Educating for Freedom

Freedom is central to anarchist and radical anti-authoritarian thought on education. But what does freedom in education really mean? Does it refer to the development through education of young men and women with the essential tools for freedom, such as critical thinking and self-reliance? Does it concern the socialization of children for a new, classless society? Does it refer to a process of self-directed learning? Or is it concerned with assuring each person a nurturing yet genuine freedom during their first, dependent, years?

William Godwin was one of the first anarchists to critique education. Responding in 1793 to proposals for national education, he warned that if the task of educating children was given to the state, it would strengthen the state\’s hegemony of power. It would not benefit society to \”form all minds on one model,\” through a standardized curriculum and schooling experience. Students would not learn critical thinking, he said, \”but the art of vindicating such tenets as may chance to be established.\”

Most of these points would be repeated by later generations of radical educators. However Godwin raised one crucial point which would take a long time to resurface in the discussions of liberatory pedagogy: \”He that learns because he desires to learn will listen to the instructions he receives, and apprehend their meaning. He that teaches because he desires to teach will discharge his occupation with enthusiasm and energy. But the moment political institution undertakes to assign to every man his place, the functions of all will be discharged with supineness and indifference.\” Desire is the motivating factor in education, and is the element which must be preserved in the relationship of student and teacher in order for the freedom of both to be respected.

In the early 19th century, the idea of socializing children for a new society based on freedom began to be put into practice in communes such as Charles Fourier\’s Harmony. Fourier was a sensitive observer of children\’s behavior, and he noticed that between the ages of four and a half and nine children are most interested in the concrete and material. He also noticed their frequent activity changing, love of noise, and attraction to the work of their elders. From these observations, he concluded that children could be guided to simple productive labor (such as shelling peas), and so grow to be industrious adults for whom labor is the satisfaction of natural instincts.

During the 19th century, class struggle became more acute as the pace of industrial mass production increased. The labor movement, together with other class struggle movements such as socialism and anarchism, embraced the ideal of instruction intégrale.

Instruction intégrale gave equal importance to manual labor, defined as skilled trades, and intellectual study for individual development. Every child, regardless of the economic situation of their parents, would be trained both in clear, critical, unprejudiced thinking, and in the technical skills to satisfy their originality, to transform idea to product. Responding to the physically debilitating effects of industrial work, instruction intégrale also articulated the need for pedagogy which gave the students physical training (gymnastics was usually specified) as well as intellectual and technical studies.

\”In the rounded human being,\” Michael Bakunin contended, \”each of these pursuits, the muscular and the nervous, must be developed in equal measure … there must no longer be this division into workers and scholars, and henceforth there must be only men.\”

One of the major pedagogical concerns of proponents of instruction intégrale was to foster children\’s discovery of truth through observation. They thought the class conflict would be resolved when generations of boys and girls grew to adulthood with their intelligences fully prepared for independent thought and work, without the habit of repeating as truths theories which they have not discovered or proven for themselves. The pupils would learn to experience their world directly; they would not grow up (as children do today) filled with explanations of social phenomena which contradict the evidence, leading to disillusionment or a neurotic rejection of reality.

But it was not until the appearance of the Modern School movement that the problem pedagogy itself posed for freedom was acknowledged. In Spain, Francisco Ferrer concluded that \”The school dominates the children physically, morally, and intellectually, in order to control the development of their faculties in the way desired, and deprives them of contact with nature in order to modify them as required.\”

Ferrer recognized that perception, emotion and will should be unified, although too often the will is severed from thought and feeling. The preservation in childhood of that vital link was his pedagogical mission. He founded the Modern, Scientific and Rational School (quickly shorted to the Modern School) in 1901. Spontaneity was more valued than the acquisition of information; knowledge was drawn from experience or rational demonstration; and children were subjected to neither reward nor punishment. The state recognized the danger this sort of education posed to the social acceptance of authority, and in 1909 Francisco Ferrer was arrested, imprisoned, and shot.

The Modern School movement shifted radical pedagogy away from adult-managed socialization of children for the (idealized) economic and political life of adults, to child-centered pedagogy. The autonomy of children was for the first time respected; desire was for the first time fully recognized as the most potent force for learning.

