Elizabeth Byrne Ferm

Freedom in Education




This is Chapter IV of Freedom in Education, a series of reflections on education based on the experiences that Elizabeth Ferm accumulated with her husband, Alexis Ferm, in various educational projects and experiments.



In the present struggle for greater freedom of opportunity for the child, there is no greater stumbling block to its realization than the championship it receives from those who hold abstract idealistic conceptions of life and freedom.

Freedom they conceive as a spiral of ascending joy and peace, based upon an environment devoid of all that is harsh and ugly. They encircle the developing child with flowers and sculpture, pictures, music and literature, which are calculated to influence the child's life and mold his character.

The consternation of such well-meaning people, when they find the child repudiating their esthetically prescribed surrounding and creating in its stead an environment of his own, in which he is able to balance his life through struggle and peace, through pain and joy, reveals how unstable and limited their outlook on real life is. They refuse to accept growth which develops through turmoil and friction and pain.

"This is license," they exclaim. "License is not freedom."

Fearfully they gather their strings about the child again - strings which they had never discarded, but only allowed to slacken in their grasp and firmly and determinedly they draw the child back into their gilded cage, where they strive to allure the child into a make-believe life, a make-believe world and a make-believe freedom.

A kindergartner answered my plea for greater freedom for the child by saying, "I tried freedom for one morning. That was enough for me."

As physical freedom simply means opportunity for self-expression, and as life in its endeavor to express itself creates struggle and pain, it is folly to expect only joy, happiness and peace from a free condition or state. Joy is always balanced by pain. Freedom has its bitter and its sweet.

In the primitive conception of life, which the child holds, we find the child, when unrestrained, vigorously manifesting his desires. In his aggressiveness, we find the natural crudity of every initial effort.

When license rears its head in a free association, there is no need to sound an alarm against freedom. The cause of license lies in the limited conception of freedom which the child holds. License is the lowest rung in the ladder of freedom, but we must remember that it is an indispensable rung, which developing man must use in his ascent to fuller and nobler living.

License indicates that desire is not balanced by a sense of values and proportion. License is freedom in the rough, disguised in an uncouth, unpolished form. In its essence, however, it is one and the same as the freedom which we all crave and endeavor to establish. Human association - in the free relation - will speedily remove the rough edges from the early manifestations of freedom.

The child's experience with other humans will, in the order of time, develop his sense of value. To restrict an expression because license is taken betrays a lack of human development - on the part of adults - which equals if it does not exceed that of the child, who conceived license as full and perfect freedom.

Freedom has as many attributes and phases as any other quality in man's consciousness. It cannot be grasped and measured as a static fixed thing. It is always relative to man's state of consciousness and stage of development. It is so dynamic in its quality and force, it becomes elusive, as soon as the individual tries to organize or embody it.

The individual strives to realize freedom in some fixed way, only to find that the way is the path of bondage. All forms of life - whether inorganic or organic - reveal the struggle to be free. But each expresses it differently, showing us that forms of freedom must be as manifold and as fluid as life itself. Man must free himself. And he must attain it through his own development and consciousness.

As A. E. puts it, "Freedom is a virtue of the soul." The only aid, therefore, that adults can give the child in his struggle for freedom is to recognize it as a dynamic force in life, justified by its persistent, insistent and uncontrollable quality.

There is no process for developing freedom; it is in itself a process of development. Free man evolves from youth; free youth from free childhood; free childhood from free infanthood; and free infanthood from free conditions.

We may have ideas of freedom without experiencing any phase of freedom, but there can be no real consciousness or knowledge of the quality of freedom which does not come to us through our own experiences in life.

Our experiences are the result of our conceptions; our conceptions are the result of our impressions; our impressions are the result of our sensations; and our sensations are produced by actual contact with the life and things surrounding us. Such is the law and the order of development.

An infant restricted from free physical movement must carry over into his next physical stage of development, i. e. , the child stage, the expressions which naturally belonged to his infant stage. The fettered expression of one stage of development must be carried over and worked out in another stage. Expressions of infancy in childhood are out of relation. When a thing is out of relation its proportions and true worth are lost.

