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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Education for Revolution

I had a Jesuit education--a long, long Jesuit education. The Jesuits championed a "liberal" education which, prior to George H.W. Bush condemnation of the "l-word," was a good word. It meant open, tolerant, broad, and inclusive. We read John Henry Cardinal Newman's "Idea of a University" which brought together many disciplines and a community of learners connecting with the great mentors of the past, with new scholarship, and with each other in a search for truth. We read Mortimer Adler's "Great Books" of antiquity and modernity--the classics of philosophy, literature, and science.  We were steeped in the "humanities." We learned ancient and modern tongues so we could appreciate them more. Liberal education meant seeing truth from many viewpoints and learning how to think critically, that is, raise questions concerning all positions, trying on new forms, seeking evidence for our conclusions, and understanding that expression related to the time and space in which it was uttered and could only be understood within its historical context.

We were taught that any specialties we attempted could only be mastered on the base of a broad, liberal education. We fully embraced the "Enlightenment" and the new science. And even when certain church authorities condemned certain propositions of science, we were taught that there could be no contradiction between faith and reason. We were taught to follow our faith in reason and to use reason to interpret our faith. Yes, at times we had to give in to an uneducated, authoritarian bishop and avoid certain formulations and practices that they deemed heretical and forbade; but we never give up our conscience, our search for truth, our attempt to make the ancient faith compatible with contemporary thinking. If that were impossible for us or somehow violated what we considered our duty, we could leave the religion because thankfully society had adopted a liberal approach to religious practice and expression unlike the old days of the Inquisition.

Because we learned the art of critical thinking, because we were exposed to contemporary science and philosophy, we began to realize that the "liberal" education we were learning was often resting on unchallenged assumptions that preserved the present political economy that was working well for some of us and hold backing many others. The Civil Rights struggle, urban decay and riots, and the War in Vietnam forced us to re-examine what we were learning and doing. While liberal education was much better than government or corporation produced mass education, it was reenforcing a liberal economics and social order that was driving terrible social inequities and injustices.

I taught at a Jesuit High School. It was a wonderful experience, working with wonderful colleagues and students. But I began to see how that high school functioned in the social order of Detroit. It was a way to bring upwardly mobile middle class descendants of immigrants into the dominant economic system in which success would be measured by the accumulation of riches--the American Dream. It was this experience that led me to a new type of education. The challenge for the next revolution is to move from liberal to "liberating" education.

This education still uses books and articles, lectures and seminars, teachers and colleagues but only in relation to real action in the world, experiments that can be tested, and, in my case action for social change. I learned before I read about it that it is only in the act of making things and changing the world that liberating education occurs.

The principle of liberating education is that we are most human (and divine) when we are creating our world together. Education is the process of developing the desire and the skills to do that. Liberating education is education where the student (which literally means "eager one") is not a passive receiver of knowledge, but an eager pursuer of truth, a subject not an object of the learning process.

The liberating education process treats students as agents, not recipients in the learning community. Even in literacy education, the way of learning to speak, read, and write, students start with facing and questioning their day to day realities. They are exposed to the traditional narratives of the culture, the creation stories, the founding myths, the tribal and national histories, but in a way that they can participate in their on-going evolution. They learn alternative stories, myths, and histories. And they learn how to question them all and tell them in their unique ways.

As students learn the skills of getting along in the world as they confront it through language, literature, mathematics, art, sports, and science, they also learn to experiment and create based on the questions that are raised by them about their world. The teacher of liberating education sets the framework for exploration around the questions that students raise in their inchoate worlds. All education involves a practicum or type of internship in real life situations whereby the students are following their own interests. While vocational or job education involves apprenticeships to masters, the expectation is that students will come up with their own masterpieces rather than simply being trained for a particular job that will soon be extinct.

Liberating education does not have core curricula and does not teach to tests that some outside agencies fashion. The teacher in liberating education is learning with the students, exploring interests and questions along with the students and considers herself a perpetual student as well. She does not teach the same content or syllabus every year. Her lesson plan begins with the setting of questions for exploration based on the interests of the students and allows for individual students setting their own goals in pursuit of the discipline. A liberating education sets forth the expectation and situation for innovation at all levels and for all students no matter their IQ or social situation.

Information is no longer an issue. The new technology puts all information at our finger tips. Students are learning the techniques of accessing this information worldwide. But what all of us students need to learn is the right questions to ask and how to use the information we are given. The task is not so much accessing the information but assessing it. This is a wonderful new challenge for liberating education: 1) making sure that information is readily available to all and 2) using information to confront and compete with the information we are constantly provided especially by those who have the most control of that information.  The liberation of the human spirit from the technology it has created is by using that same technology judiciously and boldly, again as agents beyond recipients of information.

I question whether any of the school reform programs, designed to help students make it in today's world, are liberating student's to create tomorrow's world.