This shift was facilitated more or less directly by the emergence of new psychological theories which posited distinct stages of emotional and cognitive development. Unfortunately, this new body of knowledge entered at the same time the hands of pedagogues whose work was the maintenance and replication of the social order.

Psychology is used in schools to make a standardized curriculum \”age appropriate,\” to teach to different learning styles, and to \”manage\” the behavior of children who patently do not consent to being in the classroom. Psychology is used as well to explain away the \”attitude problems\” of children growing up in environments riddled with class divisions and myriad other social dysfunctions. In short, it is used to conceal and silence the old and ever-present struggle of master and subject, which is not an individual but a class conflict. This is regarded as \”enlightened\” though it is nothing more or less than the ancient custom of noblesse oblige, consisting now of the privileged class of adult experts distributing charity among the very people they daily oppress.

But knowledge is not the same as understanding. Any number of college courses in psychology will not suffice to awaken the understanding of our \”expert\” educators unless they also feel. They suffer from complacency. In this condition they are poorly equipped to observe the world as it either supports or contradicts their theoretical knowledge, and worse, they are slow to be receptive to emotional impressions which run against their expectations.

They instruct children in \”facts\” which they have not discovered or proven for themselves. When children fail at this dismal kind of \”learning,\” they subject them to anxiety-inducing \”remediation.\” The prevailing idea is that with expert intervention all children have the capacity to meet an established standard of information acquisition.

In fact, children are expected to meet production quotas at school. This is not very surprising in a capitalist country; educational systems mirror society. The \”GNP\” of children is measured individually in their successes or failures in the classroom, and nationally in their test scores, which are solemnly analyzed by grown men and women. The results seem to disappoint: some principals will lose their jobs, some teachers will redouble their efforts, some paranoids will write to the papers darkly about superior test scores in Japan, and some newspaper editors will assign hard-hitting investigative reports from America\’s classrooms. A major conservative think-tank will commission a book…

Since children are expected to produce, it is not surprising that teachers are not merely instructors, but \”classroom management,\” maintaining discipline. Now, it is for the convenience of working parents that the school day mirrors a work day in length. But for whose convenience does the school mirror a work-place in discipline? None but the educators themselves, who for some reason choose to work with children even though they dislike noise and chaos.

Putting the tools of psychology into the poorly trained hands of teachers and pedagogues-who, unlike psychologists are not required to undergo psychoanalysis themselves-is a hazardous enterprise.

Erich Fromm observed that pedagogy has moved from overt force to anonymous force: \”today\’s teacher says, \”I\’m sure you\’ll like to do this.\” Replacing violence with manipulation does not result in freedom. Yesterday\’s child could hate the oppressive teacher; today\’s child bows under the oppressive internalized belief that her unhappiness in school is evidence of personal psychological maladjustment. Or as A.S. Neill put it, \”When there is a boss, there is no real freedom. This applies even more to the benevolent boss than to the disciplinarian. The child of spirit can rebel against the hard boss, but the soft boss merely makes the child impotently soft and unsure of his real feelings.\”

Of course even anti-authoritarian adults must be authorities for children. The challenge is to find ways to be authoritative which don\’t oppress; to relieve children\’s responsibility for themselves just enough to be nurturing and give the comforting message that they are being cared for, but not in so doing to disempower them, and deprive them of a sense of autonomy.

This cannot be achieved in the traditional school, even if it is \”progressive\” and \”creative.\” Radical education requires radical schools. The entire structure of education needs to accommodate the needs of each and every child.

The insights of developmentalism have tremendous potential to help adults interact more helpfully with children. A child\’s educational experience should nurture him emotionally. This doesn\’t mean the manipulative kindness of adults who want to command his attention, but the responsiveness of adults who are listening. In such an environment, learning will happen more, not less.

Education must be thought of in holistic terms: mind, body and soul. Only this can accomplish the greater work of building a solid foundation for social freedom and individual autonomy.

Children often try to get this sort of all-encompassing attention. They expect the teacher to be activity supervisor, love-and- attention-giver, answerer-of-intellectual-questions, fixer-of-social-problems, etc. But the potential for true holistic interaction is continually thwarted by a disappointing curriculum and the law of classroom management, which punishes or represses children\’s \”disruptive\” needs.

