Schools, Teachers, and the Eclipse of Freedom
When I was in fourth grade, in order to earn a cub scout activity badge, I had to discuss with my teacher the importance of education. One day near the end of the school year I arranged to meet with her during recess, held that afternoon in the neighboring park. While my classmates played, I sat beside her and asked the question I had been preparing all day.
“Why do we go to school?” I asked.
“You mean you don’t know?” she exclaimed.
“Oh no. No, no, no. I know why,” I blurted out, trying to explain. “It’s just, I have to ask this question for my scholar activity badge, for cub scouts. I’m supposed to ask you to get it—my dad has to sign the book—so, I have to ask.”
“Well, what would you say?” she asked me. I no longer remember what I made up to tell her, afraid of not knowing the answer that was clearly supposed to be obvious, but I do remember that I really wanted to know. Though I believed going to school was good and though I even told people I wanted to be a teacher myself when I grew up, I realized I had no idea why. It was just like earlier that year when my friend Hans Peter Marshall looked at me on the school bus and said, “Isn’t it crazy? We’re born, do all this stuff, and then we just die. After all we do, it just ends. Why is it like that?” I had no idea what to say to that either.
As a fourth grader, this is what I knew about school. It took up the whole day, was far from home, and you had to ride a bus to get there. It was where you met your friends and also where you met your enemies. You had to be good in class, sit in your seat, and raise your hand to talk. If the teacher called on you, you had to say the right thing—being a good student meant having the right answer. It also meant staying up long past your bedtime to finish all your assignments. You had to do your homework if you wanted to get good grades and you had to get good grades. Getting good grades meant you were a good person. Messing up meant you were bad. And the teachers were careful to keep a record of every time you did so.
But why did we go to school? At the time, the only answer I could give myself was simply because we did. Everyone went to school and everyone knew it was a good thing. Riding the bus, sitting in class, doing your homework, getting your grades—that was just how the world worked. The last thing you wanted to do, my teacher’s response taught me, was question it. Years would pass before I was prepared to ask this question again, on my own. Yet even in fourth grade I think I was beginning to recognize a paradox that would bother me more and more. Some of the things we did in school I liked. I liked to read, I liked to learn, I liked to understand life. I liked many of my teachers and they, I think, liked me. It always made me happy when they told my parents what a good boy I was in class.
At the very same time, however, there were also things about school I didn’t like at all. Most of the time it was plain boring. The days were long and dreary and never over soon enough. On the playground, the other students would make fun of me and I would often wander alone along the fences at the edge of the asphalt. Even the things that I liked to do felt different in school. That’s what confused me the most. When I had to read a book assigned in class, it was no longer a pleasure, but a chore. I would sneak in the books I had borrowed from the library, hoping to read them instead, but I was always too afraid of my teachers to pull them out of my backpack. I’d have to wait till I was home again. My teachers may have thought I was a good boy, but in secret, like everyone else, I counted the minutes left in the school day and the days left in the school year. I too dreaded Mondays and loved Fridays, and wasn’t above faking a cold to escape the routine when it became too tedious.
My ambivalence about school only
deepened as I grew older. I went to some
of the best government schools in
We live in a time, however, which forces us to question many of the things we take for granted. Too much has come unhinged, too much is out of kilter. The outlines of our predicament—soils impoverished, water and air poisoned, cultures overun by consumerism, unthinkable misdistribution of wealth—leave little room for thinking that what is considered normal actually is. I spent years believing that education was something great and wonderful and unquestionably good, the answer to every social problem and the key to the future. Now, I can no longer say such things. I won’t deny that I tasted some of the joys of learning in the schools I attended. I am more convinced than ever in the importance of having good teachers. But I’ve come to see that schooling is vastly different from learning and that at its worst, schooling is learning’s worst enemy.
Amidst my years of schooling there were, from time to time, a few bright spots. The brightest of these by far was a 10th grade language arts class—as English classes were referred to then—designed and taught by a woman named Jodee Reed. The idea behind her class was deceptively simple. All she had us do was read what we wanted to read and write what we wanted to write. We thought it would be easy, but then she pushed us, to do what we had decided to do as well as we possibly could. She not only guided us with suggestions, hints, and recommendations gathered from her own reading and writing, but also, and to our surprise, had us turn to one another for help and advice. There were over thirty teachers in that classroom. I learned more about reading, writing, and literature that year than in all my other years of high school combined. Never before had a teacher given me the freedom to choose what I wanted to learn and I have guarded it ever since.
