stephanie jones

On “Freedom”

In aesthetics, Bakhtin, creativity, freedom, politics, social action on November 2, 2007 at 8:08 pm

What does “freedom” mean?

“[O]ne of the tenets of a democratic society is that men [sic] be allowed to think and express themselves freely on any subject, even to the point of speaking out against the idea of a democratic society. To the extent that our schools are instruments of such a society, they must develop in the young not only an awareness of this freedom but a will to exercise it, and the intellectual power and perspective to do so effectively” (Postman, 1969, p. 1)

From Postman, N., & Weingartner, C. (1969). Crap detecting. In Teaching as a subversive activity (pp. 1-15). New York: Delacorte Press.

“The only freedom that is of enduring importance is freedom of intelligence, that is to say, freedom of observation and of judgment exercised in behalf of purposes that are intrinsically worth while” (Dewey, 1963, p. 61).

From Dewey, J. (1963). The nature of freedom. In Experience & education (pp. 61-65). New York: Collier Books.

  1. Postman and Weingartner (1969) and Dewey (1963) make philosophical arguments for freedom of intelligence, of thought, of judgment, and of exercising those judgments “in behalf of purposes that are intrinsically worth while” (Dewey, p. 61). Maxine Greene (2000) moves this philosophical stance toward the public school sphere using the word “ought” to make clear her beliefs about students’ work in schools:

    “[Students] ought to be enabled to discover a project by means of which they can shape their own identities: the study of neighborhood history, for instance; the comparative examination of styles; gender issues in the public services; the problem of sweatshopts; modern dance, and so on. It is clear to many that the commitment to a project, an undertaking shared with others, feeds into the growth of identity and, at once, voluntary participation.”
    Maxine Greene, 2000

    The voluntary participation Maxine Greene writes about in the above quotation reflects the theme of freedom apparent across her manuscript titled “The Ambiguities of Freedom” published in English Education in October, 2000. Writing of racial profiling, immigration, oppressive testing regimes in schools, poverty, and the persistent pushing against the freedom of citizens becoming actualized, fulfilled human beings through an ongoing project of the self, Maxine Greene was writing in times of turmoil. But she could not have known what would happen next. Her brilliant essay on the ambiguities of freedom was written: One year before September 11, 2001; two years before the invasion of Iraq, three years before a seventeen year-old African American Georgia boy was sentenced to ten years in prison for having consensual oral sex with a fifteen year old, four years before the presidential election controversy in 2004, five years before Hurricane Katrina and the broken levees of New Orleans, six years before the hanging of nooses in a Whites-only tree in Louisiana, and seven years before the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind.

    Bakhtin (1993) uses “ought” a bit differently, more of a philosophical construct to get to a nuanced understanding of one’s act within a moment of acting. He argues against traditional ethics that posit a universal, theoretical “ought” that should be used to judge individuals’ acts as ethical or otherwise. Instead, Bakhtin argues that one does not know what she ought to do until she is in a moment of Being and that the ought “gains its validity within the unity of my once-occurrent answerable life” (p. 5).

    It seems to me that Maxine Greene’s use of “ought” could be read within the context of public schooling and moral philosophy, and if we turned her statement around to make educators in schools the subject, we might get something like this: “A teacher ought to know a student well enough to open up spaces in the classroom where s/he can pursue issues or questions important to him/her in a way that will construct/grow productive identities that promote voluntary (intrinsically motivated?) participation.”

    But what “ought” we do in today’s context of restricted freedoms? Bakhtin, again, can offer insight when he writes about people who are inevitable to “become slaves of their own free decision” (p. 35) such as their electing a representative, creating a norm, constructing a boundary. Thus, it seems, that the seeming reduction in freedoms is our own doing in many ways. About cultural values (something that saturates the ways schools construct their own theoretical ‘ought’) Bakhtin writes, “At one time man [sic] actually established all cultural values and now is bound by them” (p. 35). So we find ourselves in public school classrooms bound by the cultural values those before us have constructed and that we have perpetuated if not shifted a bit here and there. And we find ourselves in public school classrooms where national policy, written and passed by representatives we have freely elected, has tremendous impact every day.

    So where is the “ought” within the knowing of individual students in concrete moments? What kind of active, moral project could educators work within to consciously construct classrooms where freedoms (according to the authors quoted above) are enacted? What would that large project look like, and how would it be shaped to always allow for the once-occurrent Being with students and teachers to affirm what ought to come next in an ongoing event? Is it even possible to have a larger more universal project (ex: critical literacies) that would not attempt to generalize and universalize what teachers and students should do in classrooms together?

