“I want to learn to be free.” That statement, shared by one of the youth in our Theory U for Youth course last night, is ringing in my ears. It feels like it has been reverberating through my body from first grade all the way through my years of teaching and into the moment of me sitting here typing this today. If anything has inspired me to continue studying and practicing education, it is the desire to learn to be free myself and to learn how the system of schooling and education in the U.S. can be liberatory for all people. Leslie Lewis described how “liberal arts” education ought to be fully understood to be an education for the practice of freedom. If we are NOT educating for the practice of freedom, WHAT ARE WE DOING? I don’t know that it is an overstatement to say that if we are NOT explicitly and consciously educating for freedom, we ARE educating for captivity.
We can understand this in its literal sense if we examine the prison-like environment to which we subject so many of our students, complete with corporal punishment in 19 states. After 12 years of asking permission to urinate, how can I be expected to feel agency or ownership of my thoughts, feelings, or will? This is just one example of many. We are preparing our youth to live in captivity; we are educating for captivity. And on a less literal level, by acclimatizing students to being policed and punished at the whim of those in authority, we are not only harming their bodies and souls, we are assaulting their very spirit. Policing in schools can extend to the creation of an environment that limits speech and, therefore, thinking to those topics that are considered non-aggressive, apolitical, and reinforcing of the status quo. This may seem a far reach, but all of this calls to mind Hannah Arendt’s, The Origins of Totalitarianism. She states, “domination does not allow for free initiative in any field of life, for any activity that is not entirely predictable.” Doesn’t this accurately describe much of what we call school? If to be human is to realize in life our spirit’s vision, to be human requires us to be free to take our own initiative. We are dehumanizing our own children. In our “democracy.” This sounds extreme, but I believe that when our basic system of schooling is not designed explicitly for freedom of body, soul, and spirit, our children are treated as elements designed to reinforce the system. And that system doesn’t benefit everyone.
I will end by pointing out that this is happening everywhere—not in every school, but throughout the country. In one 2016 study by Brookings Institution, Maine was called out specifically: “corporal punishment in Maine is wildly disproportionate—with black children being eight times as likely to be hurt as white children.” (While corporal punishment is not expressly permitted in Maine, neither is it prohibited.) We need to consider our commitment to freedom as a human right for all children and youth. Are we educating for captivity? Or are we educating for the practice of freedom, even when that might mean we will likely be forced to accept the drastic pivot needed in our system of education and the impact that could have on those of us with white bodies?