The only other place I had known
anything like that freedom was in the public library not far from where I grew
I believe that one of the most
fundamental conditions for learning, and for learning well, is freedom. In my own experience, what I have learned
most deeply has been what I have most deeply wanted to learn. A school, however, under the system of
compulsory education which dominates the
There are, of course, things a child has to learn in order to become a responsible member of his or her community. There are stories which must be understood and ways of thinking and of doing which must be learned. A school can, I think, be one of the means for imparting some of this knowledge and some of these skills. I can understand, that is, a carefully limited place for schooling in the life of a healthy local community. But outside of such limits, when compulsory schooling comes to dominate a society, I have to ask whether schooling really does what it is supposed by its proponents to do. I would hope that a school helps one become not only a person who knows how to read, write, and work with numbers and who is familiar with the knowledge that is expected by his or her community to be held in common, but also a person who is curious, thoughtful, properly obedient to legitimate authority but not so dulled as to accept its abuse. If instead a school only deadens its students’ enthusiasm to learn by forcing them to do so, it is hard for me to imagine that they will actually learn anything, except—fearful of punishment and yearning for praise—how to present themselves as they are expected to appear.
What I am opposed to is education by coercion, schooling fashioned into an empty ritual which does violence to a person’s spirit. Every healthy child I have ever met is filled with curiosity, wanting to explore, touch, taste, smell, feel, and understand everything. One of the things I fear a school does best is extinguish that light in the eyes. A child comes home from school and when her parents ask her what she learned today, she says nothing. In her beautiful book The Sense of Wonder, Rachel Carson urges us to remember that it is far more important for a child to want to know than for him to be force fed on facts he is not ready to care about. The joy of young people and their elders exploring the world together is that they encounter, not facts, but the world, in all its beauty and deep mystery. What she wishes for every young person is what I wish for them too: “a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantment of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength.”
Learning begins with wonder, not with fear. It begins with asking questions, not with knowing the “right answers.” And it flourishes in the company of those who take wonder and questions seriously themselves, those who honor the freedom of a person to decide what to learn and when to begin. This is not an argument against discipline. If you want to learn how to do something well, you must work at it, face all the challenges of attaining proficiency, and listen to the advice of those who are able to give it. But you have to want to do so in the first place. There are good and bad times for beginning everything, different for every person. The book forced on you in seventh grade, which may have meant nothing to you then, might change your life when you pick it up on your own years later, or when someone who loves it can tell you why. The poem you had to analyze in class according to some textbook’s rules might impart wisdom the moment you are free to hear and enjoy its music. And maybe what you wanted in your hands wasn’t a book at all, but a magnifying glass, a saw, a sewing machine, or a paintbrush, a handful of grass, or soil, or seeds.
me tell you a story. Like most people in
his generation, my father’s father taught himself much of what he knows. The house in rural
After he retired, unable to be
content doing nothing, my grandfather began making bird feeders and doormats,
whirligigs and mailboxes, puzzles and trains and trucks out of wood. Whenever Grandma and Grandpa came to visit us
Once when they were with us, I showed my grandfather some of the props I had built for the middle school talent show. In seventh and eighth grade I designed and constructed illusions to perform in the annual event, spending all of my allowance on wood, paint, fabric, screws, bolts, clamps, wheels, and braces. Working alone in the garage, I employed my father’s tools in ways I’m sure he never dreamed they could be used. Somehow I got all the tricks to work. When my grandfather looked at the table I had built for sawing myself in half, I cringed thinking of all the imperfections he could surely see, but he told me it wasn’t bad and I felt proud.
Every four years or so, we would go
to their house in
When we visited them the summer after my first year of high school, I asked my grandfather if he would help me build a new magic trick and he agreed. Each day he took time from his own work and worked on the prop with me.
“They don’t teach this stuff to you in school, do they,” he said one morning as I placed a piece of wood into the vice. “Do they teach you crafts, how to work with your hands?” he asked. Actually, they did, but not to me. I was on the college track and my schedule had little room for classes like wood shop or mechanics.
“No, Grandpa,” I told him, “not much.”
“That’s a real shame, Tom. A real shame.”
Tightening the wood in the vice, I felt caught between my grandfather’s respect for skill with the hands and the expectations I had taken on for myself in school about what I was supposed to study. I didn’t know whether I felt guilty or defensive and worked alongside him in silence. He was assembling the pieces of wood I had just cut and I tried to saw the last few segments cleanly. That magic trick was the last one I ever built.
More and more I find myself returning to my grandfather’s question. In the institutions I attended as a child, I was schooled not only in reading, writing, and abstract thinking, but in the illusion that these were the only skills worth learning. I was taught that all other kinds of ability were beneath me, suitable only for the “regular” students, not the ones going to college. Which is to say I was taught to disregard and neglect the most fundamental and essential kinds of work—the cultivation of food, the provision of shelter, the art of making clothes. That is more than just a shame. That is a recipe for rendering a people unable to do anything for themselves. It means that the current educational system makes the same argument as the current economic and political systems, that the goal of life is to get a job at a desk and do nothing for yourself with your own hands. Under its rule, the people who count the most don’t count at all.
