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Volume 3 Issue 7

Grey Matters: In Education, “Freedom” Doesn’t Always Mean Freedom

by Jackie Orsi

The better part of our lives were spent in numbed acceptance of the idea that we would go to kindergarten when we were five and our children would do the same. We dutifully put in our thirteen years in the public school system, because, well, that’s what our parents and everyone else said we should do. Compulsory state schooling was the unexamined, unconditionally accepted routing of our lives.

But something happened to those of us who are now homeschooling our own. Somehow we each fell out of the schoolhouse door. If you’re like me, you got up, shook yourself hard and said, “Wow. What a dunce I was! Who was it that decided we should all go to public school? How did they get hold of our minds? Whose interests are served by mass public schooling? How many other parts of my life are someone else’s idea?”

Once we were contented sheep; now we’re hungry like wolves to know the controlling ideas that drive American society. We want to be free from the tyranny that comes from not knowing and not understanding.

For the serious inquirer into how compulsory education came to rule us, a piece of the puzzle can be found in For All the Wrong Reasons: The Story Behind Government Schools by Mary K. Novello. Novello’s research traces the philosophical thread back to one individual, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Of Rousseau, Novello writes, “ It may strain the imagination to regard one man, a slightly demented philosopher of the eighteenth century, as the inventor of childhood, the inspiration for the founders of progressive education, the starting point for the Romantic movement, an early collectivist, the intelligent force behind the French revolution and the founder of nationalism, but Rousseau cannot be denied any of those positions.”

Novello demonstrates Rousseau’s influence upon all these movements through wide-ranging academic research. For the reader whose interest is education, parts of the book will hit wide of the mark, especially the foray into Romanticism’s many poetic effusions. But the end of the book brings home how Rousseau’s Emile set the stage for the child-centered education movement led by Pestalozzi, Froebel, and John Dewey. Many homeschoolers have fallen under the spell of these men and their ideas, so it behooves us to examine closely what those ideas consist of and what their full implications are. With Novello’s book as my leaping-off point, I ended up at a college library with my nose in old issues of Educational Theory, rooting out more information about Rousseau and especially, John Dewey. Interesting stuff, as it turns out.

The very term “child-centered” indicates the revolutionary nature of Rousseau’s ideas. Before Emile, children were generally regarded as miniature adults and their schooling was the province of harsh masters. Rousseau ascribed to the child “the capacity, the internal power, to unfold toward perfectibility” (in the words of Bernadette Baker writing in Educational Theory, Vol 48 No.2), if only we give the child freedom to develop naturally. In Emile, Rousseau declares, “the first of all goods is not authority but freedom . . . That is my fundamental maxim. It need only be applied to childhood for all the rules of education to flow from it.”

Rousseau’s Twentieth Century American intellectual heir was John Dewey. Not long ago in a homeschooling discussion on the Internet, someone lodged a complaint along the lines of, “Why does John Taylor Gatto take John Dewey to task? I like the things that Dewey has to say.” Indeed Dewey did shout down the traditional authoritarian ways of schooling, urging freedom. He said wonderful things about children and learning that seem to resonate with ideas widely held in the homeschooling community today. Consider how much Dewey sounds like John Holt in the following passage from Experience and Education:

“The traditional scheme is, in essence, one of imposition from above and from outside . . . To imposition from above is opposed expression and cultivation of individuality; to external discipline is opposed free activity; to learning from texts and teachers, learning through experience; to acquisition of isolated skills and techniques by drill, is opposed acquisition of them as means of attaining ends which make direct vital appeal; to preparation for a more or less remote future is opposed making the most of the opportunities of present life; to static aims and materials is opposed acquaintance with a changing world.”

How could anyone reject such sentiments? On the other hand, we must not be lulled into missing what else Dewey had to say, even as we must attend to what else Rousseau had to say 150 years before him. It was Rousseau, after all, who wrote The Social Contract, advocating that the individual surrender his rights to the State in order to liberate himself from the corruptions and conflicts of society. It was Dewey, after all, who powered the great progressive education reform movement that cemented public schooling’s grasp in the early part of this century. For all his promotion of child-centered individualism, Dewey was paradoxically devoted to the elevation of the monolithic state schooling system. So it appears these men who spoke so convincingly of the necessity of freedom in education had another agenda altogether.

Don’t think for a minute that either of them had true freedom in mind. Consider this advice to the teacher imparted by Rousseau in Emile, “Let him (the pupil) always believe he is the master and let it always be you who are. . . .the child ought to do only what he wants; but he ought to want only what you want him to do.” Compare this thought in spirit and effect with Dewey’s pronouncement, “The educator is responsible for a knowledge of individuals and for a knowledge of subject-matter that will enable activities to be selected which lend themselves to social organization, an organization in which all individuals have an opportunity to contribute something, and in which the activities in which all participate are the chief carrier of control.” (from Education and Experience)

What both had in mind was careful, calculated control over children’s environments so that they grow to become perfect citizens of the collectivist State. What they wanted was not education in any genuine sense, but rather, social programming. Robert Nisbet, author of The Social Philosophers, acerbically noted, “What Rousseau calls freedom is at bottom no more than the freedom to do that which the state in its omniscience determines.” To effect their purposes, Rousseau, Dewey and the other proponents of child-centered education maintained it was essential to wrest the child away from the corrupting influences of other social institutions, chief among them, the family!

A stunning paradox exists between the libertarian, individualist rhetoric of Rousseau, Dewey and others and the collectivist, authoritarian outcome of their ideas: Mass, compulsory public schooling. And, for that fellow who wanted to know, here’s the answer to why Gatto pans Dewey. Novello states, "Thus all the links finally fall into place in the vast network connecting the ideas of Rousseau, particularly those of subjugating the individual to the will of the state, and the government schools in America. We call that subjugation good citizenship: [quoting Dewey] “To suppose . . . that a good citizen is anything more than a thoroughly efficient and serviceable member of society is a hampering superstition which it is hoped may soon disappear from educational discussion.”

What shall we make of all this? Novello draws political conclusions. Having exposed the fraudulent premises of “freedom” in the works of Rousseau and those who followed, Novello argues for the dismantling of public schools. She calls for the separation of school and state in order to return to parents the right to direct the education of their children. Future alternatives to public schooling may be many and varied, she says, and homeschooling deserves to rank high among them.

There is a subtler lesson for homeschoolers to take from these revelations: We must carefully analyze the pretty words we hear in educational writings, especially about giving children educational freedom. The question to ask is, “Freedom from what?” It may be that the freedom they speak of is “freeing” children from their own parents.

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