Is Education a Path to Freedom? Or an Instrument of Oppression?

Varied Emotions and Perspectives Make Freedom Difficult to Discuss

As regular listeners already know, this podcast aims to rotate topics so that each episode examines aspects of one of the four cornerstones, the environmental issues, the agriculture, the health, and the freedom that set the foundation of healthy food systems.  As the host, I find it relatively straightforward to compile those episodes dealing with health, environment, and agriculture.  But each time I sit down to work on an episode dealing with freedom, I find myself tongue tied.   I sit down to write things out, thinking a written script will organize my thinking, and I get writer’s block. 

I think the reason for this is that the other three cornerstones (health, environment, and agriculture) deal with facts.  I can talk about how microbes behave in the intestines, how contaminants behave in the environment, or how crop and soil nutrients behave in farm soils.  When necessary, I can include hard, factual, and reproducible data that supports my claims.  You might not be interested in regenerative agriculture, and you might have a long list of reasons why you believe applying urea nitrogen to your crop is a good decision for your farm.  But you cannot really dispute my claim that applying urea will increase the number of denitrifying bacteria in your soil, because that is a fact. And because I know that the number of nitrogen fixing bacteria in your soil may loom small among the many factors you need to balance in order to bring in a profitable crop, I feel enough respect for you as a listener enough to let you make your own decision about what is best for your farm. I don’t feel like I am trying to persuade or convince.  I am just sharing those bits of information that I think may be helpful.

However, measurements and data surrounding freedom are much less tangible, and much more emotional than measures and data that define how a body, a crop, or an ecosystem behave.  Afterall, freedom is not an object composed of matter.  It can be argued that freedom is an emotion…a state of being,..or an energy. And the conditions that produce this emotion, or this state, are so heavily influenced by our upbringing, our beliefs, and the society we live in, that it is difficult to avoid potentially polarizing religious and political values when discussing freedom. So from time to time, I think it is important for me to reassure you as a listener that my goal, in presenting these ideas, is not necessarily to persuade you or anyone else to adopt my beliefs. I really don’t have all the answers.   Instead, what I am trying to do is simply present ideas and perspectives that highlight possible connections between the policies and social norms that guide our behaviors and the impact our behaviors are having on the sustainability of our food system and our society

Sustainability is Limited by Social, Legal, and Economic Barriers to Freedom

We are living in an era when many experts agree that our sustainability as a species is threatened. Urbanization, pollution, and lost biodiversity are disrupting the homeostasis that keeps clean air, water, and nutrients moving where we need them.

Our climate is changing, and the effects of these changes are being felt across the planet. Ironically, promising restoration solutions have been promoted for decades.  We know how to recycle wastes.  We know how to keep forever chemicals out of our food and our watersheds.  We know how to protect habitat for the plants and animals that help our ecosystem’s function. The trouble is, we aren’t doing it.   Okay.  We are doing it a little bit.  Even the rural community I live in has some recycling bins at park.  But most of us are not doing it enough.  Which begs the big question, why not?  And the older I get, the more convinced I am that the answer to that question centers, to a large degree, around that fact that too many people around the planet lack the freedom they require to do what is right for themselves, their family, and their environment.  Most of us are constrained by very complicated social, legal and economic structures that have been designed to make life better for those in power, and that limit our individual capacity to change.   

Increasing the Entrepreneur:Employee Ratio Would Increase Personal and Economic Freedom

I’ve often shared my belief that an explosion in entrepreneurship is part of the solution, because I believe an increase in small and local businesses can unleash the individual creativity, the genius, that so many of us have trapped inside. I think we will need this genius, and this innovation, to address the social and environmental problems facing the planet today.  These problems are too complex for the one-size-fits-all solutions promoted by global powers.  We have almost 8 billion people on the planet.  We need at least 8 billion solutions, applied in 8 billion locations.  However, according to the US Census Bureau in 2020 there were just over 35 million business establishments, and more than 134 million Americans work for someone else.  This tells us that for 134 million Americans, their freedom to innovate and create is restricted to that innovation and creation that advances their company.  Many of these workers, particularly those with some experience under their belt, are pressed against the glass ceiling at work, and frustrated by the lack of opportunity to grow.  Over time, they give up, and start putting in the hours, doing as little as possible to continue drawing their paycheck.  But they stay with their job, or move to a new one, because they lack the skills, capital, other resources, and partnerships to launch out on their own.

