‘We are only puppets, our strings are being pulled by unknown forces.’ Danton’s Death: Buchner
The French playwright, Olympe de Gouges, the writer of the ‘Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen,’ criticised the French Revolutionary Regime, complaining ‘equality’ did not seem to include female suffrage. She wrote that: “My aim IS TO SPEAK TO YOU FREELY” and that: “The free expression of thoughts and opinions is one of the most precious rights of woman…” She continued: “Let us move on and reflect on the frightful position that women held in society; given that a system of national education is now being contemplated, let us see if our wise Legislators will be rational in their consideration of the education of women.” She was guillotined for her fearless and outspoken words during ‘the Terror’ on 3rd November 1793. How tolerant of free expression can a society be?
How independent and free to think critically do we want our students to be? How far can they be free to disagree with their teachers? If the teacher is able to let go and is truly able to teach the student to be free of them, then we are performing a service that might be deemed ‘child centred’, in that the child, once free of the institution, has it within their grasp to be, forever free of that institution. Can the institution, the school or university tolerate individual freedom whilst the student is part of the institution or, in the name of equality, tolerance or respect, will it be stamped upon?
We might believe, strongly, that the values of the institution are the right ones for that child and that our institutional values will see that child through into adulthood but if we forever want that child to reflect the values of the institution this is far from a child-centred education, it is more ‘institution-centred’.
Can a school shape a child? Boris Johnson and David Cameron are known as ‘Old Etonians’ – no matter what they do they will find it hard to escape the epigram OE that is knitted into our consciousness of them. Is it that that school had an impact on these two or is it just the prejudices of we onlookers wishing that OE means something, maybe, privilege?
To what extent should a school go to deny freedom to those who want to go against the grain? Jenny Beavan the Oscar and Bafta winning costume designer for the Mad Max ‘Fury Road’ movie shows that standing out, going against the grain, still causes ructions… But as she says: “I am British with a slightly rebellious character…” implying that the nation of her birth and rebelliousness have a symbiotic relationship, if she had worn those clothes every day to school, what would have become of her?
If we teach a child to adopt, forever, the beliefs of an institution so that they might forever obey those beliefs then we are not inculcating an education for freedom but one of servitude. If we dictate and impose the ‘British’ values of ‘democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs…’ by repressing the individual liberty of someone who pushes the boundaries of what might be meant by ‘mutual respect and tolerance’ we act in a way that Olympe de Gouges might have recognised. Mutual respect and tolerance, can be an imposition, in much the same way as ‘equality’ was after the French Revolution, as one might be denying ‘individual liberty’ in order to ensure that ‘tolerance’ is shown. This is why we end up with such utterances as ‘intolerant of intolerance’; a moral dilemma that ought to be discussed rather than taken at face value.
Character education, values, beliefs, all sound great when they are values and beliefs you agree with and character traits you can warm to, but if schools have the power to shape the values, beliefs and characters of the next generation would we want everyone to be carbon copies of each other? How much freedom would we deny the school leaver in order to ensure they were carbon copies of a school values statement?
The rogue, the anarchist, the egoist, the sceptic, the awkward outlier, the shy, the introvert, the gritless, the witty and the witless… How many of these awkward cusses would survive in a new world order made out of the demands of school centred values? With a broad curriculum, a range of teachers and approaches and experiences, most children can find their niche, but in a narrower curriculum faced with the same old, same old, the same old children might struggle to find a ‘home’.
What about the rude, the right wing, the vile… according to Wikipedia, Kew-Forest School in New York: ‘provides a safe, nurturing, and intellectually vigorous environment that inspires every student to explore and expand creative interests, to apply courageous and innovative thinking, and to become an ethical contributor to ever-widening communities. Kew-Forest students develop the skills necessary for pursuing higher education and for acquiring the essential competencies of a responsible citizen.’ At thirteen years old, due to behaviour problems, Donald Trump had to leave this school (though I’m sure its mission statement was different in those days…) he attended instead the New York Military Academy which ‘was founded in 1889 by Charles Jefferson Wright, an American Civil War veteran and former schoolteacher from New Hampshire who believed that a military structure provided the best environment for academic achievement, a philosophy to which the school still adheres.’ Now, maybe, Trump was formed by his educational experiences, but would we want his character, beliefs and values to be tempered and formed by his school(s)? Would the world be better off if Trump was a different kinda guy? (Don’t answer that…)
Maybe a school can help with, socialisation, ’emotional intelligence’ or ‘manners’, within the microcosm of society that the school represents, but ought it encourage independence of thought? If a child is free to leave an institution so that they can then go ahead and forge their own way, even if that way flies in the face of the values that the school might have wished them to have, is that not preferable to a conveyor belt of similars being produced to a design deigned to be correct in the staff room?
How much freedom can an educational institution endure? Free speech, we’re banning it; the right to offend, we’re offended by it; eccentricity, we can tolerate it as long as it’s in your own home, in your own time, it’s not on Facebook and nobody knows about it… if not, there’s probably a therapist for it; politically incorrect? There’s a punishment for that…
When we say we want independent, creative and critical thinkers do our schools really have the power to achieve this and, if they do, can we tolerate a good degree of freedom within our walls to show we value these aims or do we wish to turn out independent, critically thinking clones of ourselves who agree with our every value and utterance?
An education that fosters individual liberty is a difficult aim to have, I wonder if it is an achievable one.