    And if we did work in classrooms the way Maxine Greene suggests, how will the public respond when students begin to seriously, and voluntarily, engage in inquiries around issues of social injustice?

    What is freedom, indeed. We as a people are only free once, then we are continuously restricted by the acts of those before us, of ourselves, and those around us. Is a Bakhtinian moral philosophy that aims toward a “first philosophy” of the ought within a moment of living one way we can begin to redefine freedom? Is Bakhtin’s notion of being answerable enough to really push us to act in concrete and context-specific ethical ways as educators? What would happen if we all began to do so?

  2. You write:

    “So we find ourselves in public school classrooms bound by the cultural values those before us have constructed and that we have perpetuated if not shifted a bit here and there. And we find ourselves in public school classrooms where national policy, written and passed by representatives we have freely elected, has tremendous impact every day.”

    As a teacher in one of these traditional schools, I often feel trapped in a design of education that I do not agree with. There is little room for critical thinking and creativity as a teacher, to be able to construct spaces where children can freely inquire into social injustices and their own genuine curiosities about the world around them. The possibilities for such inquiry is stolen from teachers by filling up classroom time with practice tests, predictive tests, and teaching to the test, and giving tests. When my students cry out, “Another test”, I only have time to quickly share with them how unfair I also believe the excessive testing to be. Inquiry is squeezed into quick conversations in the hallway, shared lunches, and unanswered wonderings posted on the wall. One of the biggest cultural values that I feel prevents teachers from taking back these stolen spaces is the language of schooling that we have inherited. Teachers talk about children as numbers based on their level, “We need to move our 2’s up to 3’s”; they talk about engaging in literature through catch all phrases describing skills, “We need to teach our kids main idea” or “our students aren’t getting cause and effect”, they talk about learning with a language that feels like a language of war, “we’re going to talk about where you can pick up points to reach your target of 70.6 to get an A next year”. How will teachers be able change the structure of schooling without authentic language and authentic dialogue? What are the ways to move an inherited language that separates knowledge from the students to a language that includes our students as creators of their own knowledge? Any ideas for a discouraged teacher would be welcomed.

  3. motleymusings, it’s great to hear your blogging voice again…
    Your comment is so insightful and yet incredibly ironic. You write about the restrictive nature of the language practices in schools as we talk about children, and yet you use language in your post that is both poignant and nuanced – the very kinds of practices we would want all teachers to use when talking with/about their students.

    So you ask a million dollar question: “What are the ways to move an inherited language that separates knowledge from the students to a language that includes are students as creators of their own knowledge?”

    I would argue that working to shift language practices means working on at least three planes: 1) engaging with students using language practices that you want to promote overall, 2) engaging with individual educators/policy makers using language practices that you want to promote overall, and 3) working in public ways to promote different language use (letters to editor, educational newsletters, newsletters to families, letters to district personnel, educational blogs, offering workshops for educators, etc.).

    Interestingly enough, I would likely say the same thing about working toward changing any kind of oppressive language/practice (racist, classist, sexist, homophobic, and so forth). I was fortunate to hear Dr. Beverly Tatum speak the other night and she talked about the “Three F’s” in responding to language/behaviors that are offensive and not productive:
    “Felt” (or implicating yourself in the past tense)
    “Found” (articulating knowledge/experience to the contrary)
    “Feel” (articulating your present stance on the issue)

    What Dr. Tatum makes clear is that all these statements are about yourself and not about the “other” person who you really feel is talking/behaving in ways that are destructive. This makes it less offensive to the person you’re talking with, and, perhaps, a little easier for everyone to hear in the long-run.

    It goes something like this, and I’ll try to use some of your examples here:
    Some teachers are talking in the teachers’ lounge about moving “the 2s up to 3s” and one way to respond might be to say “I used to think that was really important too and sometimes I even talked about my students like they were numbers” (the “felt”), “but then I found out that becoming a reader means a lot more than a score on that test, and I realized that talking about the students like they were numbers made me a different kind of teacher (the “found”), “so now I try really hard not to think about them as numbers and instead I have a goal each day that I will be able to recall something specific about each student’s engagement with reading and how they are becoming critical analysts of text, and I feel it has made me a better teacher because…” (the “feel”).

    Of course, motleymusings, I am guessing that you engage in questioning and wondering aloud when you’re with teachers all the time;) But perhaps this “3 Fs” formula of Dr. Tatum’s might be another strategy to try when working so hard to make even tiny shifts in schooling practices.