At a time when national and global economies and ecosystems are all under pressure, we need innovators to solve problems.  Yet all these innovations, so necessary for restoring and sustaining healthy food systems, are being stifled.  So we have to start asking ourselves how best to reduce those personal, economic, regulatory, and social barriers that are stifling innovation.  And the timeless answer to reducing, at least, the economic and social barriers, is education.   This was the answer embraced in the 1500’s by the English lawyer and statesman, Thomas More when he shared his vision of Utopia.   It was the answer offered by founding fathers like Thomas Jefferson, 200 years later, who were, faced with the task of building a democratic society in a world whose economy was so shrouded in slavery and oppression, that he himself was a slave owner.  It was the answer offered by John Dewey in the early 1900’s, regarded today among the most influential thinkers of modern education.  In fact Dewey asserted that a proper education was fundamental, not only to freedom, but to life itself. 

However, sending a child to school does not necessarily provide that child with a liberating education.  What over a century of widespread compulsory education has demonstrated, is that the quality of education matters.  Education can indeed be a catalyst for liberation.  It can also be a source of oppression.

If Education is the Catalyst for Freedom, and Freedom Unleashes Innovation, Shouldn’t Countries with the Most Opportunities for Education Be the Most Free and the most Innovative?

If education is the catalyst for freedom and innovation, then it might seem reasonable that the highest levels of innovation and entrepreneurship might be found in countries with the greatest access to education.  A look at nations where education is compulsory offers evidence that nations with the least amount of compulsory education do have the highest levels of hunger.  However, South American countries with the highest levels of compulsory education are not necessarily countries known for freedom and innovation.  Meanwhile, the richest nations in the world, all of which offer opportunities for education, offer little evidence whatsoever that access to education has any impact at all on environmental stewardship or commitments to sustainable living. In fact, a list of democratic countries in the world correlates rather uncomfortably with lists of countries that have the highest carbon footprints. So with this in mind, you might want to ask why I keep insisting that freedom, promotes healthy, sustainable food systems (which in turn support robust economies), and that education is a tool for promoting freedom.

Compulsory Education Struggles to Meet Student’s Needs, Because it Violates the Basic Criteria of Freedom.

These are valid questions, and I will tackle some of the restrictive government policies that inhibit food production and environmental stewardship in wealthy countries on another day.  For brevity, I will also bow to the wisdom of the leaders cited above, and simply accept that education can and should be a process of liberation.  In fact, the word education is derived from the Latin word, educere, which means to “lead out.”  You can envision a positive process of leading a student out of darkness, and into the light of knowledge and reason. 

I believe the reason we are not seeing this knowledge and reason guide us towards sustainable living lies in the fact that much of our compulsory educational process is corrupt, in that it defies the very tenants of personal freedom to which each student is entitled. We aren’t leading students out of darkness.  We are chaining them to desks and molding them to the status quo. In the process, we are stifling the genius that lies in each of us, and we are leading our children to failure.

Children are resilient.  In fact, many succeed in spite of the failures of our system.  A few even find enlightenment.  Not every aspect of our system is corrupt.   But we need to remember that, most people, including myself, possibly including yourself, and certainly including the founders of our country are driven by complex mixtures of good and bad intentions.  Thomas Jefferson is largely credited with writing the Declaration of Independence in 1776, which boldly proclaimed the self-evident truth that all men are created equal.  Yet his writing was blind to the equality of women, and his actions ignored the inequality of the plantation workers he kept as slaves. In today’s society, it is easy to point fingers and condemn Jefferson as a hypocrite.  But what we must not forget was that each of us is shaped by the societal norms and the authorities that surround us. Jefferson emerged from a world in which slavery, child abuse, abuse of women, and abuse of hired hands were all such widely accepted practices that mainstream society considered the practices necessary for the common good.  A citizen could legally be accused of witchcraft and burned at the stake. A parent could legally sell their own child into indentured servitude or prostitution.  Beating children was considered necessary to ensure discipline and educate them properly in the eyes of God and humanity.  Civil and church authorities alike taught that sparing the rod, spoiled the child, and encouraged whipping children, wives, and servants for their transgressions.

