Are educational freedom and equality compatible?

The values of the French Revolution – freedom, equality, solidarity – have inspired all of the liberal democratic states that exist today, as well as a tattoo I’ve planned for my left deltoid. These are the founding principles of the United States’ constitution and sometimes even underpin the decisions made by our legislators and policymakers.

Philosophers in the liberal tradition posit a tension between freedom and equality. If we are totally free, the logic goes, then some people will amass more wealth, power, and status to dominate those with less. If we insist on total equality, then we will have to develop repressive state apparatuses to secure it, and these will compromise individual freedom. Milton Friedman, neoliberal capitalist par excellence, put it this way: “In my opinion, a society that aims for equality before liberty will end up with neither equality nor liberty. A society that aims first for liberty will not end up with equality, but it will end up with a closer approach to equality than any other kind of system that has ever been developed.”  For many philosophers in the liberal tradition, the challenge is to introduce some restrictions on freedom and to make some compromises on equality; the liberal nation-state is the most common instantiation of this solution. 

In schools and school policies, these values can also come into apparent conflict. School choice is a notable example: when families are allowed to move their student to any school of their choice within a district, schools become more segregated. Resources such as advanced placement classes, experienced teachers, and discretionary funds tend to become concentrated in schools whose students are on average wealthier and whiter. In these cases, districts are prioritizing freedom over equality. The tension between freedom and equality can also arise within a school. Policies such as school uniforms, which limit students’ freedom, are often justified on the (often tenuous) grounds that they diminish class distinctions. Whether or not this rationale is given in good faith, a school with this policy seems to prioritize equality over freedom.

Anarchist theorists challenge the assumption that freedom and equality stand in opposition. Sticking to the same set of core values that undergird liberalism – freedom, equality, and solidarity – anarchist theorists argue that one’s freedom is not only compatible with, but contingent on, the freedom of others. In 1871, Anarchist philosopher Mikhail Bakunin put it this way: “I am truly free only when all human beings, men and women, are equally free. The freedom of other men, far from negating or limiting my freedom, is, on the contrary, its necessary premise and confirmation. It is the slavery of other men that sets up a barrier to my freedom” (Bakunin). As a social creature, I cannot be truly free unless we are equals, because relations of dominance impede our ability to live in solidarity and thus become our full selves. 

Other thinkers outside the anarchist tradition have articulated this idea in other ways. Paulo Friere theorizes that oppression compromises the humanity not only of the oppressed, but also the oppressor (Freire). bell hooks’ aspirational vision of ‘beloved community’ is founded on the racial and economic equality of its members; white people and people of color are only able to become their full selves and find real companionship with each other when they commit to work against white supremacy (hooks). The oft-quoted phrase usually attributed to Lilla Watson sums up the interdependence of liberal values most succinctly: “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together” (Aboriginal activists group, Queensland, 1970s).

There is power in asserting that freedom, equality, and solidarity strengthen each other and that we need not compromise one of our core values for another. This is a window into a world where we can do away with hierarchies that reinforce inequalities or limit peoples’ freedoms. It is the utopian belief that we can live together with others, invested in their freedom as we are in our own – that we can build a beloved community. 

The real challenge is making this work in practice. Many radical education communities negotiate the relationship between freedom and equality on different terms than their traditional counterparts. But radical educational communities do at times run into apparent tensions between these principles. The way that they choose to resolve them provides a window into the complexity of self-governing communities and the difficulty and possibility of living out their principles. Observing and documenting this process will be one of my research goals in the coming months.

References

Bakunin, Mikhail. About Freedom. 1871, https://www.panarchy.org/bakunin/freedom.html.

Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. 30th anniversary ed, Continuum, 2000.

hooks, bell. Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope. Routledge, 2003.

Milton Friedman vs Free Lunch Advocate – YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Qe7fLL25AQ. Accessed 24 Aug. 2019.

“Studies Show School Choice Widens Inequality: Popular Among Parents, But Little Evidence That Children Learn More.” Harvard Graduate School of Education, https://www.gse.harvard.edu/news/95/07/studies-show-school-choice-widens-inequality-popular-among-parents-little-evidence. Accessed 24 Aug. 2019.

Whitehurst, Grover J. “Russ.” “New Evidence on School Choice and Racially Segregated Schools.” Brookings, 14 Dec. 2017, https://www.brookings.edu/research/new-evidence-on-school-choice-and-racially-segregated-schools/.

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