The Great Connections Seminar

The Great Connections Seminar
Discussing ethics

Monday, November 3, 2008

The Education of Free Human Beings

In this blog, I intend to explore the question: "What kind of education makes it possible to live well as a free human being?"

This isn't a new question, rather, it is the essence of liberal education going back to ancient times. The now much-abused word "liberal" is from the Latin word for "free," liber. In the ancient Roman republic, men were concerned about what a free citizen needed to know in order to function well.

Today, I'm concerned, very concerned, about what our young people know and don't know, and the consequences for liberty. What is their conception of freedom? If you want a daunting taste of what they don't know, take a look at this report from the Association of Trustees and Alumni
about college students.

However, I'm equally, if not more, concerned about how they hold and use their ideas. Do they know how to investigate and arrive at their judgments first-hand?

What are the consequences of what they know and how they know it? Do they want to be free to follow their own judgment and self-reliantly accept the joys and risks of life, or do they prefer the safety of the collective care of others?

Higher education is my focus, but to understand what happens at the college level, we have to understand what goes before.

Babies and toddlers constantly look, listen, touch, smell, taste. They devote themselves to examining and exploring their environment. They're balls of fire when it comes to learning, "let me do it myself" their clarion call.

Yet, by the time children are 8 or 9, how many are eager to go to school? Read books? Learn history? Math? Do their homework?

If not, why not? What's changed?

Is there a way to get back that fire?


Sean said...

"We know only too well the sorry spectacle of the teacher who, in the ordinary schoolroom, must pour certain cut and dried facts into the heads of the scholars. In order to succeed in this barren task, she finds it necessary to discipline her pupils into immobility and to force their attention. Prizes and punishments are every-ready and efficient aids to the master who must force into a given attitude of mind and body those who are condemned to be his listeners." -Maria Montessori, 1912

Nothing has changed.

El Indio said...

This is an extremely important question that, unfortunately, is not very high on the public agenda these days.

There are multiple dimensions to this issue. It is helpful to analyze these sorts of questions by attempting to differentiate the different dimensions and, then, understand their interaction.

At the most macro-level are the political and economic dimensions. At this level, the main question is, what are the political and economic dynamics that affect or structure student learning?

There are also cultural and ideological factors that have an important impact on student learning. At this level the main question is, what are the main cultural values or intellectual blueprints that shape the educational process in our society?

Finally, at the level of the individual, are the cognitive maps and ethical frameworks that individuals use to shape their behavior, including their motivation and interest in learning. Thus, the main question at this level is, how do individuals orient themselves toward interactions with others in the context of everyday life?

If we look at the issue of student motivation to learn from the standpoint of the macro-level political and economic dynamics in our society, it seems that the main thing education attempts to accomplish is the subordination of individuals to authority, or to the will of political, economic, and cultural elites.

Small wonder that students lose interest when the entire process is structured to form compliant citizens, workers, and consumers. Small wonder that the process loses meaning to individuals when it is structured by accreditation standards created and enforced by state and federal regulations. Small wonder that the joy of inquiry diminishes when teachers, administrators, and policy makers attempt to impose statist and collectivist ideas on young minds, and attempt to expunge all possible alternatives to the status quo.

At some point, this society will be forced to confront the role of the state in the economy and in education. That time may be nearing since we now have a government that is dominated by collectivist and statist interpretations of opportunitites and problems.

What happens when our collectivist and statist regime fails? Perhaps we will start to consider alternatives to an educational system that places the interests of political, economic, and cultural elites above those of students. We will need to envision a system that is free of control by the state. We will need to envision a system based on liberty and choice, not coercion and constraint.

Hopefully, we will get to the point where the entire structure of state-managed schools and colleges will be challenged by a vibrant mosaic of private and alternative forms of schooling.

Governmental institutions are ultimately based on coercion, not personal meaning or individual choice. We can optimize student interest in learning only by creating a context for learning that is not dominated by the interests of individual submission to authority. Ultimately, this means that schooling at all levels must be free from control by the state and the large corporations that benefit from its power.

Sebastian said...

"Education: Free and Compulsory"?

y-intercept said...

One of the great paradoxes is that in a system where private schools compete for students, there is a great deal of public discussion about education theory. In a public school system with a single payer, there is simply mean spirited, nasty political campaigns for political control of school with curriculum discussions handle privately in backroom sessions.

Good luck with the blog.

Strawberry Blonde said...

First of all congratulations on your blog! I'm excited to read your many posts to come. One thing that I've noticed from working at three different universities in the past four years are slipping addmission standards. The idea that 'everyone' deserves a college education has opened doors to those who mechanically can't cut it. But it looks bad for a university to have low retention and matriculation so many students are allowed to remain. I worked with on student who after about 6 semesters on warning, probation, etc. was finally dismissed because, mathmatically there was no way she could ever graduation with the credit and gpa she needed. I think after 2 or 3 semesters that was probably obvious. I can't help but wonder about $$ as a motivating factor for the education institutions. The government will give just about anyone a student loan, the largest portion of which goes straight for university fees.
Anyway, I'll be following your posts.

Marsha Familaro Enright said...

Sean - great quote from Montessori! And I thought Y-intercept's comment was only too true.
Thanks to El indio for incisive points.
Strawberry blonde is right on the money with the political economy of what's going on in higher education.
Finally, I love the paradox of Sean's comment on public education (I'm assuming?).