Monday, July 15, 2019

The Freedom To Think

I make no plans for what children will or should learn when they come to our school. How could I? For one thing, it's impossible to know what another person will or should learn, no matter how meticulously one plans. Only they can know that, although more often than not even they themselves don't realize what they are learning. To be honest, I don't even necessarily want the kids to learn anything, let alone according to some hopeful plan I've devised. It's not my business what they learn. It is only my business to create a place around which, and be a person around whom, they are comfortable exploring, doing, and thinking about whatever it is they want to explore, do, or think about.

I suppose I can understand the mind of the well-intended adult who seeks, in the children's "best interest," to inflict this or that piece of knowledge or way of thinking upon them, but it is exactly this hubristic notion that one knows other humans' best interest better than those humans do themselves that repels me. It's a mindset of possession, one that sets the adults up as masters of the child, people with so much power over these smaller humans that they even seek to control what they think about.

From John Holt's book Escape from Childhood:

No human right, except the right to life itself, is more fundamental than this. A person's freedom of learning is part of his freedom of thought, even more basic than his freedom of speech. If we take from someone his right to decide what he will be curious about, we destroy his freedom of thought. We say, in effect, you must think not about what interests and concerns you, but about what interest and concerns us.

There are those who agree with this sentiment, in part, arguing however that there must, of course, be plenty of time for play, but it must be balanced with at least a measure of adult-led learning. What is appealing about this is the notion of balance, I think, this idea that for everything there is an opposite that must be placed in the scale as well. This shows up in our conversations about work-life balance, for instance, or the idea that the solution to every political problem must be found in the middle somewhere. It smacks of common sense, but I've found that more often than not, this approach merely leads to a muddle. I suppose that some freedom to think is better than none at all, but it's hard to imagine how one's life is made better by it being balanced with others directing half your thinking.

But what about important things that we all need to learn in order to live productive lives in the modern world, like reading or mathematics? How will children learn these things if they are only pursuing their own interests?

If reading is so important, and it is, then it seems only natural that a child, as they go about asking and answering their own questions, will come to this realization as a part of their freedom to think, then either teach themselves or turn to an adult or older child to help them learn. This is how it already happens for many kids. I have known any number who were reading without any direct instruction by the time they were five. Unschoolers who allow reading to emerge find that it does, naturally, as a part of their children's self education. Indeed, there is a growing body of evidence that reading is as fundamental to how humans have evolved as walking or talking. (This isn't to say that intervention isn't sometimes needed in the case of humans who are not neurotypical.)

Basic ciphering is learned the same way. As for higher mathematics, most of us won't ever need it, and for those who do, they can either teach themselves or find others to teach them as part of their freedom to think rather than being force-marched through algebra and calculous "for their own good." I'm sure there are many things that we now force children to learn that would fall by the wayside, but then we must ask ourselves, were they really that important to begin with? By the same token, I'm also sure that many new things would emerge, subject matter custom-tailored, self-tailored, to the one doing the actual thinking.

The human animal is fully capable of educating itself. This is the starting point for how I look at my role in the lives of the children who come my way. My job is not to compel or trick them to learn any particular thing, but rather to create a community, a place, and be a person in which and through which they can fully exercise their freedom to learn and think.

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