Today, we know from psychological research that environments where abuse and oppression are systemic self-propagate.  While not every abused child becomes abusive, many do. So do many who simply witness abuse.  When we consider the lingering psychological effects of abuse and trauma, the social and religious institutions that had evolved to justify such abuse, and people’s natural fear of change, it is easier to understand why a declaration of idealistic visions of freedom, a revolutionary war, and a subsequent civil war were not enough to restore freedom.  However, if the source of oppression was eliminated with these efforts, we should see a steady increase in civil liberties and the byproducts of personal freedom over time.  This increase should occur naturally, without the harness of endless legislative actions aimed at protecting freedom.  Yet this is not what we have seen, either in the US, or in other countries that have moved away from imperialistic values and adopted so-called democracies.

One reason I believe we continue to struggle for freedom is that we continue to teach its opposite to our youngest and most vulnerable citizens, under the guise of compulsory education. 

You see, there is sometimes a subtle difference between holding a hand, and chaining a soul. The ideal held by most parents, educators, administrators, and legislators responsible for educating our children is analogous to holding the child’s hand through a process of personal development that is in the child’s best interest. And many times, it is in the child’s best interest.  Many children do enjoy school.  Others dislike school intensely, but choose to go on their own accord.  My son was one of these.  I offered and explained as many options as I could, and he chose to complete public school and a bachelor’s degree so that he could pursue the career he wanted. The problem is, no one is asking the child’s opinion, and far to often, the opinions of parents and teachers are also ignored as administrators jump to impose the latest legislative mandates imposed by deal-cutters in congress who have never met your child, and never visited their school. The deal cutters claim to represent us.  Yet they don’t know most of us.  Instead, they represent special interests.  Companies that specialize in classroom technologies, curriculum sales, and industries in need of employees are powerful voices influencing legislation. 

As a society, we have surrendered our children to these authorities. 

Why we Submit Our Children to Authorities

Most of us want our children to get a good education.  We know that school is a blend of good and bad experiences, and we hope that with our oversight, the good will outweigh the bad for our child. There is also an erie tendency to trust that those in charge know best.  This tendency to trust and submit to authority was illustrated to the extreme in a classic study by Stanley Milgram of Yale University in 1965.

Milgram had studied the many justifications offered during the Nuremberg Trials for the genocidal acts that were committed.  Actions were often carried out to obey orders.  So Milgram wanted to learn just how far people would stretch their obedience to authority.  He recruited ordinary Americans to participate in a study that was supposedly examining how punishment effects learning.  His real purpose was to examine how obedient people might be to authority.

Participants were instructed to teach people they believed were other participants.   These “students” were actually actors, but this was not revealed to the so-called teachers.   The teacher-participants were instructed to apply an electrical shock to the student every time the student answered a question incorrectly. They were told that the shock would be painful.  Gauges on the instrument they used to apply the shock indicated that higher intensities were dangerous..  They were also instructed to increase the intensity of the shock every time an error was repeated.  As errors accumulated and the supposed shock intensity increased, the learner-actors would cry out in pain.  Some complained that their heart was bothering them, and many begged, “Let me out!” as the shock intensity increased.  The teachers-volunteers, however, would continue to intensify the shock when answers were wrong.  If the teacher-volunteers showed doubt, hesitated, or asked to check on the participant, they were told by the researchers that they must continue.  Phrases like, “You have no other choice, you must go on,” prompted the teacher-volunteers to continue. The experiments could only be stopped if the teacher-participant protested four times, or had administered the maximum shock 4 times.

 Surprisingly, 65% of the ordinary people tested applied the maximum shock-a shock they were told was potentially lethal.  That’s right.  65% of the volunteers were willing to apply what they had reason to believe was a dangerous, potentially lethal shock to a total stranger, just because they were instructed to do so.

Lest this study seems out of date in today’s society, it is worth noting that the study was replicated in 2015, with similar results. I am including references to both studies in the show notes.

