Freedom to Learn Section III: For the Teacher (part five) – The politics of education

This chapter (adapted from Carl Rogers on Personal Power) compares and contrasts traditional and person-centred education as two poles of a continuum, along which every  educational effort, every teacher, every institution of learning could locate itself at some appropriate point. 

the freedom-control continuum

1. The traditional mode

Rogers describes the major characteristics of “conventional education as we have known it for a long time in the United States”:
  1. The teachers are the possessors of knowledge, the students the expected recipients.
  2. The lecture, or some means of verbal instruction, is the major means of getting knowledge into the recipients. The examination measures the extent to which the students have received it. 
  3. The teachers are the possessors of power, the students the ones who obey (Rogers adds that Administrators are also possessors of power, and both teachers and students are the ones who obey – and that control is always exercised downward).
  4. Rule by authority is the accepted policy in the classroom – the authority-figure – the instructor – is very much the central figure in education.
  5. Trust is at a minimum – the teacher does not trust the students to work well without supervision and constant checking, students distrust the teacher’s motives, honesty, fairness, competence. 
  6. Students are best governed by being kept in a state of fear – not any more physical punishment, perhaps, but fear of being seen as ‘not good enough’ and a constant fear of failure.
  7. Democracy and its values are ignored and scorned in practice – Goals, curricula, manner of working, all are chosen for students, so that “while being taught that freedom and responsibility are the glorious features of ‘our democracy’, the students are experiencing themselves as powerless, as having little freedom, and as having almost no opportunity to exercise choice or carry responsibility.”  
  8. There is no place for whole persons in the educational system, only for their intellects. 

2. The politics of conventional education

Rogers clarifies his use of 'politics':
I use the term politics in its sociological sense, as in the 'politics of the family', the 'politics of psychotherapy', or 'sexual politics'. In this sense, politics has to do with control and the making of choices. It has to do with the strategies and maneuvers by which one carries on these functions. Briefly, it is the process of gaining, using, sharing, or relinquishing power and decision making. It is also the process of the complex interactions and effects of these elements as they exist in relationships between persons, between a person and a group, or between groups. 
Thus, in conventional education - Decisions are made at the top and 'power over' is the important concept - strategies to hold and exercise this power are (1) the rewards of grades and vocational opportunities and (2) the use of such aversive, punitive, and fear-creating methods as failure on exams, failure to graduate and public scorn. 

It is a 'jug and mug' theory of education, wherein the faculty (the jug) possess the intellectual and factual knowledge and cause the student to be the passive recipient (the mug) so that the knowledge can be poured in. 

This system is not often openly defended as the best system, simply it is accepted as the inevitable system and it is practiced all around us. 

3. The person-centred mode

This is at the opposite end of the scale and is sharply different in its philosophy, its methods and its politics. Given our inherited educational system, it can only exist if one precondition is satisfied: 
A leader or a person who is perceived as an authority figure in the situation is sufficiently secure within herself and in her relationship to others that she experiences an essential trust in the capacity of others to think for themselves, to learn for themselves.
Essentially, she regards human beings as trustworthy organisms. If this precondition exists, then the following aspects become possible, and tend to be implemented: 
  • The facilitative teacher shares with the others - students and possibly also parents or community members - the responsibility for the learning process. 
  • The facilitator provides learning resources, from within herself and her own experience, from books or materials or community experiences. 
  • The student develops her own program of learning, alone or in cooperation with others. 
  • A facilitative learning climate is provided.
  • The focus is primarily on fostering the continuous process of learning.
  • The discipline necessary to reach the student's goal is a self-discipline. 
  • The evaluation of the extent and significance of the student's learning is made primarily by the learner. 
  • In this growth-promoting climate, the learning tends to be deeper, proceeds at a more rapid rate, and is more pervasive in the life and behavior of the student than is learning acquired in the traditional classroom. 

4. The politics of person-centred education

The learner, group of learners or facilitator-learner have the essential power or control and nobody is attempting to gain control over anybody else. The facilitator provides a psychological climate in which the learner is able to take responsible control, as well as helping to focus on process, on experiencing the way in which learning takes place. Decision-making power is in the hands of the individual or individuals who will be affected by the decision. "...the growing, learning person is the politically powerful force in such education. The learner is the center." 

The Threat

It is in its politics that the person-centred approach is threatening, for teachers and for students - the risk of trusting, of sharing power, of responsibility, of non-directivity. It is also threatening for administrators: if one teacher, in one classroom institutes a person-centred approach it is a threat to the whole system.

5. The political implications of the evidence

After a brief reference to the evidence for the efficacy of the person-centred approach (covered in more detail in the following chapter), Rogers points out how "the 'facilitative conditions' make a profound change in the power relationships of the educational setting. He than asks: can we influence a profession?

His answer, in the form of a case study, is yes for medical education and not so certain for teacher education. The case study describes how a four-day workshop on Human Dimensions in Medical Education snowballed into more conferences, ultimately representing nearly every medical school in the United States, with requests for additional ten-day conferences for training in group facilitation, team attendance by medical departments, and a four-day conference held by a medical school for incoming students, faculty members and school staff. 

6. Conclusion

Rogers compares these impressive successes in the person-centred approach to the lack of the same in schools of education and teacher-training institutions. He suggests that perhaps it is because of the nature of being a medic - the necessity to quickly absorb new ways of working and thinking, continuous exposure ot feedback and being accustomed to learning from mistakes. Contrarily, educators are not rewarded for trying new ways, long-term feedback is very rare and "an educator almost never learns of the curiosity she has killed or the persons she has damaged."

He concludes that, although change is possible, "we may see a person-cented approach to education developing strong roots in alternative schools, in universities-without-walls, and in specialized situations such as medical education, before it has a major impact on our larger teacher-training institutions."