Thinking about Autonomy

Lately a lot of my reading about education has been focused on the idea of autonomy and how traditional school often removes student autonomy and creates “subjects” (people to be dealt with in a certain way).  All of these readings have really made me think about what we are doing to students by subjugating them to the traditional idea of schooling. Subjugation and subject here might be strong terms, but I think they fit when we begin to think about school. My understanding of what it means to be a “subject” is drawn from Helen Horowitz where she describes students as  “a subject people” because they have “entered a society in which they did not make or enforce the rules—at least not the important ones.” To me, this so perfectly describes the school environment. The result of this subjugation, or creating of “subject people,” is exactly what three pieces I recently read discuss. For this reason, I would like to do my thinking through the lens of these articles and books.

In “Making the Grade Revisited,” Howard Becker reflects on his book “Making the Grade.” In this article, Becker spends a lot of time discussing what it means for students to be subjected to school. In Becker’s case, he argues that school creates subjects out of students because school has already “decided what courses would be taught, what courses students had to take and what work they had to do in them, how their work in those courses would be assessed, and what the consequences of those assessments would be.” All of these decisions are made by schools without any student voice.  While he does not go into depth on the point, Becker does mention how the subjection to these rules leads to the “development of a culture.” If you read into this point, it is clear that the culture that is developed is one in which students become accustomed to completing the tests, papers, and assignments that have been created for them while following the rules which have also been put into place without their input. At the same time, even though schools seek to create critical and responsible citizens that are  independent minded and display initiative, schools “typically punish students who pursue their own lines of interest” and do not do the work that is imposed on them.

It is this very “subjection” that Ivan Illich writes about in his book “Deschooling Society.”  Whereas Becker discusses more about how the student as subject is created, Illich talks about the ramifications of this subjection on society as a whole.  Illich though has a similar view to Becker as is clear in his view that school makes men/women “abdicate the responsibility for their own growth.”  He goes on further to say that “The creature whom schools need as a client has neither the autonomy nor the motivation to grow on his own.” The key for Illich, is type of person that schools are creating by removing this autonomy and personal responsibility. Illich argues that due to their structure, schools produce people who believe that “there is a secret to everything in life; that the quality of life depends on knowing that secret; that secrets can be known only in orderly successions; and that only teachers can properly reveal these secrets.” By doing so, schools create students that rely on others for their knowledge, rather than trusting in their own creativity and curiosity.

By its very nature, school is place where you are constantly ranked and sorted in relation to your peers based on the constant judgement (through rubrics, tests, quizzes and assignments which are most often designed by the teacher) of an authority (the teacher). It is in this way that Illich argues students are   “schooled to confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence, and fluency with the ability to say something new.” Essentially what Illich is arguing is that by removing the autonomy of the student, school create “subjects” that view education as a passive activity in which they have no say. By removing autonomy from the student they no longer feel responsible for their own learning.  In this way, a culture is created in which both student and teacher accept their roles as subject and authority respectively.  Whereas Becker uses the word “culture” and Illich uses the word “society,” both speak similarly about the results that come from creating subjects out of students.

These same themes  run through the book Free to Learn, where Peter Gray also discusses what happens when we “imprison”(ie. make a subject out of) students by forcing them to sit still and passively receive the information that someone else has prepared and deemed relevant. Gray argues that the “belief that young people are incapable of making reasonable decisions is a cornerstone of our system of compulsory, closely monitored education.” This idea echoes that of both Becker and Illich in how it describes the way in which the student is turned into a subject that is monitored and removed of personal responsibility. Similar to how Illich says that schools for students to “abdicate the responsibility for their own growth,” Gray mentions how the implicit message of school is that “if you do what you are told to do in school, everything will work out well for you.” The result of this is that “children who buy into the message stop taking responsibility for their own education,” and “assume, falsely, that someone else has figured out what they need to do and know to become successful adults.” For Gray, as well as Becker and Illich, it is the removal of autonomy that creates the student as subject (and not participant). The problem Gray has with the structure of school is that it turns “good people” (teachers) into the ones who are “complicit in a system of imprisoning” students. These are strong words, but show how strongly Gray feels about empowering students with the freedom and personal responsibility for their own learning.

Although the language used by Becker, Illich and Gray may at times be strong, all three authors point to a huge problem within the paradigm of mass education. This problem is how the structure of schools creates a system that is antithetical to “freedom, personal responsibility, self initiative, honesty, integrity and concern for others.” While this point may not be new, the different ways in which these three authors present this issue really forced me to think about how the culture of school is created and what can be done differently. It could be argued that these ideas are idealistic and simply do not mesh with the constraints of mass education. I would argue though that the principles and arguments provide a starting point for beginning to question the structure of school, how it got that way, and what changes could be made to improve on that structure. In the end wrestling with these ideas will only enable us to better build a culture where students are free to be curious, feel personally responsible for their learning and become participants (rather than subjects) in their own learning.

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One thought on “Thinking about Autonomy

  1. I love how the main message from all three authors is that we’re simply not challenging students enough. The adults do all the thinking and the students “get away” with just following the instructions, and to add insult to injury that process tends to be boring for the most part. And the result? We create mindless test-takers perfectly equipped for the time that once was.

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