Can freedom reign?

There’s no doubt that a teacher’s job is defined considerably – sometimes entirely – by a combination of circumstances that she has no control over. Apart from the physical boundaries set by the structure of the classroom and the school, there are mental boundaries that are prescribed by the curriculum and textbooks. Often, there are social boundaries put in place by codes that a school operates by, some written and others only implied. Within these various lines, she must work to open children’s minds to learning, to seeing the world in new ways, to the possibilities of refashioning it to their own hopes and dreams. It’s a tall task. And perhaps one that is hardly recognized, let alone achieved.

Anyone who has been a teacher will know that teaching and learning is a miracle that is accomplished daily, within these and many other kinds of institutional and individual restrictions. Few of us would expect complete autonomy in the classroom, but many of us have come to accept a situation where we look to the school administration, the district or the state authorities, for direction even in the way we discharge our smallest responsibility. External control is something that we’ve come to take as a given.

How did it come to pass that the very job that is meant to free people from the intellectual and social chains they may have been born into, is the most policed and proscribed? How is it that education, which is supposed to break down “those narrow domestic walls”, in fact ends up taking place within a system whose interest is in building and reinforcing such walls?

This is a complex question that calls for examination from many vantage points – historical, cultural, social, and political, among others. In this issue of Teacher Plus, we look at one very small aspect of this erosion of a teacher’s or a school’s autonomy: the role of the state and the political powers-that-be in defining what and how we teach. Clearly, even this is a large question whose answer keeps shifting with the tides of power. But we open it up so that we can examine whether and how those who deliver education – teachers and administrators – can confront it and see how to resist, or at the very least handle, such incursions into their functional space.

The biggest danger of course is not from the interference itself, but in losing the sense of intrusion, in forgetting that we could perhaps work in a different way, in a freer way.