Sam Chaltain’s Freedom to Learn

In a recent TED talk titled “Freedom to Learn,” Sam Chaltain named three questions that he thought should be at the heart of every conversation about fixing the schools: 1) How do people learn best? 2) What are the skills of a free people? and 3) What in the end does it mean to be free?

My first reaction was that these questions were much too general, and while not trivial, indeed quite substantial, probably had little or nothing to do with a possible fix for what ails the schools.

Actually these questions might much better be asked by legislators in Washington. For perhaps any discussion proceeding therefrom would favorably influence what they do. For what they do, or are not doing, certainly needs a lot of fixing.

If I were asked to come up with my own questions the very first one I would ask would be, Who are the kids attending the school we would “fix?” For whatever fix we come up with has to start with the kids in that school, who they are, and what they most need.

By the way all schools need fixing, Phillips Academy no less than a failing, minority, impoverished, no-name school in the South Bronx. All schools can be much improved, as can all individuals. Given the different student bodies in these two schools the fixes would have to be at least as different.

Like everything else in life what we call education is horribly imperfect.

So I would change the “people” in Chaltain’s first question, to “kids,” for that’s whom we teach in the schools, and I would stress that the answers to the question how do kids learn best would not only be completely different for the kids in both schools, but would have to reflect the enormous differences among them, the kids, even among those who share as they do many social and economic characteristics.

So Chaltain’s first question while much fun, as his whole Ted Talk, is not very helpful to the end of fixing the schools.

By the way, one might ask are the schools something we can fix, like a car, a machine, something lifeless? Or are they more like something alive, and therefore not easily modified or fixed? The latter I would say.

In any case, the nearly endless series of school reforms initiated if not completed, many of which I’ve witnessed during my own lifetime, don’t seem to have ever accomplished what they set out to do. The problems of the schools are, if anything more with us today than they were 50 years or more ago.

What about Chaltain’s second question, that which asks what are the skills of a free people? While not laughing outright at the appalling naiveté of this question, I do smile just at the thought that someone might seriously believe that real answers to this question, if there are any, would be somehow helpful in fixing the schools.

What if we were anyway to try to list the skills of a free people? What would we come up with? This would be great fun of course, but could we even begin to do it?

How many such skills are there? Perhaps not as many as we are, not 300 million, but almost. For just as all people are different so are their skills, what they’re good at. The fact of the widespread and substantial individual differences among us is that which reformers of all stripes always seem to forget.

And in fact do we even know the skills or essential traits of a free people? Are they those of Andrei Sakharov and friends about a kitchen table in Moscow during the time of Stalin? Are they those of the Chinese or Egyptian young men and women assembling peacefully in Beijing’s Tiananmen or Cairo’s Tahrir Squares under the eyes of ruling tyrants? Are they?

I wonder how many people, among the people I know, have exactly the same skills? I can’t think of any. Perhaps Sam Chaltain is thinking about those people working on an assembly line, but then again I’m sure he would say that the skills of the assembly line worker are not those of a free people.

OK, but how many of the jobs that people do in order to earn their living represent the “skills of a free people?” Probably very few. Probably the majority of positions out there, and especially those positions still available, in this time of high unemployment, to the large numbers of unemployed dropouts from our schools, do not.

One might just as well say that most of the jobs that people do exhibit rather the skills of an enslaved people. And if this is so, and these positions are the future for so many of our young people how appropriate or relevant is it to even talk about the skills of a free people?

For the most part people have yet to discover in their own lives what it is that free people do. And while it is our wish that at some point in their lives they all do make this discovery we would do much better to help them, especially while in the schools, to obtain what they need in order to just survive, let alone be free men and women, that which will probably not be within the power of most of them, and certainly not within the power of the schools to confer.

What if we did anyway try to answer the question, what are the skills of a free people? How might we begin? Are playing chess, the violin, point guard on a basketball team, all of these and myriad other examples, are these examples of the skills of a free people?

Again great fun these thoughts and this discussion, but does it have anything to do with how we might improve what goes on, say, in our schools and classrooms?

Shall we even go on to consider Chaltain’s third question? You probably agree that trying to answer his questions is a lot of fun, kind of like the brainstorming we used to do as kids. The questions are certainly good discussion topics, perhaps best to have among yourselves and your friends, perhaps at a social gathering while holding a glass of something in your hand.

About the third question Chaltain himself has this to say: “The question, what in the end does it mean to be free, has to be at the heart of a conversation about fixing the schools.” While I’m sure he was serious, isn’t this again a kind of joke? Perhaps he wanted to see if anyone out there would take him seriously?

He must have known this was the very same question that the wisest men who have ever lived have been asking since the beginning of our species’ time on earth.

It is a good question, no doubt about that, something we all should think about, kind of like Socrates’s dictum that we start by knowing ourselves.

But does this question, or any of the many like it, have any relevance to whatever it might take to “fix the schools?” I don’t think so.

In fact, if fixing the schools did have to wait for the answer to this question the schools would never get fixed, for the question will never be answered, at least in any definitive fashion.

To this question there are as many answers as there are free men. How many people do you know whose freedom is the same as yours? To say it yet once again, to fix the schools we do have to start with the great differences there are between kids, between people.

What would be three questions of my own if I were to play this game? The first would be, as I’ve said, how do kids, not Chaltain’s “people,” learn best? My second, would be to ask about the skills that kids, and people need in order to get and hold a job. And my third would be not what it means to be free, but what it means to work.

This is what kids most need. And how can kids best learn to love and respect work? If freedom is ever to be had it will come rather through working.

The skills of a free people, whatever they are, the meaning of what it is to be free, and even how do we learn best, are not things for which we have ready if any answers, and they are certainly not preliminary discussion subjects by engaging in which we might somehow improve what goes on in the schools.

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