An educator weighs individual agency and the common good

Lizaveta - Broomfield, Colorado
Entered on May 4, 2008

In adolescence, I felt that my education had been oppressive. I believed that the true purpose of education was to enhance and free an individual’s unique abilities. Aligning myself with the philosopher Mill, who said that the least restrictive laws and customs should obtain in society so that geniuses could pursue their visions unhindered, I believed this to equally apply to education, which should encourage intellectual and artistic abilities in individuals, so that insight and achievement progress. My own education had done the opposite, it held each person back under a ceiling of mediocrity, when each must have had a secret gift to nurture. In retrospect I think that my viewpoint stemmed from the limited repertoire of teaching practices in use when I was a student, when almost all the instruction was teacher-directed lecture, without critical thinking skills, lacking an acknowledgment of multiculturalism or different abilities.

Later, when I attended Montessori teacher training, she became the biggest influence on my educational philosophy. She believed that teachers shouldn’t directly instruct, but should stage learning experiences for children to teach themselves, in carefully-prepared environments with self-correcting manipulative materials. This appealed to me because it promotes “agency,” the ability to become self-actualized. Montessori’s main concern was for adults to stop hindering children, and let them teach themselves. But Montessori lived in different times, when so many children were lacking in purposeful activity. Her concern was for their neglect; they were expected to be “seen and not heard;” playing in fantasy worlds until they were old enough to work, then suddenly thrust into productive roles without training.

I believe conditions are different today. In schools I’ve worked in, it seemed that entire households revolved around not only children’s needs, but their every want and whim. Over the years I have watched preschoolers scream and throw things at their parents, hit and make rudely-voiced demands on them, without any consequences, and I have come to think the problem in our society actually isn’t that children are oppressed. In one parent conference I started to describe a child’s behavior, and the parent replied, “I don’t care how he is behaving, I only want to know if he’s having a good time.” We seem to be living in a society in which we are teaching our children to be mere consumers of experiences, not contributors to them. We expect the question to be “what can this experience give to my child” but never the reciprocal “what can my child contribute to this community?” I worry about this world in twenty years when these children, taught only to demand and consume, grow up.

Therefore, I believe that while a good education enhances and celebrates an individual’s unique gifts and abilities, and contributes to their self-actualization, it also teaches tolerance for others, courtesy, cooperation, and participation in a society with rules, expectations and consequences. It is not only the individual insight that endures, but also collective achievement and culture.