The idea of what it means to be free in America has changed course as many times as a cue ball on a billiard table. The notion of freedom ricochets from one group to the next and from one definition to another, as freedom from, freedom of, and freedom to. The argument over the real meaning of freedom will likely never be settled, but there is one area where most people agree, at least in principle. That is, education and economic freedom are uniquely bound together. The more of the former you have, the more of the latter will follow. Needless to say, it doesn't always work that way, but most would still hold that the theory is sound and is certainly defensible.
What is not so clear is, what does it really mean to be an educated person on the brink of a new millennium? For example, is a degree more important than the knowledge it's supposed to represent? What if you have the latter but not the former? Is a self-educated, wholly competent individual without a degree really free?
Throughout the historic struggle to define freedom in America, educators have been out front nobly trumpeting the need for learning. Many truly courageous educators who have worked tirelessly all of their lives to further the growth of knowledge in this country will be deeply offended by the notion that they themselves, and the institutions supporting them, stand in the way of a better definition of the idea of freedom. But that is precisely what I propose.
Ever since social critic Ivan Illich declared in the 1970s that the freedom to learn is the most basic of all notions of freedom, a growing number of people from a vast array of political and religious ideologies have pronounced themselves free to learn. The homeschooling movement in America has been joined recently by an "unschooling movement," which is driven by an alert citizenry who have little sympathy for traditional pedagogy. These folks are incensed by the mass-consumer driven, cookie-cutter mentality that pervades the classroom today, even in what are considered the best of schools. These people see through the guise of credentialism. They know that institutions are interested first and foremost in their own survival and that the well-being of students will never win a competition for resources in any place called "school."
Adult education usually carries with it some connotation of a struggle with literacy. Doing otherwise, it seems, might imply a lack of need for institutions of "higher learning." No one admits that the power of traditional educational institutions, in large part, is not based upon objective knowledge, such as mathematics, which can be reproduced by anyone who can follow instructions. Rather, their power is based upon subjective knowledge, which can be judged only by the institutions themselves. A course in history at one college is not necessarily the same at the next; the subject matter taught at one college may not qualify for credit at any other college.
The history of adult learning is written with a broad brush of achievement. A great majority of the celebrated inventions that guide us - art, science, literature, and philosophy - come not from within the walls of institutions but from the self-education of living. Real learning comes not from a forced immersion in a classroom environment where students grudgingly move from one class to the next just to get it over with. Real learning takes place in a volatile atmosphere where students are brimming with questions and fed by postulates that form new questions. It's a pilgrimage that respects no subject boundaries and no dictates of authority. Only when people are accepted for demonstrable knowledge and performance, regardless of where they obtained their expertise, will real learning ever reach a position of respectability. Until we can do this, we are not truly free.
Adult education grows in importance in direct relation to the measure of the problems we face. And, through the simple currency of desire, and with the assistance of technology, we have the opportunity to vault the walls of any university, to enter into electronic dialog and gain more, much more, than people in past generations did from the Lyceum and Chautauqua movements. Professional adult educators' today range from those concerned mostly about the academic reception of their respective theories, to an array of enthusiasts bent on lighting the fires of curiosity in everyone they meet. In The Paradoxes of Learning, adult learning theorist Peter Jarvis argues that conjecturing about adult learning based on an individualistic conception of the student lends little consideration to society. He writes,
Such an approach is a weak form of liberalism; it is apolitical and oversimplistic, because if every adult were a self-directed learner and critical thinker, the stability of society would be threatened. Indeed, this is The paradoxes of learning - that if everyone were to engage in it in a reflective and critical manner all the time, the basis of society would be undermined.
No question, society would be different. It would look as chaotic as a genuine democracy ought to; institutions would change radically, and Dr. Jarvis would likely need to find employment in another elitist field.
The lesson to be learned from adult education circles is that those who are not lifelong learners are not good adult educators. Many adult educators are obsessed with their own professional standing; they study the theory of education to death, but treat lifelong learning broadly as a vacation that they plan forever, but never take. A glut of Ph.D.s has produced some rumbling in academia about creating a new super Ph.D., whose credentials would be so impressive that they would become a walking entitlement. It should be intuitively obvious to anyone who really cares about the state of the world that an enthusiasm for learning at the level that drives doctoral candidates is necessary just to live a good life.
No doubt about it, we are a nation in great need of elitism. We need and even depend upon people who aspire to be the best they can possibly be in a wide, eclectic range of disciplines. What we don't need is elitism as a form of entitlement. And yet, we allow our education system to franchise class while it simultaneously stultifies the curiosity of those it's supposed enlighten.
People who are committed to lifelong learning are easy to spot. They don't need credentials. Their enthusiasm for living and learning is as obvious as it is contagious. But as long as we let those who run the colleges and universities of this world perpetuate the illusion that knowledge is a scarce commodity which must be purchased at a great cost, we deny the reality all around us that disproves it beyond doubt.
Every time you take off in a jetliner, you're told what to do in case of a loss in cabin pressure. The instructions say you should don your oxygen mask first and then attend to your children so as to be in the best position to help them. The same principle applies to adults concerned about reforming education for children. Educated adults who are fully aware of the problems facing educators must number in the majority before the political fortitude reaches a level sufficient to reform our educational system. Moreover, these adults must be able to fully appreciate the intrinsic value of education and the freedom to learn, as well as just how little we actually know.
As it is, many Americans today argue about how to improve traditional education for the betterment of children while still clinging to the notion that an education is something that can be "finished." Only when we realize that learning is as valuable to our personal lives as it is to our professional lives will we be able to change the focus from qualifying students to helping them become fully alert human beings. Only when we truly understand the freedom to learn will we understand the uncorrupted nature of freedom.
Traditional classroom schooling, as so many of us know from experience, is often an exercise starved from the reality of genuine exploration, regimented into mind-numbing segments allowing only so many minutes per subject before it's time to switch to the next. Real learning doesn't arrange itself that way. Perhaps the greatest comfort adults can take when contemplating the benefits of lifelong learning is that all of the Neanderthal notions about learning need no longer apply to us.
Life is our classroom and democracy is our laboratory. As adults we can demonstrate by example that an education is not something you get, but is something you take. Only when people take with enthusiasm and zeal what is necessary to both earn a living and live a living in America, will this be a country where freedom and responsibility are viewed as foundational pillars for posterity.
©1999, Charles D. Hayes
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