What are these needs?

To begin with, there is the body\’s need for exercise. Children can learn to bow beneath discipline and disappointment to sit still and read from books, but they will be infinitely happier if allowed to be physically active. The needs of the body frequently predominate the needs of the mind in children. I wish the same was true of adults, because I do not believe this is a developmental stage of childhood. But children are still conscious of their bodies, and must use them.

Almost every child is able to move spontaneously and to discover their body\’s range without difficulty. The role of the teacher in dance is to help the child gently and safely to expand their range and increase their self-control. There are certainly systems at work in dance: the movements of the body are limited by the direction of motion of the limbs, by the flexibility and strength of the muscles, and by the distribution of weight. These are the physical laws which order our movements, and the role of the teacher is to teach the freedom of the body within its natural limits. It would be interesting to see how many areas of knowledge we can adapt to the framework of dance.

Children also have a need for their own time, just as adults do. Children are more sensitive than most adults to social fatigue, that is, to the moment when it is no longer fun to be in a group, and they wish to be by themselves. Compelling a group of children to endure each other\’s company and be in continuous social interaction for the school day breeds frustration, anger and anti-social behavior.

Children are frequently angry in school. It is important to listen to children\’s anger, because they are letting us know how we are failing them. One common source is feeling frustrated and stupid at school. This has a simple solution: respect the individuality of children\’s cognitive processes.

Our perceptions, memory, judgment and reasoning are mental processes. These, generally termed cognitive skills, develop gradually, stimulated over the course of a lifetime by an individual\’s changing experiences and interests. In my case, I developed a strong mechanical cognition long ahead of analytical cognition. I understood how simple machines functioned, but had great difficulty with arithmetic. Only in my twenties did my analytical cognition really begin to develop, through the study of linguistics, philosophy, and finally, extended to a limited comprehension of mathematics. I remain far better at following the \”difficult\” pathways of philosophy, than the supposedly \”easier\” pathways of arithmetic. I do not think I am unusual in this regard.

The human intellect does not conform to a standard pattern, yet traditional approaches to education are based on the assumption that all children should be able to successfully adapt to standardized teaching methods and cognitive exercises, and ultimately, that the goal of education is to implant in each child an identical, testable mastery of a set curriculum.

In educating children for (and in) freedom, can we fully escape from the concept of universal education? Must every child master arithmetic, or learn to read fluently?

In my view, this is an unrealistic expectation; it also creates the grounds for severely wounding children\’s self-esteem by setting for all children tasks which will be, for a few, almost impossible. I am convinced that, for the individual, self-esteem is a gift of greater value than mastery of any particular body of knowledge.

Division of labor exists in our world, and it allows us to choose to develop our strengths rather than pound away at our limitations, as if we had to be and do everything for ourselves.

We are not alone, we exist in the world surrounded by other people. We are members of communities, created by geography, economics and choice. Education should prepare children for being strong, confident adults, who are able to help and be helped.

I myself am not especially good at memorization, or even doing Ambition and Distraction (forget Uglification and Derision!), so I use my fingers for counting. It hasn\’t slowed me down-I\’ve even worked successfully as a waitress! (And was very proud of myself, too.) I still need fingers, and I still encounter problems. Sometimes even with the help of a calculator I\’m at a loss: I ask for help. My problem is someone else\’s work-of-an-instant, or fun brain-teaser. And the \”problem\” is painlessly solved.

Sometimes it is necessary to build knowledge in a systematic fashion. Other times, a systematic approach is a purely arbitrary choice, not required by the subject under study. Grammar, arithmetic, music and science are examples of areas of knowledge which are innately systematic. History, literature, social values, and to some extent art are examples of areas of knowledge which do not need to be systematically learned.

Children wear themselves out trying to adapt to puzzling institutional disciplines, and make sense of studies which tend to dull their curiosity rather than foster it. We must take responsibility for finding every opportunity to release children from systems which suppress their happiness, freedom and maturation.

We must restructure education to fit the needs of children, according to the value of social freedom. In so doing, we must keep uppermost in mind that the great and important work of childhood is to develop a sound mind and joyful spirit in a healthy body; nothing more, nothing less.