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Education is Restriction
As soon as I began to slip into a Dramamine-induced stupor in an overstuffed airport chair, I became acutely aware that someone was shouting at me and thumping on my shoulder.
“Miss? Miss! MISS!” I turned to my side and looked at the disheveled-looking man to my right. “Is this taken?” He pointed at the seat beside me.
“Oh. Uhhh,” I said, my attention drifting towards a mother across the gate who was scolding her elementary-school-aged son. “Oh. Right, err, no, it’s not.” He collapsed onto the chair, and two men who I presumed he was traveling with sat across from us. I focused my attention back towards the mother and son.
“I’m A.S. Neill. It is a fantastic pleasure to meet you.”
“Right,” I responded without looking up. “I’m Louise Harrison.”
“Great. Wonderful. Marvelous.” He turned away and began to violently tap the arm of his chair for a few seconds, and then looked back at me. “Miss Harrison, I don’t mean be nosy,” he pried, nosily, “but what are you staring at?”
“Oh,” I glanced at Neill and finally noticed his immense sweatiness. “I’m people-watching. You see that lady and her kid? He was coloring or whatever, and she took his book away and made him review some flashcards with her. And I guess he’s doing well, because every time he gets one right he gets a sticker. But every time he gets one wrong, he looks like he’s going to vomit.”
“That’s atrocious!” Neill stood up and shouted.
“Right…” I doubtfully agreed.
One of the men sitting across from us looked at me and cleared his throat. “I’m sorry, love. He’s quite aggressive about his philosophy. I’m E.D. Hirsch, by the way.” He turned toward Neill. “And stop acting like a fool. You are perfectly aware that that child would never learn anything if his mother didn’t force him to. She is preparing him for success, the most responsible thing a parent can do for a child. There are too many poorly educated children who grow into useless adults in this word. And why? Because they are raised to believe that there inevitably exists a unique place in this world that is molded for them and their specific talents. But they are wrong. This mother is giving her child adequate knowledge to increase his opportunities for success. That boy will grow up better prepared than any of the delinquents your school produces.”
“That’s a lovely thought, sir, but I beg to differ,” Neill replied cheerfully. “You mustn’t doubt the ability of a child to accurately decide what knowledge is beneficial to him. He will provide himself with more incentive to learn than anyone else could. I truly believe—and this is not merely a belief, but something I have witnessed from experience—”
“Hirsch,” the third man interrupted, “you’re the one who’s carried him off on this tangent anyhow. You can’t say you didn’t expect it.”
“Oh, shut up Freire,” Hirsch said. Freire shot back an offended look. “Er—shut up, please. She is the one who unwisely brought forth the subject of education.” I pretended not to have noticed this accusation. “Although, I suppose you should be preparing for our forthcoming conference.” He flipped open a magazine. “I can only hope that security will allow an apparently homeless man past the front door.”
Freire angrily picked at his nails while Neill quietly chewed the bottom of his tie. I gawked at them for a few moments and then spoke up. “Could somebody explain to me how my people-watching started this whole argument? Because I feel like I’m missing something.”
“Oh dear!” Neill gasped and spat out his tie. “Please excuse me, I’ve been awfully rude, haven’t I? We’re theorists on education, the three of us, and we’ve all been invited to a conference in New York to express our beliefs. The three of us are close friends, except for when we discuss our personal philosophies.” He grinned at me. “I’m so sorry. I’m sure we’d all love to hear what you’ve got to say.” Freire and Hirsch nodded in agreement. “I promise we’ll stay calm.”
“Alright,” I sighed, hesitantly entering the conversation. “I have to agree with Neill over Hirsch. No offense. I think schools teach way too much useless information that never gets used in our adult lives. And isn’t that what school is supposed to be about—preparing us to become adults? I’m most likely to use the knowledge that I enjoyed learning.” Neill nodded. “And if I had the choice to only take classes that love, it would be a lot more useful to me in the long run. I’d also be a lot happier. Plus…I think I should have a pretty legitimate perspective on this topic because I’m the only one here who’s currently a student.” Everyone thought in silence for a few moments.
Freire was the first person to respond. “Louise, I agree that the current system of schooling needs to be changed. However, you were criticizing the specific material that schools teach, whereas I believe the greatest advance in education will come from a change in the common style of teaching. As I’m sure you know, American schools teach students to be subservient to their educators, and over time the students accept this social construction as a natural reality. Once those students grow to be adults, they are generally eager to abuse the power that they have acquired because they have never been in a position of control before. There should not be a distinction between the students and the teachers, but rather all people should exist as one class, absorbing knowledge from each other. The student can only fully exert the knowledge he has gained when it has been taught to him in a non-condescending manner.”
Why did I get myself in this conversation? I wondered. I looked at Neill, who appeared either horrified or deliriously happy. “Yes! And yes!” he screamed into the airport. He didn’t seem to have anything else to say. Hirsch rolled his eyes.
“I agree with you Mr. Freire,” I said, “except that I think kids do need adults in power to a certain extent to feel comfortable. And maybe they become too dependent on that power because teachers abuse it. I don’t know exactly where to draw that line.”
“Children will naturally strive to follow their passions,” Neill said. “And if a student doesn’t want to know certain material, then it was never their destiny to use that knowledge anyways. You see that little boy from before? He could grow up to be an extremely happy artist, but his mother snatched away his coloring book and forced him to study something trivial. That boy is going to develop the mindset that what he loves is wrong.” Hirsch mumbled something to himself about the rarity of happy artists.
“But I think little kids need to be taught a wide variety of subjects,” I said. “People my age know what subjects they’re never going to use later in life because they hate them,”—Freire attempted to subtly clear his throat—“but if kindergarten-age children aren’t even taught what certain school subjects are, then they just become ignorant,”—Freire coughed again, louder—“so I have to partially disagree with you, Mr. Neill. But I do think people my age should be able to have a choice about what they—WHAT? WHAT ARE YOU TRYING TO SAY TO ME?” I shouted after Freire interrupted me a third time.
“I—um—sorry. Are you in boarding group A? Because they’re lining up now,” a frightened Freire answered.
“Er—no. Um. No,” I said mildly, and then muttered a “sorry.”
“No really, it’s alright,” Freire whispered.
Hirsch unapologetically broke the tension between us. “You all believe that our system of education is failing because it is overly oppressive, but yet it is not so oppressive enough that students are forced to learn. But what do I think the real issue is? This group of four intelligent people can’t even decide on an effective system of education, so clearly, a single right way to teach doesn’t exist. And that, my friends, will be what makes this week’s conference very tumultuous indeed.”
As I thought about this statement, I grew more depressed. I don’t like to think that society screwed me up, because it forces me to imagine a hypothetically better version of myself that couldn’t survive. The adults who whine about being seated next to children on planes have obviously never encountered A.S. Neill, Paolo Freire, and E.D. Hirsch all at one time. Luckily for my sanity, I was seated six aisles away from this gross tangling of philosophers.