we are told in language we can understand, what has come to be prized as the foundation of community and culture. The teacher calls these first lessons "simple rules," but they are in fact the distillation of all the hard-won, field-tested fundamentals of civilization itself.
Not only are we told about these things, but we soon discover that we are in a lab course—we are going to be asked to live these precepts every day.
And they are not, it turns out, simple after all. No. Elemental is the word.
A carbon atom may be simply expressed in the symbol C, atomic number 6, but it is essential to the structure of life itself. Elemental. Not simple—with extremely complex implications.
I repeat. We are sent to school to be civilized.
And it is a bedrock value of civilization that knowledge is better than ignorance. We have found out the hard way. Experience and wisdom gained in the great march of humankind must be shared and passed on if the march is to continue.
What we learn in kindergarten will come up again and again in our lives as long as we live. In far more complex, polysyllabic forms, to be sure—lectures, encyclopedias, bibles, company rules, courts of law, sermons, and handbooks. We will be tested and examined over the years to see if we understand what we have learned.
Across the course of our lives we will wrestle with questions of right and wrong, good and bad, truth and lies. Again and again and yet again, we will come around to the place where we came in—to that room where the elemental notions about the human enterprise were handed to us with great care when we were very young—in kindergarten.