Monday, February 20, 2017

Raising a Hand for Freedom


To defend our country we need a prepared military force, but to defend our way of life we need education. Freedom is lost when it is taken for granted. Unless we hand on our memories and ideals to the next generation – the story of how we won our freedom and the battles that had to be fought along the way are lost forever.

Most traditional cultures down through time saw and continue to see education as the responsibility of the parent or teacher to instruct, guide or command children on their path to independent adulthood. The task of the child has been merely to absorb and obey. There is a great danger in this approach, however, as those delegated as teachers to pass along the values and traditions of culture may deliberately chose to omit or abandon certain memories, and may subvert certain ideals to accommodate a particular competing agenda. In a matter of a generation of time the freedom gained through struggle may be lost through subversive instruction and guidance. The remarkable history and traditions of the United States are at grave peril right now because we have abdicated our fundamental responsibilities to pass along the exceptional ideals of our nation.

As a former professional educator, one of the things that I have always admired was the Jewish approach to the issue of education of youth - that it is the duty of a parent to encourage his or her children to always ask questions, and that the child who does not yet know how to ask should be taught to ask. Jewish folks are always questioning and arguing about religion and life with each other, and it is a wonderful thing for keeping the fires of their faith burning brightly. Judaism is not a religion of blind obedience, certainly, nor should any classroom be. In fact, there is no Hebrew word that means “to obey”. This is not the approach practiced in American schools (outside of my own classrooms) in the 75 or so secondary schools I have been exposed to public education over my lifetime. Judaism believes children should ask questions, and that instruction should begin in response to the questions asked by a child.

Socrates, who spent his life teaching people to ask questions, was condemned by the citizens of Athens for corrupting the young. Teachers today are, by and large, not prepared to address the deep and difficult questions children might raise if encouraged to do so. Colleges that prepare teachers to instruct and to guide young people completely avoid the issue, focusing exclusively upon content and classroom management at the expense of real student growth. I never learned in college how to orient instruction around student inquiry, but stumbled upon this natural approach quite by accident.

During instruction about plate tectonics to six sections of high school earth and space science, as my students had reached a point of perfect understanding and successful parroting of the fine points of my instruction, I discovered that recent theorizing about the topic I was teaching had diametrically changed and that the matters of instruction I was presenting from the text book were completely wrong. Faced with this conundrum and desiring to save face, I resolved the matter in a creative manner by telling my students that I had lied. I was amused at the reaction. My students refused to believe me. "Teachers never lie."

Insisting that I lied to them (disregarding the fact that science had evolved inconveniently in the middle of my instruction) I turned the episode into a teachable moment. After re-teaching the latest theory to replace what I had just taught out of the text book, regaining buy-in from all of my classes, I encouraged my students to always question everything that I presented to them. At first they went all in with their questions, often wandering into the ridiculous in their attempts to exercise their new-found freedom. It was not long before the questions settled down to being mostly on topic. Building upon my success, I encouraged my students to question everything in life - other teachers, their parents, their preists, news on the radio and TV and in newspapers (there was no Internet at that time). Question, question, question! As one might expect, I caught a lot of flack from all points as my revolution grew in force. While there was thereafter always a buzz of excitement in my own classroom because real learning was occurring, real personal growth, I gained a first-hand appreciation for what Socrates must have felt as I continued to further corrupt youth by encouraging them to question everything.

Alas, I abandoned teaching as a career, or rather, it abandoned me. Freedom is still borne forward by those who question the face-value of everything, refusing to accept and obey just because someone commanded them to do so. Long live the Socratic Method!

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