Free Schools for Free People: A Lesson Plan by William Ayers


How can we make free schools for free people?

Issue Description:

Schools are mirror and window into society—that is, schools always reflect and reveal their host communities: schools in a theocracy teach reverence; schools in an ancient agrarian community teach cultivation and animal husbandry; schools in an authoritarian society teach submissiveness and compliance. Schools in medieval Saudi Arabia, fascist Germany, and apartheid South Africa all produced brilliant scholars and scientists, some accomplished artists, and successful industrialists, but they also, quite predictably, taught a steady curriculum of obedience and conformity. Let’s reflect on the qualities, dispositions-of-mind, values, and preferences that characterize schools for free people in a free society.

Essential Questions:

  • How do we see our schools right here, right now?
  • How do we make general sense of (justify?) the educational system today?
  • How are we conscientiously and systematically teaching free people to participate fully in a free society?
  • How could we do a better job of encouraging young people to interrogate the world more fully, to ask deeper questions and to pursue those questions to their furthest limits?
  • How can we intentionally and openly help children and youth develop minds of their own and simultaneously offer them opportunities to be responsible and participating members of their communities?
  • What can our schools become what they are not yet? How might we get there?
  • How can we live purposefully in the schools as they are while we stretch toward something new and dramatically better—schools that are more joyful and more just, more hopeful and more loving?
  • How can we build within ourselves the capacity and the courage, the thoughtfulness and compassion to dive into the wreckage on a mission of repair?

Expected Learnings:

  • Beginning understanding of what drives the structure and function of our schools.
  • Beginning understanding of the multiple purposes of education.
  • Initial understanding of necessary components of a school and necessary components of a freedom school.

Description of Activity:

We will design and build a school explicitly for the development of free people. Let’s start, though, at the dawn of what we think of as the modern school, and with Charles Dickens’ memorable introduction to the aptly named Mr. Gradgrind, the owner of an English school in an industrial city, and Mr. M’Choakumchild, his hired schoolmaster. Here Gradgrind lectures M’Choakumchild on his philosophical orientation and a few of the finer points of curriculum and instruction:

“Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, Sir!

“The speaker, and the schoolmaster…swept with their eyes the inclined plane of little vessels then and there arranged in order, ready to have imperial gallons of facts poured into them until they were full to the brim.”

To deepen and illustrate his argument Gradgrind interrogates “girl number twenty,” and, discovering that her father is a horseman, asks her to define a horse. When she stumbles Gradgrind pounces: “Girl number twenty unable to define a horse…Girl number twenty possessed of no facts, in reference to one of the commonest of animals!” He turns to a boy who obediently stands and recites: “Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive…” And on and on, at the end of which Gradgrind nods approvingly and notes, “Now girl number twenty, you know what a horse is.”

In the opening chapters of Hard Times—one appropriately called “The Murder of Innocents”—Dickens evokes the broad outlines of autocratic classrooms everywhere. He offers a kind of meditation on the power of these men of facts-without-feeling to crush or twist our natural human dispositions and sympathies, and he turns at last to M’choakumchild himself with an indictment: “When … thou shalt fill each jar brim full by-and-by, dost thou think that thou wilt always kill outright the robber Fancy lurking within—or sometimes only maim him and distort him!”

Dickens’ fraught description of a tyrannical classroom in England under the rule of Queen Victoria is oddly familiar—we might imagine that education and schooling in a contemporary democracy would look remarkably different from a British classroom 160 years ago. Monarchies, after all, demand unquestioning allegiance first and foremost, whereas democracies, at least theoretically, are built on the active engagement and participation of free and enlightened people. We can easily imagine the society that those “imperial gallons of facts” are meant to sustain and reproduce; what’s harder to reconcile is an inescapable feeling that Dickens’ despotic classroom with its imperious reasoning and its brute logic is a bit too close for comfort.

So let’s design our own community school in line with a basic principle central to freedom and democracy:

Every human being is of incalculable value. We are each the one of one, and, paradoxically, we are each a small part of a vast and common humanity.

Let’s design our school from the ground up—physical space, cultural values, social as well as intellectual purposes. Let’s fill out what it means to expect young people to become central actors in their own lives and in the larger world, what it would look like if we foregrounded the arts of liberty: imagination, curiosity, initiative, courage. And since our school will be for all, lets be conscious of the wildly diverse cultures and conditions youth will bring with them through the schoolhouse doors.

Working in groups of 3 or 4 make a physical rendering of a freedom-school; be prepared to present your design and a rationale for how this contributes to the creation of free people with minds of their own, and a free and more robust society.

Resources to Support Activity:

  • Copies of the opening of Hard Times.
  • Art and building materials.
  • Google John Dewey’s NY Times editorial from 1934: Utopian Schools

To learn more, check these links: