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Knowledge, Power, and Panopticons: A Dialogue on Education

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Setting is a dark, gray room resembling a prison cell. A large gray table is at the center of the room, and three chairs are set next to it. There are no windows, but there is a door, locked from the inside. Standing at the door is a jailer, a hood obscures his face. Strewn along the floor are the still bodies of Paulo Freire, Richard Dreyfuss, and A.S. Neill, unconscious. Freire is attired in a beige turtleneck and a suit jacket, complementing his white beard and dress shoes. Dreyfuss garbs himself in jeans and a polo, while Neill wears khakis and a comfortable button-down shirt with sleeves rolled up to the elbows. Dreyfuss begins to stir.

Dreyfuss: (Groggy) Hm? What? Where am I? (scratches head, while Freire and Neill stir)
Freire: ...and the pedagogical praxis between the oppressor and the abject must take on a new ontological capacity for their pneuma and find a new way to particularize the struggle and emancipate the tyrannized...
Dreyfuss: Excuse me?
Freire: ...oh! Yes, sorry, I was just, ah, talking...
Neill: Good morning, I hope you all had as pleasant of a sleep as I had (notices
surroundings) ---where am I?
Dreyfuss: (confused, slightly worried) Who are you? Where am I?
Neill: I’m Alex Neill... (looks at Dreyfuss oddly)
Dreyfuss: Are you dead? (shakes Neill) Are you DEAD? Tell me!
Neill: (slowly) I...yeah. Yeah. I am dead...
Dreyfuss: (frantic, turns to Freire) You too? Are you dead too? Tell me, please tell me you’re not, oh please...
Freire: Good sir... I am dead.
Dreyfuss: (sinking to his knees, holding his head in his hands) can’t... (Dreyfuss is like that for a long moment, then suddenly jumps up and runs at the Jailer, trying to pin him against the wall, but the Jailer is stronger, and pushes Dreyfuss down into a chair.) LET ME OUT OF HERE! Let me out...let me
Jailer: (after a pause) Mr.’re not dead. You’re being held hostage.
Neill: (takes a seat near Dreyfuss) Mister...I don’t know where I am either. I’m Neill, Alexander Neill, or A.S., or Alex as the kids like to call me.
Freire: (takes a seat across from Neill and Dreyfuss) And I am Mr. Paulo Freire, Brazilian educator and theorist, and I do believe in quite many things, but I think we’ll have plenty of time later to talk, if you wish.
Dreyfuss (quietly) It’s Dreyfuss. Richard Dreyfuss. Actor. I’m not quite sure why I’m here.
Neill: (gently) I don’t think any of us know why we’re here.
(Time passes. The exact amount is unknown, it could be several hours, or several days, or several weeks. Time passes differently in confinement, when there is no clock or window to see the time of day. Gradually they grow accustomed to their surroundings and each other.)
Freire: (rubs beard) Ah, confinement! Quite a physical form of oppression, though mild compared to social or ideological oppression.
Neill: I agree, Mr. Freire, confinement is most unhealthy, especially in schools with compulsory education. I have a school, Summerhill, and there we try not to confine our children, but let them learn of their own free will.
Freire: Tell me about this school, Mr. Neill. It seems interesting, not at all like most schools, where they see children as empty bank vaults to be filled with knowledge. They think each child is the same, all knowledge is the same.
Neill: We want children to experience learning for themselves, so they go to whatever classes they want to, or no classes at all, whatever interests them. In our community we are all equal, teacher and student, and we make the laws together. Everybody has the same voting power—the administrator of the school down to the smallest child.
Freire: Interesting, Mr. Neill, very interesting. Have you read my works?
Neill: Although they were written well after Summerhill School was founded, a good fifty years, I must say, I am familiar with them.
Freire: (pleased) I see how your school resolves the teacher-student contradiction, not as teachers who have all the knowledge and uninformed students who know nothing, but as people, both as people, both who can learn and who can teach. Please, continue. You intrigue me.
