The Notion of Freedom

Last night, I attended the first parent meeting at the new building for the Brooklyn Free School. Many things were discussed. Topics that I doubt you would find at a public school PTA. Racism, bullying, what we feel are the benefits of our children being in a school where the core concepts are freedom and democracy. There was one question brought up as one of the symptoms of a student dealing with that freedom, and how the conditions create a situation where you no longer are able to look to someone else to create motivation to learn. The burden falls on oneself. And this got me to thinking today about freedom, and what it might really mean, in reality.

Freedom is something that is bandied about casually as the goal of cultures, nations, and individuals. But what does that really mean? Our Bill of Rights state that we have the freedom to  life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, but I feel that this may be another collective fantasy.Do we really pursue such things like happiness. What is happiness. What is life. What is liberty?

A few years ago, I got the opportunity to see a British TV drama based on the original democratic free school,  Summerhill. The premise was of a free school facing being closed by government sources. This is based on real events, but for the sake of my contemplation on freedom, I only want to sight one example from the film. One of the characters, a new boy who has a history of difficulty in social circumstances is told by one of the advisers  “freedom is a difficult thing to handle if you have never had it.”

In essence, he was saying that freedom requires responsibility. We seem to demand it as a nation. We demand it as individuals. But do we understand the level of responsibility it takes to maneuver through life with this responsibility?

So it came out in this instance by a parent who was concerned about his son. A young man who has been with us since the school was founded and is now about 15, so he has been in the school since he was 9 or 10. He went from being mildly interested in music, to absorbing himself in economics, history, science and medicine. He recently did an internship with a pediatrician in a hospital as well as another with a bio technician. But lately he has felt the weight of the pressure he places on himself to continue to perform at such a high level. To most peoples eyes, this young man is impressive in his passion to learn, and to learn the things he is truly interested in.

His father, whom I spoke with after the meeting, is a virtuoso jazz guitarist. I suggested that for him to have attained to the level of playing he performs at, it must have required a level of demand on oneself to practice and study to bring one’s abilities to the top most level of jazz guitarists in the world. He admitted to me that this was true, and he never lets up on himself. So it is a case of  “like father, like son” only the young man in question places demands in a different category. I also suggested that being 15 may have been one of the shittiest years of my life (the father echoed my suggestion.) You are stuck in a body that is not quite manly, but filled with all the desires and hungers of an adult, and all this coupled with self doubt and awkwardness. One thing this young man has an opportunity to do as well: as much as he has the freedom to place pressure on himself, he also has the freedom to ease up, lay back and do nothing for a while. That is the beauty of a democratic free school. We get time to learn about ourselves, and feel what it might mean to be human.

In watching students who start out in this process from the very beginning, my own son seems to follow me in that he is constantly inventing projects which totally engage him. He has gone as far as forming a gaming company with one of his friends. This has led not only to game ideas, but to the development of stationary, business cards and he is embarking on creating his own catalog for his fictitious company in Adobe Illustrator. I should remind you that he is 9.

This freedom thing sure is interesting. It is something that was never, in reality, ever an option for most of us. It wasn’t for me. I was made like everyone else to sit still all day and shut up. I occupied myself by ignoring what the teacher was doing and immersed myself in drawing…all over my notebooks. Not something public school teachers were in favor of. They saw it as a waist of time. We were being prepare for jobs. Certainly the idea of job and freedom seem adverse to each other. But business and freedom can go hand in hand. So why not let children pursue their innate desires and curiosities. It would probably lead to a healthier world, but that would require a revolution, and I do not believe in them. Like Roger Daltry sang “meet the new boss, same as the old boss!”

So to wrap up, it seems that I have still not solved the issue of freedom. As if I could. There is also the idea of spiritual liberation. An inner freedom that brings one’s own world view into a whole other realm of perception. In truth we are born with shackles. They are not iron and metal, but they are composed of thoughts, habits, parental expectation, social expectation, all of which lead to self doubt, lack of motivation and a feeling that we don’t contribute to anything useful. All of this can be summed up as wrong education. It would be my hope that by releasing a child early on, from the shackles of educational expectation, that it may lead them to have desire and need for this other inner freedom. And that, for me, is the seed of evolution.

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