I don’t advocate for “free children”.
Almost a century ago, English author and educator A. S. Neill wrote, “Free children are not easily influenced; the absence of fear accounts for this phenomenon. Indeed, the absence of fear is the finest thing that can happen to a child.”
It was in 2001 that I was sitting with a group of “non-traditionally engaged” youth in Olympia, Washington, brainstorming about changing the world, when they suggested I start “Free Children” and promote youth activism. Finding a Canadian organization already took that name, I modified it and began working.
The Freechild Project has never advocated for “free children” though, and neither have I. I have written about this concept of the free child before, but rather than an anarchistic sense of radical self-entitlement, I advocate for freedom. Early on in my work I learned its important to acknowledge that while it’s true that there are 74 million people under the age of 18 in the US, and 2.5 billion people under-18 worldwide, they aren’t the only ones here. As the feminist hero Fannie Lou Hamer once said, “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.” So I don’t advocate for “free children”, but for freedom.
That said, the road to freedom is through education. bell hooks once wrote, “To be changed by ideas was pure pleasure. But to learn ideas that ran counter to values and beliefs learned at home was to place oneself at risk, to enter the danger zone. Home was the place where I was forced to conform to someone else’s image of who and what I should be. School was the place where I could forget that self and, through ideas, reinvent myself.”
That is what I am most interested in: public schools as a site to examine, invent, and reinvent oneself. Because of this, they are still roads to freedom, and for that, we engage with them, not against them.
I believe that a substantive, child-centered, child-driven education is absolutely essential to the health of democracy, and that’s what I advocate for. Public schools have the capacity to delivery that education. Towards that end, I work to actively engage them with the knowledge, skills, and abilities they need to transform their own educations and the educations of succeeding generations; I also work directly with educators, school leaders, and community advocates to transform public schools to become the kinds of places that infuse the “passion, free will, freedom and joy” of all young people throughout the education system and the democratic society we share. Ultimately, public schools are the only places in society where that collective, conscious enterprise can occur, and in that way I support them.
Critics who suggest that any and every public school is incapable of genuinely benefiting students in any way are generally offering misguided criticism, if only because in the vast majority of schools benefit some of the students some of the time. There are a growing number that make many students richer all the time. I support schools if only because that’s the institution where the vast majority of young people spend their time. I believe we must engage them where they’re at and revolutionize places we can affect, rather than extinguish those places without paying attention to the rest of their lives that may actually be more harmful.
Saul Alinsky once wrote, “True revolutionaries do not flaunt their radicalism. They cut their hair, put on suits and infiltrate the system from within.” I’m going back inside now, and I’ll get quiet again soon. This is why I believe we need to engage in schools.
“The Free Child project is a great idea, but I think it fails to indict the most mountainous, enormous force in society’s hatred and oppression of children: Forced/compulsory schooling. Public schools abuse children in every way possible. Everything about the school environment is antithetical to children’s basic physical needs (food, hydration, elimination, movement, play, connection with parents), emotional needs (connection, safety, freedom and affection) and their creative and intellectual needs. Children are truly treated as hostages in public school, and their passion, free will, freedom and joy are stripped from them and their ability to learn. You cannot work for children’s rights as long as you support a system that was designed to oppress children. Please consider working with the unschooling and Attachment Parenting movement.”
Curious about how to respond, yesterday I took the liberty of posting this comment verbatim to The Freechild Project facebook page. It received more views than average posts, and elicited some impassioned responses from readers. You can read that conversation.
While Couture’s position is thorough and not wholly wrong, her analysis is ultimately misguided and ill-thought through. In America, the privilege of leaving school and succeeding in life by one’s own terms belongs mostly to well-to-do white people. Similar to how the experience Couture describes isn’t true for all students, the experience of dropping out is rarely positive for most students.
Stay tuned for updates, but know that this is why I do what I do. And this. Why are you doing what you do?