Freedom, democracy and education

What is freedom? Many have asked, and there are many answers. Some would define freedom as a human right - to speak, to act or to think as you wish - and see this exemplified in a truly democratic society. Others would be content to see freedom as a state of not being imprisoned or enslaved. Former US president Ronald Reagan once remarked: 'Freedom is never more than one generation away. We didn't pass it on to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected and handed on to them to do the same.' In Convergence Culture Henry Jenkins see freedom framed by communication: 'Freedom is fostered when the means of communication are dispersed, decentralised, and easily available, as are printing presses or microcomputers.' Clearly, freedom of speech must be globalised if all are to have a voice, and if we cannot communicate, then how are we to express ourselves?

Education can bring freedom, the capability to break out from the confines of one's mind, to take risks, to ask difficult questions. Most of us have the potential to learn what we want. Sir Ken Robinson remarks that he cannot play the piano. This is not because he is incapable of playing piano, but because he has never learnt how, or taken the time to discover for himself what it is to play. True education can draw people out from within, enabling them to see themselves from a new perspective, as someone who has creativity, and can apply it to achieve just about anything they wish.

Carl Rogers wrote about freedom to learn - where people can acquire an insatiable curiosity for learning that results in them declaring: 'I am discovering, drawing in from the outside, and making that which is drawn in a real part of me.' For Rogers and other humanist educators, the child is central to the learning process, and must have freedom to decide what is important to them, including how to think and how to communicate those thoughts to others. It also involves learning at a pace and in a mode that suits each individual. Without the agency to make these choices, there can be no real freedom.

Progressive educator John Dewey also placed the onus of freedom at the door of each learner. He argued that there are essentially two components of freedom - access to the means to achieve your dreams, and the ability to choose wisely once you have those means. Regardless of your great aspirations to be a world renowned concert pianist, if you have no access to a piano, you will never realise your dreams. According to this view, freedom is largely in the mind, and can be realised when people are knowledgeable enough to make the right choices with the means they have at their disposal.

Dewey, J. (1916) Democracy and Education. New York: MacMillan.
Jenkins, H. (2006) Convergence Culture: Where old and new media collide. New York: New York University Press. p. 11.
Robinson, K. (2011) Out of Our Minds: Learning to be creative. Chichester: Capstone. p. 159.
Rogers, C. R. (1969) Freedom to Learn: A view of what education might become. Columbus, OH: Merrill Publishing. p. 3.

Photo by Freddie Pena on Flickr

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Freedom, democracy and education by Steve Wheeler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


Anonymous said…
I'd say that current mainstream education systems are the antithesis of democratic freedom. Dewey himself argued strongly that schools were a poor preparation for citizens to participate in democracies.

Paulo Freire put it like this:

“In the banking concept of education, knowledge is a gift bestowed by those who consider themselves knowledgeable upon those whom they consider to know nothing. Projecting an absolute ignorance onto others, a characteristic of the ideology of oppression, negates education and knowledge as processes of inquiry. The teacher presents himself to his students as their necessary opposite; by considering their ignorance absolute, he justifies his own existence. The students, alienated like the slave in the Hegelian dialectic, accept their ignorance as justifying the teachers existence — but unlike the slave, they never discover that they educate the teacher.”

He went on to characterise the processes:

“This solution is not (nor can it be) found in the banking concept. On the contrary, banking education maintains and even stimulates the contradiction through the following attitudes and practices, which mirror oppressive society as a whole:

the teacher teaches and the students are taught;

the teacher knows everything and the students know nothing;

the teacher thinks and the students are thought about;

the teacher talks and the students listen — meekly;

the teacher disciplines and the students are disciplined;

the teacher chooses and enforces his choice, and the students comply;

the teacher acts and the students have the illusion of acting through the action of the teacher;

the teacher chooses the program content, and the students (who were not consulted) adapt to it;

the teacher confuses the authority of knowledge with his or her own professional authority, which she and he sets in opposition to the freedom of the students;

the teacher is the Subject of the learning process, while the pupils are mere objects.”
Steve Wheeler said…
I agree with all of the above, but I make a clear distinction between schooling and education. True education is learner centred and can indeed lead to freedom, where students open their eyes to the world, and begin too see it as it is, rather than as it is represented by those who hold the power. Thanks for your comments
Michele Ricci said…
And what about most PARENTS scared to leave the children in front of Internet by themselves? Internet is a learning accelerator... It's like being scared to leave them with a book. Am I wrong or there was a time and a past, the dark past when "books were burnt and people could not be free to read?" Are most of current families belonging to a new dark digital present? can we educate parents to grow and mature? Philanthropy has to find ways to solve this!
Michele Ricci said…
Steve and Friends, I hope you like this as it gives a great testimony of how a teacher should be today and the "unfinished" concept is a great synonym of tutor rather than teacher.

Saturday, 10 May 2014
Why do I love school? I will try to tell you. I have an image in mind. [...] I have a mental picture of my first teacher, that lady, my teacher at the age of six in first grade. I have never forgotten her. She made me love school. And then I went to see her throughout her life, until she passed way at the age of 98. And this image does me good! I love school, because that woman taught me to love it. This is the first reason why I love school.
Teachers are the first ones who must remain open to reality [...] with minds still open to learning! For if a teacher is not open to learning, he or she is not a good teacher and isn’t even interesting; young people understand that, they have a “nose” for it, and they are attracted by professors whose thoughts are open, “unfinished”, who are seeking something “more”, and thus they infect students with this attitude. This is one of the reasons why I love school.

For those who want to read the full speech:

Duncan Lloyd said…
These are the very types of discussion that I enjoy and I am just starting to scrape the surface of. There is a role to play for schools and especially communities (I should say, school as a part of the community, but that is probably a more contentious way of phrasing it) to initiate and induct children into society as a whole. Papert was on to something interesting with his view of the three phases of education. The first being when we are infants, exploring the world and, in essence, answering our own questions. The second, being school, where we answer others' questions and the third, after school, where we return to answering our own. The computer and any digital technology is not value-laden; it is a tool. But what is really exciting is the access to new ideas to a more meaningful expose to ideas than the over-simplified 'but we're doing a spiral curriculum'. It offers the opportunity for use to follow our own ideas, to answer our own questions. Children can get there, through appropriate literacy and digital wisdom. This is a kind of freedom to break away form, a text-book education devoid of real enquiry (there is something very contrived at solving a problem not connected to your every-day life that the teacher already knows the answer. We can hope to use computers and the Internet as convival tools too, taking away our reliance on experts and empowering ourselves. But schools operate in high-stakes systems with large intakes, our challenge is for this idea not to be reduced or normalised. Our challenge is for this idea to take fruit and grow, not to be reduced in to knowledge of or transferrable skill for. I am not sure how Friere would react to this, but I have seen a video where his concern was more with the poor and starving and the justification of this expense. I disagree somewhat with Sir Ken too. I am yet to explore this more fully, but creativity is so poorly defined and so value laden that we forget it is possible to be doing a creative activity, yet not be creative at all. Playing music is not itself creative, it is following the musical equivalent of coding. I suspect that 'jamming' is more creative. We sometimes too confuse creativity with innovation and originality. Really, I think he talks about more rounded children and allowing curiosity to blossom.
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