Learning to be free
The words ‘freedom’ and ‘education’, so long an oxymoron, are beginning to be heard in the same breath increasingly frequently. A plethora of books about the topic is appearing, such as ‘Education as Freedom’, ‘The School of Freedom’, ‘The problem of Freedom in Postmodern Education’, and so on. Not that the concept of freedom in the sphere of education is something completely new: Rudolf Steiner wrote his seminal work ‘Education Towards Freedom’ before 1920, and in 1921 AS Neil opened his progressive school Summerhill, where the pupils were even free to choose whether to come to class or not!
So what do we mean when we talk about freedom? And what implications does our understanding have for us educators?
Freedom! We all want to ‘have’ it; we debate how to ‘achieve’ it.
But freedom is not some independently existing entity that we can look for and hope to ‘find’ or ‘attain’. Freedom is the absence of all that prevents us being free. So it follows that freedom will mean different things to different people. What one person experiences as preventing him from being free may not have the same effect on another person.
- Pressure to conform, against our will, to others’ expectations (for example: A volunteer wants to stay on longer than her one year term, but she feels she has to follow her family’s expectations that she return home and settle down.)
- An external situation that does not allow us to “be ourselves” (for example, a situation where there is no scope for our ideas to be heard/where we have to do things in a way that is imposed, and that we cannot ‘connect’ with.)
- Our actions when they are influenced by what others think of us (for example, the need to follow the latest fashion; young people may do things such as drink too much alcohol, because this way they will be accepted by the group.)
- Our own limiting thoughts/actions/opinions of ourselves/expectations of our own capabilities(for example, persistent feelings of inadequacy or wanting to give up when things go wrong/anger (we lose the ability to act thoughtfully and by choice) / belief that there are some things we will never be good at.
In the classroom, inner freedom can be encouraged by
- celebrating diversity and placing less value on conformity for its own sake;
- accepting each child for the person he/she is, and finding ways to allow constructive expression of that personality;
- placing value on the child’s opinions, and encouraging him/her to express them;
- getting out of the habit of stating everything as an instruction or command, by describing the problem and teaching the children to use their own awareness and initiative to solve it (E.g. “Some of the gaps between you are big and some are small. Can we make a nice even circle?”)
- incorporating an element of choice into as many activities as you can, to reduce the feeling of powerlessness experienced when one is told what to do all the time;
- discouraging a ‘follow the crowd’ mentality;
- giving support and encouragement to students who lack confidence.
By the time the child has become an adult, we would hope that he/she has attained a state of inner freedom. That is,
- he will accept himself the way he is,
- he will have the confidence to believe he can attain his goals,
- he can act and think independently.
In all our teaching, in every classroom situation, we should ask ourselves: “To what extent is what I am doing – or saying – enabling the student to ultimately achieve these goals?”
Can one be free and yet be a part of a community(family, classroom, village) at the same time?
How can I reconcile my need for freedom with the needs of the community? Am I still free if I do what the community expects of me?
AS Neill (Camphill) says that, “No-one can have social freedom, for the personal rights of others must be respected”. Or, in other words, “Freedom means doing what you like, so long as you don’t interfere with the freedom of others.”
If the needs of the community are forcing me to do something I don’t want to do, or something that I think is wrong, I feel unfree.
However, if I willingly choose, or desire, to accommodate the needs of others, I feel I am acting in freedom.
Social freedom and education
In order to develop their individuality and potential, children need to know that there are certain boundaries to what is socially acceptable, and where these boundaries are. This helps them feel secure; otherwise they are tossed here and there and feel unsettled.
If they are given too much social freedom, i.e., if they don’t feel a clear boundary, they will often push their behaviour to find out where the limit is.
However if children are not given enough social freedom – in other words, if they are simply told what to do, without the possibility of deciding for themselves which action is appropriate in a given situation – they are unlikely to develop the discrimination needed for social harmony.
A good middle way is freedom within limits. These limits may at first need to be imposed, but this is not a long-term solution. Over time, it is hoped that the child attains perception of others and their needs and wants, and learns to adjust his behaviour accordingly.If the teacher simply castigates the child each time he does something anti-social, without discussion of the generally accepted expectations of the group, he may not learn to see the ‘bigger picture’ and therefore will have trouble figuring out how to behave in any situation.“In considering the rights and happiness of others, he is seeking to live at peace with them by conceding something to their point of view. Thus he begins to exercise self-discipline.” (AS Neill)
With social freedom comes responsibility. One cannot exist without the other if society is to function. Children are not yet mature enough to automatically comprehend the responsibility that comes with freedom – it needs to be taught. Gradually over time, children’s horizons widen, and they are able to be more objective and aware of the broader picture. They are able to freely decide to adapt their desires to take account of the needs of others.
Example: The young child feels he should be free to drop his toffee wrapper wherever he wants. Later, he may realize that he has a responsibility towards the community – that of keeping the environment nice for everyone to enjoy.
We want children to be free from:
• fear and anxiety
• being made to feel inferior/an idiot/worthless
• being told what to do all the time
These freedoms do not imply freedom from:
• following the teacher’s requests or instructions
• conforming to social rules and expectations (choosing to do what you ought to do, for the good of the group).
• considering others’ needs
• self discipline and self control
This is the ‘responsibility’ part
We want children to be free to:
• have an opinion
• express themselves freely
• make choices
• have likes and dislikes
These freedoms do not imply freedom to:
• shout out answers or opinions, drowning out the opinions of others
• be disrespectful to teachers or other children in word or deed
• consider only yourself
• do only what you feel like doing at the time
This is the ‘responsibility’ part
The teacher’s role in this learning cannot be underestimated. Again and again in classroom situations, the opportunity for little reminders and discussions will arise. I am not talking about lectures on ‘Values Education’. It doesn’t matter how many wonderful charts and posters you put up on the walls – that’s where the values will stay, unless they are constantly reinforced in each and every situation (inside the classroom and without) as it arises. Seize every possible occasion to make sure your expectations of social responsibility are put into practice. It has to become a habit. This kind of social learning is, I believe, at least as important for the future adult as the academic learning we want them to acquire.
The author has taught English to school children in Austria and Ecuador, and to young adults in India. At present she is working as a volunteer in a small NGO-run primary school for rural children in the foothills of the Himalayas. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.