    I want to remind you, however, that this kind of work can become an enormous burden and if you focus too much on everything around you that will not change immediately, you run the risk of losing the hope, energy, enthusiasm, and action so necessary in working with individual children and families each day. It may sound cliche but I feel that this is true: we must really focus on the powerful lived moments we experience each day. You talked about stealing those moments in the hallways and between the enormous amounts of requirements (tests, teaching to the tests, etc.) mandated in many schools. Those stolen moments may be the very moments that you help a student think beyond the limitations of schooling as it might be today, just as that student might help you think beyond the same limitations.

    Education is in the moment, motleymusings. I find it hard to remember this myself sometimes, but it certainly is powerful to remind ourselves of this on a daily basis when things are tough. And one promise we might make to ourselves is that Today I will find a way to have more of those moments in my classroom than I did Yesterday. If we continue each day with such a vision, we could very well find ourselves in a space where most of our time is spent in ways we value most…and we can do a lot of talking about that with other educators:)

    I’d love to hear what you think…it’s so important that others read your thoughts as well, so post away.


  4. Thanks for reminding me of the power of the moment, Stephanie.

    Beautiful moments today


    One of my students asked me today if she could spend her extra time when she finished the State Social Studies test writing a letter to the principal or a politician about the enormous amount of testing that she and the other students have had already and will continue to have to take. Unfortunately I was forced to tell her that no, you may not, the state requires that you sit at your desk silently and wait until all of the other students finish the test, without reading, writing or drawing, Even if this means you have to sit for a full hour. I was pleased though at her desire and intention expressed.

    As the students sat for their test time, waiting for the allotted time to finish (as ESL students they get time and a half), I watched as they silently demonstrated for me the amazing resilience and creativity innate in people. One child made small shavings of her eraser by rubbing it endlessly on the desk. She then proceeded to flatten these shavings and make designs in them with her fingernail. Another student found a small piece of a black plastic bag, and with her head on her desk blew the plastic around blocking it with her right hand as a guard. I imagined that she was playing some sort of envisioned desk soccer. Two girls braided and twisted their hair. Another girl spoke silent monologues to herself, including dramatic facial expressions. A boy tucked himself in multiple ways into his sweatshirt, while the girl next to him re-wove the cord in her sweater’s hood. These children’s desire to participate and create, within their occupied space in the world, was resolute. Standardization could not squash their creative abilities. This made me love them all the more. And rekindled my hope.


    As I was leaving today, I looked around my classroom before shutting off the lights. I looked across the room at the windows that were all steamed up, heat on inside, rainy cold outside. I saw, scratched across the condensation on the window pane, by the finger of a student, “I love school”. A child’s unspoken secret that will melt away by Monday. But left me hopeful.

  5. How beautiful those fleeting moments of creativity–“condensation grafitti” and internal monologues! The students are constrained by the state tests, but YOU acknowledge their little acts of freedom when you notice their engagement, persistence, and maybe even resistance during SSW (sustained silent waiting). And now we notice, too.

  6. This is truly remarkable! And yet we should not be surprised at all, right? I love that Karen calls this “sustained silent waiting” and it seems to me that such a metaphor could be generative as we consider how often students’ on-task behavior is really an evaluation of their acceptance of sustained silent waiting for – real education? Freedom? Active participation? Democracy? Social justice?

    The images you paint for us with your words are so powerful, motleymusings, I can see the desk soccer, eraser shavings, twisted sweatshirt, hairwork, and everything else you have described with such detail and sensitivity. I’m a bit stuck on Bakhtin right now, so forgive me, but he might argue that to Love is the only way possible one is able to linger and study something and to see it aesthetically. It seems to me that there is tremendous love in your being with your students and that love is apparent in the precise detail you have used above.
    Within such love, no wonder one might scratch on a window “I love school.”

    I hope that your activist student will still write a letter to policymakers about her experiences with testing in her school!

    And back to freedom…could we be possibly asking for freedom to love, in a Bakhtinian sense, to marvel at the concrete others with whom we share spaces? This would certainly shift the testing paradigm around since Bakhtin would argue that ‘S/he is good because I love her/him’ rather than ‘I love her/him because s/he is good.’ The values cannot come first followed by the e-valuation, but rather the value of the other must come out of my being with her within this moment in time and space.

    Motleymusings…you have etched a condensation graffiti message here that gives me hope as well. Thanks.


  7. I would agree that Love is fundamental in the classroom. It’s funny that it’s the one thing that I never hear spoken about at PD meetings or talks with colleagues about classroom practice. All children really want is to be seen, right? It seems as of once seen, then they can also begin seeing others around them with the same sort of attention. I will have to read Bakhtin; You are the second to mention his writing to me. My activist will certainly write that letter. And I hope it will be her first of many! Enjoy the holiday.

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