This morning I read an interesting quote to use on Independence Day. Alexander Sutherland Neill, the founder of Summerhill School in Britain, based his education methods on the premise that all people should be free to do what they pleased as long as they did no harm: “Freedom, not license.” Neill believed that this rule applied even to students, younger and older alike.
I’ve written before about my opinion that education should be based on a child’s interests, abilities, and direction in life. Here is the most common objection to this view: “But what about subjects that the kid may not want to learn? They have to be MADE to learn certain things, or else they”ll grow up ignorant/deprived/stupid!”
Sure, this might be the result if children had no curiosity or natural inclination to learn or developing talents. Children certainly need proper sources for development and education to be made available for them (books, computers, reference materials, teachers, materials, time, parental attention, etc.) or else their only recourse will be to lounge in front of the t.v. or video game console for ten hours at a time. But once a child begins to discover what they are capable of doing, then it is almost impossible to KEEP them from learning. Humans are naturally desirous of expanding their knowledge in chosen areas of interest! The joy of learning something, the well-earned acquirement of a mental, physical, or practical skill, is an end in itself, and should not need any other award (or punishment) to ensure that the skill has been mastered.
Once a person has decided on the particular career or goal they wish to accomplish, then very little can deter them if they are truly resolved. Also, if someone is thoroughly certain of their course of action, their educational path may not follow a traditional route. What if someone had told Louis Armstrong, Chet Atkins, Sean Connery, Benjamin Franklin, Roy Rogers, Bobby Fischer, Henry Ford, Walt Whitman, Frank Lloyd Wright, Wolfgang Puck, Walt Disney, or Charles Dickens that it was more important for them to conform to the education being forced upon them at their schools rather than follow their dreams? Yet all of them were intelligent enough to realize that they needed to pursue a course of learning that was tailored to meet their individual needs and which would best educate them for the career they desired.
Here is a personal example of what it means to choose what is best for one’s education. In my own schooling, I was never very good at math. Through constant repetition in my early years I became proficient at basic arithmetic and sincerely liked mental math and brainteasers; yet when algebra hit, my mind seemed to fall apart. Numbers just couldn’t seem to equate with letters. After several years of struggle, at least three different textbooks, two teachers, and countless math lessons ending in frustration (or tears), I came to a realization:
I DIDN’T NEED TO PASS ALGEBRA IN ORDER TO BE A MUSICIAN.
It was such a relief to know this! Fortunately my mom supported my decision; she also helped me figure out what I needed to do in order to accomplish my long-term goal of getting a decent SAT score for college applications. I spent the next year and a half studying books specifically designed for the math section of the SAT. It was difficult, and involved a lot of memorization of formulas and going over and over and over the same lessons until I could do them right.
I have never been sorry that I never completed algebra. I always wanted to be a musician and a music teacher. Yet I’m very glad to say that after much hard work, my SAT score was just fine for the university I wished to attend. But this was only possible once I realized what I myself needed to accomplish, not because someone forced me to learn something.
So here’s a toast to the most appropriate day for celebrating freedom. May all people one day be allowed the liberty to find the best educational path for themselves.