When an adult acts like a youth, when a youth acts like a child, when a child acts like an infant, the act becomes either silly or repulsive. When, however, an adult conjoins the simple directness of childhood with his mature physical and mental development, his life is rounded and full indeed; but when we find an adult with a consciousness belonging to childhood, we find a stunted, dwarfed development.

In the child's attempt to understand his own life he measures it against the life which surrounds him, by hindering, thwarting and intercepting the progress of the form of life which attracts his attention. If the child sees a fly he may try to catch it. If another child is running past him, he may try to stop the child by catching or tripping him. Such displays of power belong to a child's early development.

When we find grown-ups gauging their power by blocking the progress of others, we may be quite sure that they are exhibiting a state which belonged to an earlier period of development. Every form of exploitation and monopoly is rooted in the same crudity of thought, i.e., that the success of one is attained through another's defeat. The harsh expression of the child - with his limited power to inflict suffering - affects all thoughtful adults disagreeably. We are tempted to divert his interest or influence his act so that his victim may escape him; but when we see indifferent grown-ups inflated with a sense of personal power and greatness through hindering the life expression of animals and humans, we are repelled from such expressions as unworthy of adult life.

If such manifestations expressed true adult development we might despair indeed. But when we see it as the result of earlier influences - which prevented a normal expression - we realize that while we are powerless to undo the evil effect of the past, we can stop perpetuating the conditions which create and foster the evil.

We cannot change grown-ups, but we can save the young by removing the bars which obstruct the natural expressions of humanity. Every life is "particular and unique in itself." Let us cease trying shape and model it.

Every infant born into the world is the herald of the instinct, impulse and spirit of freedom. It manifests itself in every infant like new-born effort in the life of humanity.

The infant reveals no heredity of repression or restraint. He comes into the world with an unhampered, unharnessed spirit. He cannot be diverted from his need. No form of cajolery, argument or punishment can alter his set purpose. The infant is free from all the social weapons, i.e., shame and fear. Even physical suffering cannot subdue him. The more punishment you inflict the louder he screams. The history of every conflict with infanthood spells defeat for the adult. The infant rules the household. Every adult - in the infant's kingdom, for that is what it resolves itself into - is a subject during the period of infancy.

The infant is the dominant tone because he is the only free spirit in the home. The struggle between the free spirit of infanthood and the bond-spirit of adulthood must result in victory for the infant. There is no instinct shown in infanthood of domination or control over adult life. The struggle is invited by the adults who supervise and care for the infant. Adults usually greet the infant's entrance upon life with rules and regulations which, when they attempt to impose them on the infant, create opposition. Out of the conflict we find the unconquerable spirit of the infant triumphant and free and the bond spirit of the adults who strove to conquer, vanquished and subjected.

Even on the threshold of child life we find the same impulse of freedom expressed. The child wants to do everything for himself. He wants to dress himself, go up and down stairs alone, get his own chair, etc. With his physical growth, however, he has also developed a discriminating sense which separates and divides the homogeneous and indivisible life of his infant state. The child with his new development of consciousness, is reaching out toward the external. Outside things attract him. He strives to attain them. He soon realizes, however, that the outer things are claimed and controlled by adults, who guard them.

The child desires to possess the thing which attracts his attention. He is impelled by his inner need, to test and prove the quality of the things which surround him. The child soon learns that the outer world is one of privilege and monopoly. The child must bargain and barter with adults if he is to gain his end. "If you are a good boy” - which usually means being negative and submissive - "you may have it." "If you promise mother not to annoy her," etc.

The child is soon caught in the net which will land him a long way from his former free state. The lure of things - which he sees spread before him - entices him on. He cannot retrace his steps, for he does not know by which path he came. Now adults become victorious and the child is vanquished. The inner life of the infant is subordinated to the other thing.

I often ask myself if this surrender is inevitable. Is it involved in the process of human development? Can we avoid the subjugation of the inner life to outer things? Are interfering adults necessary as infanthood merges into childhood? Can we imagine a spontaneous, self-active, self-developing human making progress, continuously, through all the different stages of his development?

I believe that we can do more than imagine such a condition. We have it in our power to realize such a state if we are determined to strive for it.

The greatest understanding attainable by the individual is in knowing himself as a creative being.

Man's contribution and value to society lies in how he has revealed his inner life in his external surroundings, and not by the influence he exerted on the lives of other humans.


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