In high school, I used to get in trouble for reading instead of paying attention in class. I would sit with a book perched under my desk, and I would read. I read just about anything that came my way, except what I was supposed to read. So when Myles Horton talks about getting in trouble for reading in school, this resonated deeply with me.
Paulo Freire says to Myles early in Chapter 2, ” First of all, I recognize that your experience is a social experience. In fact, we cannot be explained by what we individually do, but undoubtedly there is certain individual dimension of the social realization…I am curious about how the individual dimension of the social being, Myles, works inside of this social and historical context.”
One of the reasons I became a teacher was that I felt so disappointed in the school system, both for myself, but more importantly for may others who were more obviously systematically disenfranchised (and still are.) I was in a position where I could choose to conform or not, and I recognize the privilege of that position. I was never a problem in school, and I did well enough that, although my teachers were irritated with my unauthorized reading and generally tepid attempts to conform, they had bigger fish to fry.
For me, rather than school being a place for learning and growing and exploring, instead it was very one sided: the teacher says, you have to know this and this and do this and that, but there was little interest in me as an individual or anyone else. When the system doesn’t see you, the others in the system don’t see you either– or only see you as the system brands you, it is hard to learn or be enthusiastic about learning.
As a teacher, I have always tried, with more or less success, to know my students– and more importantly have them know and recognize each other. I probably have succeeded more in creating environments that encourage the students to see each other as individuals, their strengths and how they can help each other, more than I have gotten to know each of them. I take the approach that learning only happens when someone takes ownership and connects to the subject or the skill. So this idea of the individual within the social context, and understanding the individual brings his or her social context and history with him or her to the classroom is a core principle of education for me.
This idea of the individual and that individual’s social experience is what is lost in systematized education– in an education system, the system’s priorities drive the activity and it is very much a input/output, factory approach. Instead, I approach education as an invitation. There are core, common bodies of knowledge and core skills that educated people should probably know, but introducing those bodies of knowledge and skills should be an opportunity to see oneself in the context of that learning and there should be space for an individual to see him or herself. I don’t think I am explaining this as well as I would like. I ultimately am suggesting that students should have more personal agency in learning– and the system should foster that agency by recognizing that each person is an individual bringing his or her own social experience to the classroom, and that the classroom is another social experience.
This weekend, as part of a discussion with several people, experiences in high school came up, and my mom found out for the first time that I got in trouble for reading — the lingering trauma that several people had from their formal education were still real for them. I think we should not forget as educators, that what we do each day impacts the social experience and history of individuals.