Neill: We believe at Summerhill in the development of the individual—what they want to do, how they want to succeed, not how society conforms them to act or live. (Freire leans forward) We want everyone to discover life for themselves, because life is discovery and adventure, not conforming passively to rules without reason. (Freire leans even closer, his eyes glinting) See, we try to take away a child’s fear of being wrong, and once that is done, children are free to truly express themselves without shame—

Freire: (excited) Bravo! Mr. Neill, I applaud you! Instead of dehumanizing your pupils, you reverse the trend and bring them toward the ultimate goal of humanization! How little of that this world has! (leans forward interestedly)
Dreyfuss: May I beg to interrupt?
Neill: Certainly, Mr. Dreyfuss. I loved your performance in Jaws, even though it was made two years after I died.
Dreyfuss: I know I’m an actor and everything, I don’t know nearly as much as you guys do, since you’ve studied it and all. I was just wondering, out of curiosity, do they teach civics at your school? Or any other government class? (Freire inclines his head slightly and furrows his brow)
Neill: We do offer that course at Summerhill, however it is entirely optional, and attendance is only if the student so desires.
Dreyfuss: Oh,’s just that a while back I was asked to share my views on education, what we should learn, how we should learn, and it was published in this book. But I’m also interested in your school, A.S. What if a student doesn’t want to learn civics?
Neill: Then he will not learn civics.
Dreyfuss: Then to really share my honest opinion, I think we disagree. I think we need civics, the study of our government, for our children to understand, otherwise they will remain ignorant.
Neill: Why civics? Why is this class suddenly so important?
Dreyfuss: Look, if we don’t teach our children civics, then we as a nation, as a world, we will forget men in a room writing for all the world to see that all men are equal, that we all have certain unalienable rights, which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I know you’re British, but this is bigger than national ties, this is what democracy is built on! We cannot forget this, Mr. Neill. Otherwise we only open ourselves to our democracy crumbling, the very foundations we set it on, forgotten! We will always be susceptible to our rights being taken from us if we do not even know what they are! I think your school has the right philosophy and all, Mr. Neill, but this is the one thing I cannot stress more: you must teach civics, regardless if the student wants to or not.
Neill: I can’t do that, Mr. Dreyfuss. Compulsory education, even for one class, goes completely against everything our school stands for. We stand for the freedom of choice for students, and so I can’t take your suggestion.
Dreyfuss: (leans down and looks Neill in the eye, speaking quietly) If nobody at your school wanted to learn about the Holocaust, then nobody would learn about the Holocaust. If nobody learned about the Holocaust, then nobody can remember. Nobody can remember all the people killed, nobody can remember to say, ‘never again.’ If we forget our history, we only make the same mistakes again! It shouldn’t matter what the student wants, there are things more important than what the student wants! There’s a point where innocence becomes ignorance, and this world isn’t good enough to allow everyone to be selfish like that.
Neill: (flabbergasted) I think what’s more important is an individual life—what good is it if the world is great and you are miserable?
Dreyfuss: But what good is your life if by your actions you are condemning more people to suffering? This seems like a very utilitarian, cost-benefit analysis, but it’s true—we can’t afford to be selfish and let ourselves forget, otherwise, how many other dictatorships or genocides will we have to watch? We need knowledge of the past to prevent the future.
Jailer: I agree, Mr. Dreyfuss, I too think knowledge is power. (Freire, Neill, and Dreyfuss look up surprised the Jailer is talking, and stay silent as the Jailer continues.) Knowledge is power to oppress, to control, to tyrannize, but it is also power to liberate, to strike back against the oppressor, to unshackle. Who knows, the three of you could be in a panopticon right now, a prison. Everybody sees in, nobody sees out. The three of you could easily overpower me, take my keys, set yourselves free. But you would never know if, the moment you stepped outside this room, there were a hundred guards watching your every move, or if there would be none. There would always be the risk of many guards, so you would never try to escape. Knowledge is power. I take away your knowledge, I take away your power.
