A free market of ideas for the classroom


It may be that there is no other way of educating people. Possibly, but I don’t believe it. In the meantime it would be a help at least to describe things properly, to call things by their right names. Ideally, what should be said to every child, repeatedly, throughout his or her school life is something like this:

“You are in the process of being indoctrinated. We have not yet evolved a system of education that is not a system of indoctrination. We are sorry, but it is the best we can do. What you are being taught here is an amalgam of current prejudice and the choices of this particular culture. The slightest look at history will show how impermanent these must be. You are being taught by people who have been able to accommodate themselves to a regime of thought laid down by their predecessors. It is a self-perpetuating system. Those of you who are more robust and individual than others, will be encouraged to leave and find ways of educating yourself- educating your own judgment. Those that stay must remember, always and all the time, that they are being moulded and patterned to fit into the narrow and particular needs of this particular society.”

The Golden Notebook
Doris Lessing

After reading the above quotation (taken from the first page of Jonathan Kozol’s book On Being a Teacher) butterflies flitted about my belly until I finished several hours later. I remember studying Kozol’s work towards integrated public schools in urban areas from his books Amazing Grace and Savage Inequalities as a Sociology major in college. But recently at the library, I came across a book of his that mentioned two of my favorite things in the subtext: RRR + Values. Teaching privately has been my chosen program for educating youth with integrity while avoiding the limiting systems of the public school. However, Jonathan Kozol has managed to maintain his values in the classroom, instruct his students on how to develop their own and write a book about it. What I learned is that, verily, incorporating any real lessons in truth, integrity and compassion actually go against the conventions of America’s public school system. It feels contradictory at first, but upon closer inspection, this is a paramount reason for the the continuing failure of America’s public schools.

Assuming not everyone is familiar with Jonathan Kozol, let me give a brief a summary of his major achievements. He graduated from Harvard University summa cum laude, was a recipient of the Rhodes Scholarship, and has held two Guggenheim Fellowships and two Rockefellar Foundation Fellowships, among others. He is a social critic and activist and is presently working on the board of Greater Good Science Center of the University of California, Berkeley.

Recommended not only for teachers but for \”those whose children are, for twelve consecutive years, entrusted to their care\” (Kozol, xi), this book provides dozens of classroom strategies for conscientious teachers to address such archaic conventions of America’s public schools. Among the most important topics discussed are emotionally leveling with students and parents, providing students with research tools and real texts (not the trimmed down editions provided in school libraries) that we would utilize in order to find a whole truth, teaching without bias, helping students to learn to speak with their own voice, to not be afraid of extreme ideas, and how to speak and debate with diplomacy. If you have found yourself shouting, “Heck yeah!” at any point thus far, stop reading and just get the book. For more details, read on.

The book is written with simple straightforwardness, his first chapter “Why Are We Here? What Is the Job that We are Being Asked To Do?” immediately addresses the dilemma a conscientious teacher faces when considering the origin of public education. “If they are honest with themselves”, he says, “they cannot help but look upon the public school today as an archaic and dehumanizing institution” (3). He explains what most already know about the role teachers play. Working as ‘intellectual guerrillas’, they have the responsibility of engaging and developing their students’ minds while maintaining their jobs. Rather than surrendering personal values and bias, which curriculums require, Kozol implores teachers to entirely open up the issue to the classroom and to speak openly with students about why they are there.

The goal of a classroom, he believes, should be to create a space for a free market of ideas; students can learn about political and economic biases when they step out of the school building. For a teacher to use their own voice in the classroom and to instruct students on how to find theirs is a much needed component of education in comparison with the voiceless term paper, which often prohibits the use of the word I.

Likewise, when a teacher opens up a classroom to honest discussion, they must also take on the important opportunity to teach something that is little discussed: diplomacy. How to handle ourselves when we have extreme ideas, and the notion that not all extreme ideas are bad are generally avoided for fear of a classroom uprising. It is “conventional U.S. public school wisdom” that says “virtue is a low-key, cautious and consensus view”. Students need to understand that confrontation and speaking up are necessary survival skills and not anything to feel bashful about.

“The truth is that extreme reaction to extreme ordeal is not only healthy and intelligent at times, but also very often the sole ethical response of honorable people in the face of human pain” (17). After all, it was Martin Luther King who said from the Birmingham prison, ‘Was not Jesus an extremist for love?’.

When students disagree with a classroom text or a teacher’s thought, they are discouraged from making negative or unconstructive comments. Alas, Kozol retorts, “Americans would not be the citizens of a land called the United States at all if a number of rebels such as Sam Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Tom Paine and several thousand more had not been extremely “negative” in their viewpoints on King George III- and offered to suggest no “positive” alternatives” (21).

This is what he calls Disobedience Instruction. What he does not do is “urge them to go home and be malicious to their folks, or in school…  [rather] to draw a line between two very different states of mind: the sheer vindictive malice of defiance and aggression on the one hand, and a vigorous note of ethical irreverence on the other. The first attacks the person, while the second concentrates on that person’s viewpoints and beliefs” (25). He also invites teachers to take the often-suppressed opportunity of disagreeing with another teacher. So students may trust that they can disagree with a teacher without worrying about retaliation, and likewise a teacher may disagree with a student. Students will learn that teachers can be wrong and that people can dissent with great intensity and still remain respectful towards one another (27).

The book finishes with constructive methods for teachers to work with parents, teachers and communities towards an enlightened and more ethical system. From building trust and friendship with parents with in home meetings to confronting the Press, On Being a Teacher will inspire and enable you to make important changes in your classroom this September.

A thought before you go.

How do you think your students would respond to these questions? And what do you say?

1. What is the reason for a man or woman to spend time in jail for his or her beliefs?

2. What does it mean to be a ‘free’ person in a nation that allows so little true and lasting freedom to its poorest citizens?

3. Are people free in any way that really counts if they are compelled to spend their lives within a prison made of lies?