My point in discussing these revelations into the darker side of human nature is that our school systems have been built on a spare the rod, spoil the child philosophy that was engrained in the fabric of Western Philosophy.  Though these belifes have diminished, they have not disappeared.  The United States in 1776 was heavily influenced by people raised within an oppressive, authoritarian British monarchy.  The monarchy itself was influenced by similar monarchies throughout Europe.  Both church and governmental authorities largely considered their power to be derived from God himself.  Therefore, those who challenged their authority were assumed to be acting under the devil’s influence. Although our nation’s founders clearly wanted freedom, their understanding of what freedom should look like had major limitations. I like to think of the various revolutions and movements we’ve witnessed in the centuries since, the end of legal slavery, the civil war, women’s suffrage, and the rise of laws that prevent child abuse as stages as the evolution of freedom that began in our country with the statement that all men are created equal, even if it was written by men who did not yet know how to be free. 

The rise of free and mandatory public education is an example of one such movement.  Experts in education agree almost unanimously that education is essential to protecting our democracy.  Clearly, one cannot fight against corrupt bankers, politicians, and tyrants without the ability to read, write, and comprehend the laws that govern our society.  But just as the goals of laying claim to unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, have been repeatedly corrupted by the limited visions of leaders whose mindsets exclude large sectors of society, our intentions of providing education that strengthens democracy have been corrupted by leaders whose own understanding is limited to facts and figures and motivations that are relevant to their unique station in life.  We have built schools that work for a few.  We have forced those schools on many.

Schools Cannot Serve Students Who are Not Ready to Learn

Children’s needs vary more than our standardized curricula.  What is good for many, is not good for all.  The best schools on the planet cannot teach children who are not ready to learn. Trapping a child in a 2X2 desk and chair for 30 hours or more a week while they fail is a horrendous waste, not only of school resources, but also of human lives. 

Productivity Lost to Quiet Quitting and Learned Helplessness

All children will have days in which school is boring, and a wise parent will guide them to push through the boredom to find inspiration in new knowledge.  Lightening the rules on mandatory education would not necessarily result in a mass exodus of students from public schools.  In fact, without the burden of teaching and disciplining the one or two kids in every classroom who really are not a good fit with classroom environments would actually free teachers to do more for the students who stay. 

But it is worth recognizing the cost to society that stems from the loss of innovation and creativity when children are forced into a school situation that does not meet their needs.   The outcome of spending too much time in an intolerable situation is illustrated in yet another classic study from the same era as Milgram, that of Seligman’s 1965 research on learned helplessness.  Seligman demonstrated that when dogs are repeatedly punished for trying escape their cages to avoid a shock, they quit trying to escape.  The dogs became helpless. 

How many of the unmotivated students slouching in modern classrooms around the country are exhibiting learned helplessness?  They can’t escape, so they do nothing. As they mature and start their careers, this passive behavior follows them.  You can spot them in the workplace.  These are the workers who do exactly what is asked by the boss, and not a bit more.  They become quiet quitters. As such, they are a burden to their organization, and to themselves.

The Error that Underlies Compulsory Education

It is not enough to say, as John Dewey once asserted, that education is essential, not only to democracy, but to life itself.  The fact is, a certain quality of education is essential not only to democracy, but to life itself.  And that quality differs for every student.  If teachers and administrators are unable to provide a course of study that is meaningful to a certain child, they should be willing to let that child go. When children who are failing in the system are forced to endure their suffering, we violate their right to life and liberty.

Schools are complex systems, and students have individual needs.  Most overarching changes are likely to help a few at the expense of many.  But changes that honor student’s needs and choices by offering more diverse options within school, and also offer safe and viable opportunities in the community for those students whose needs can’t be addressed adequately in school, offer potential to expand freedom for our children, increase motivation in the classroom, and potentially reduce the amount of time that teachers spend dealing with discipline issues. Afterall, kids act out when they are bored and frustrated.  By opening the doors to opportunities that interest students, we also spark innovation and sow seeds of innovation that build our communities.   We also rescue them from those atrocious school lunches, but that is another story.

This brings us to the end of today’s episode.  Please check the show notes for references to classic writings mentioned, and to a supplemental link to an amazing photodocumentary of school children around the world by Julian Germain.  Like Pink Floyd’s famous song, Another Brick in the Wall, Germain’s photos leave haunting images of grim faces that transcend cultures and remind each of us how trapped we felt on our worst days in school.   Let’s sow seeds today, so that the images of the future reveal children who are inspired, happy, and free.

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