Freire: (brow tightly furrowed and rubbing beard) I agree with you, Mr. Dreyfuss, and you too, my jailer, and now I’m quite torn between Mr. Neill’s school and these points. I think it’s very true that ignorance is a method the oppressor can use to control the oppressed, and knowledge is a way to break free, but what if the oppressed choose the ignorance, as it is in Mr. Neill’s school? I think that’s just the mark of the oppressor on them, that they don’t want to seek out the methods by which they can rise against the oppressor. So it’s society, maybe, the oppressive society that tells their youth to not be interested in such matters. Maybe the students don’t know what’s good for them.
Neill: Maybe so, I can’t deny that. But children need to have the assurance they are making choices for themselves, they need to know they are free to make whatever choices they so choose, and if they suffer from it, then they suffer, but they know in the end it was ultimately their choice. In order to learn, they need to suffer a little bit by their own hand so they can make choices that are right for them next time.
Dreyfuss: But this goes back to my point, A.S., they don’t know where the consequences of their actions will lead, and they need to know how their government works so they can stop it from crumbling. What if there is no next time? At what point does suffering become unnecessary, even if done by my own hand? If my refusal to learn something allows for a dictatorship to arise, then I’d very well rather have someone teaching me that in the first place. Mr. P over there is right, maybe people just don’t know what’s good for them.
Neill: But doesn’t this idea of “we have to choose for them because they don’t know what they want” idea justify all kinds of oppression? Can’t someone say that when they brainwash a child into thinking whatever the conformist society wants them to think, instead of letting people choose for themselves?
Jailer: I see what you’re saying, Mr. Neill, you’re saying that power is knowledge. Those who are in power can shape the knowledge of the people. Those in power can, in essence, “create” knowledge, create the lens through which people view the world. It’s like in the Soviet Union, under Stalin, all forms of art or literature or music were strictly controlled by the government while they substituted propaganda instead. The point is, they controlled what people were putting into their minds, controlled what knowledge they had. So they controlled the people.
Dreyfuss: Which is exactly why we need civic education, we need this knowledge that is so crucial to breaking free of oppressors, so we can control what we put in our minds.
Neill: Mr. Dreyfuss, don’t you see? You’re saying we need to learn civics to break free of potential oppressive mindsets, but the way we do this is through an oppressive mindset! Your argument collapses on itself! (Dreyfuss is silent)
Freire: (rubbing beard) it’s a paradox...but is it one we have to necessarily resolve? Can this paradox
Neill: But it’s not practical! My school, Summerhill, actually exists. No offense, but both of you are just spouting theory, and none of it can actually be done. It’s all wasted if nothing actually happens.
Jailer: (softly) I don’t think it’s wasted if it’s not practical. If it’s practical but reasoned wrongly, then what’s the use anyway? In fact, it has a negative effect because then you’re hurting actual people. If talk is wrong it doesn’t have the same impact. I’m okay with letting this be.
Dreyfuss: As am I. Although I do see what you’re saying, A.S., I think some form of oppression through the means is inevitable, although it doesn’t excuse the problem.
Jailer: Mr. Dreyfuss, one last point, I think you need to broaden your horizon a little bit. You champion civic education, and I agree, I think civics and our government are important. I just don’t think civics are the only thing we should learn. The goal for knowledge is that can be used both as power and as a safeguard against ignorance, and there are many more things that fulfill that purpose. Knowledge is power, ignorance is either an inability to receive knowledge or an outright refusal of it, and therefore power, and knowledge is the crucial medium through which we fight oppression.
(silence falls upon the group for a moment, and is broken by the Jailer reaching into her pocket to pull out a set of dangling keys.)
Jailer: You ever wonder where you guys are? This small, gray room? Also wonder why you guys are here, locked inside for no apparent crime? No, no, it’s not like that at all. You are locked in my mind, and I am the jailer. (places key in lock, and turns it with a satisfying click, pushing the door open.) You are free to go.

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