There was a time when I believed that the answer to the problems of education was better schooling. In seventh and eighth grade, increasingly perplexed by the gap between what we had to do in school and what we actually cared about, a friend and I dreamed of one day founding a better school, in the mountains somewhere, a school which taught what we wanted to learn and which was filled with people who cared about what we did. We wanted a place where we could make sense of our lives, understand the environmental destruction that we read about in the papers, and learn what it means to live decently and well. A better school, we thought, was what we needed to do so.
This belief persisted all the way
through college, when I began to read about education on my own, trying to make
sense of what I was doing. I read
Wendell Berry and Gandhi, and at the suggestion of a friend, started learning
from the books of Ivan Illich and John Holt.
I grow more and more convinced that learning happens in school not because of, but in spite of the institution. The 10th grade language arts class that Jodee Reed taught is no longer offered as it was offered to me. Parents became afraid that their kids weren’t learning what they were supposed to be learning in order to go to college and it slowly returned to being an ordinary, teacher-centered class. I know from my own experience teaching for two years after college that a school can make it as hard to teach well as to learn. A teacher’s most important task, I believe, is to nurture in his or her students a love of learning. This I found nearly impossible to do when I was also expected to give grades. I have yet to see the fear of failure or the desire for success bring forth this kind of love in anyone.
I can admit, of course, that there is a place for trying to create better schools, especially in schooled societies like the one I grew up in. If you have to go to school, it is certainly better to go to a good one than to a bad one. Many of the men and women who teach in such places are remarkable people who have much to share with those who want to learn. My experience has taught me that in order to learn certain skills, having good teachers can make a huge difference. But I no longer believe that the only place to find them is, or should be, a classroom. Teachers, after all, are everywhere. Most of the people I have learned from weren’t officially my teachers at all, but people I encountered outside of school, in my home, in our community, and in a good many other places. The dominance of schooling can keep us from remembering who a teacher really is. A teacher, in Wendell Berry’s words, is “anybody at all who can tell you how to do better.” That is what Ms. Reed did for me. That is what my grandfather did for me. And that is what my family and friends have done for me and what I try to do for myself.
The worst thing that a school can teach you is that learning can’t take place outside a classroom. The minute we accept this illusion, our ability to learn from each other, from the world, and on our own becomes crippled. We become unable to imagine any other possibility for bettering our lives. Education becomes a thing, which you have to go to a school to get, instead of an activity which grows out of your relations with people, with nature, and with the stories and books and songs that give you meaning. We forget that every one of us can act as both a teacher and a student, sharing what we know with those who ask, and learning from each person we meet and every place we encounter.
For me, discarding this illusion has meant remembering and cultivating my own ability to learn. With Ivan Illich, I believe that this is one way to escape the oppressive need for school and other such institutions which threaten to destroy the very qualities they are supposed to create. Learning from Gandhi, I try to cultivate the self-discipline which allows you to be free—free to excel in what you do and free to follow your own spirit. I read about other ways people seek to support the arts of learning in books like John Holt’s Instead of Education, Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society and Tools for Conviviality, and Escaping Education, by Madhu Suri Prakash and my friend Gustavo Esteva. I listen to the stories of the people I meet, gather with my friends to discuss what we care about, and make time to reflect on my life and experiences, searching for the lessons to be learned in living.
If I had to describe what kind of arrangement for learning makes sense to me, I would say that I dream of something like a library. A library respects and honors the freedom and ability of a person to learn what he or she wishes to learn from books, recordings, or whatever else it has in its collection. Like a hammock, it adapts to the shape of anybody who uses it and doesn’t force itself on a person. I dream of a library which also serves as a place where people can come together and learn from one another, a place where interested men and women may organize themselves into reading groups and study together those books they wish to understand, a place where young people can meet with elders who are passionate about this kind of learning and eager to share its joys.
I honor bookishness, however, as only one of many ways of being in the world. I honor the library as merely one kind of tool which can allow people to flourish in their own, unique ways. What I hope for most is not any particular institution, but a world where all vocations can be accorded their proper respect, none more so than those which provide our sustenance and make all other learning possible. I dream of a world where people have the freedom to shape themselves in those ways most conducive to the flowering of their gifts. Let them follow their spirit and share with others what they learn. None of this actually requires a library or anything else. All it needs are men and women willing to trust and learn from each other.
 The Cub Scouts is a program of the Boy Scouts of America meant to foster “American values” in young boys. Cub scouts earn “activity badges” in such areas as camping, scholarship, and sports, and by accumulating these badges proceed through various rankings.
 Rachel Carson, The Sense of Wonder (New York: Harper and Row, 1965, c1956) p. 43.
 Mindy Weinreb, “A Question a Day: A Written Conversation with Wendell Berry,” in Wendell Berry (American Authors Series), edited by Paul Merchant (Lewiston: Confluence Press, 1991) p. 39.