Sunday, November 29, 2015

Freedom, Free Choice, Free Will: The Home Runs and Pitfalls of Educating for Individuality

This post is the first of a series that explores current and nineteenth century notions of American freedom as they relate to individualized learning.

Both in the nineteenth century and today, the goal of education is described in terms of freedom. In the words of nineteenth century schoolman, William Torrey Harris, “An ignorant people can be governed, but only a wise people can govern itself.” At the time, the promise of freedom in public education meant the cultivation of an educated population that was committed to national progress, social order, and the upholding of democratic principles. The success of the group was valued more highly than the success of any single individual. In The Transformation of the School, Lawrence Cremin describes Harris’s belief that “While the free individual contributes his share to social evolution, what he proffers can be but an infinitesimal addition to a vast social whole.”
Today, achieving freedom through education has come to mean preparing students for maximized personal fulfillment and economic potential. Perhaps this is survival in today’s economic climate. While the preservation or improvement of one’s social class was always one impetus for the pursuit of higher education, educational reformers of the nineteenth century put more emphasis on America’s ability to compete in the global context as the broader motivation for the public school system. Today, the promise of freedom has more to do with the empowerment of the individual for the benefit of him or herself.
Let’s travel back in time for a moment. In 1892, a young pediatrician from New York named Joseph Mayer Rice wrote a series of articles for a popular magazine called The Forum that would later be cited by Cremin as the beginning of the progressive movement in American public education. In 1900, only 6.4 per cent of seventeen year olds graduated from high school (page 31), and thirty-four states had compulsory schooling laws, thirty of which required attendance until age fourteen or higher. By 1918 every state required students to complete elementary school (“Compulsory Schooling, the Family, and the ‘Foreign Element,” Evidence from the United States, 1880-1900). Under the editorship of Walter Hines Page, the The Forum had gone from stuffy to sensational, covering topics on politics, social reform, and psychology. In the writing that chronicled Rice’s travels to schools in over thirty-six cities and his conversations with 1,200 teachers, Rice described the worst of what he saw: institutional drills, rote learning, classrooms where students were not allowed to move their heads, hiring and firing of teachers and principals by “ward bosses”, and school districts drowning in their own corruption. 

As we might expect, while some celebrated Rice, others vilified him. The young pediatrician turned schoolman was both full of sound sense and radical thinking. He both exposed the regrettable condition of affairs and yet had very little understanding of American public education in a practical sense, having never been a teacher or administrator.
Through this early example of muckraking journalism, Rice called America on the carpet for failing to deliver on its promise. The schools themselves, he observed, were not embodying the democratic values that they claimed to be built upon. They were not, in fact, built upon the ideals of freedom at all. And, in light of this failure, was national progress possible? Did national progress necessarily depend on the modeling of democratic values? Rice saw, “in city after city public apathy, political interference, corruption, and incompetence were conspiring to ruin the schools” (Cremin, 4).
Horace Mann, among other Pre-Civil-War thinkers, dreamed of an educational system that could be the “great equalizer”; it would be unstoppable, the panacea of the nineteenth century, banishing poverty, crime, and sickness, rendering a happier life for the common man. And it wasn’t just Mann who extolled such enthusiastic optimism. Even some Europeans thought American universal education was the dream of the future. In 1857, the Polish revolutionary Count de Gurowski wrote, “On the common schools, more than any other basis, depends and is fixed the future, the weal and the woe of American society, and they are the noblest and most luminous manifestations of the spirit, the will, and the temper of the genuine American communities and people...Europe had polished classes; learned societies; but with less preponderating individual training, America, the Free States-- stimulated, led on by New England, by Massachusetts -- they alone possess intelligent, educated masses.” America and Europe (New York, 1857).
And yet, while Rice was a popular writer with a lot of strong ideas, it was William T. Harris who was tasked with making the dream of the “common school” a reality. Over the course of his career, Harris would become the superintendent of the St. Louis Public Schools (1867-1880) and United States Commissioner of Education (1889-1906). For a modern audience, even though Harris uses the language of freedom to describe the goal of education, his message doesn’t feel very, well, free. In Psychologic Foundations of Education, Harris writes, “Education is the process of adoption of this social order in place of one’s mere animal caprice.[...] [it is] a renunciation of the freedom of the moment for the freedom that has the form of eternity.” For his predecessor, Horace Mann, “the essence of the moral act was free self-choice; and insofar as his ultimate purposes were moral, only in the arduous process of training children to self-discipline did he see the common school fulfilling its commitment to education.” Though Harris speaks in more explicitly spiritual terms than Mann, what is striking in both of these commentaries is the enmeshment of freedom and its enemy. What does it mean to employ “free self-choice” in service of achieving “self-discipline”? Is it possible to exchange the “freedom of the moment” for “eternal freedom”? The attempt to unite in an educational environment both freedom and its opposite places children in the cross-hairs of a national existential exam.
Returning to the present, the promise that independent and often progressively leaning schools make today is that the educational experience of each child will be personalized, that every child is valued as an individual. Now, freedom is a promise that the individual will be free for the benefit of him or herself. Freedom is no longer a renunciation of Harris’s “animal caprice” in service of “eternal freedom,” but rather freedom is meant to be experienced throughout one's years in school, in a thoughtfully designed journey led by faculty and staff for every student. At my school, one sentence of our mission statement reads, “At Hillbrook, students are known, respected, and valued as individuals and every day is a journey of self-discovery, imaginative thinking, creative problem solving, laughter and friendship.” At Crystal Springs Uplands, my former school, the “intimate, collaborative community encourages students to pursue passions, explore new interests, build confidence, develop compassion and thrive in an environment of academic excellence.” At The Nueva School, which self-identifies as a school for gifted students, the “school community inspires passion for lifelong learning, fosters social and emotional acuity, and develops the student’s imaginative mind.” Self-discovery, imaginative thinking, and passion seem a far cry from Harris’s notion that “The end product is the self-active individual, the reasoning person who can exercise true freedom in terms of his own civilization” (Cremin, 19).
Which student, of the past or present, achieves true freedom, the kind that transcends the American social-political promise, the kind of freedom that reaches into the realms of the Emersonian consciousness that the architects of the “common school” idealized, the freedom of the whole being, mind, heart, and spirit? Today, have we delivered on our promise? Are they free, and is it good for one or for all? As teachers today, who are tasked not only with instruction but also with curriculum design and innovative approaches to learning, we are tasked with crafting the dreams of our schools in the tools of the worldly plane, making manifest these vision statements, as the William Torrey Harris’s of our day.

In a forthcoming post, I will investigate the work of contemporary educational visionaries and their contribution to individualized learning. Stay tuned, too, for an update on using data to personalize learning in my 6th grade English class.

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