Independent, Critical Thinkers and Schooling


‘We are only puppets, our strings are being pulled by unknown forces.’ Danton’s Death: Buchner

The French playwright, Olympe de Gouges, the writer of the ‘Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen,’ criticised the French Revolutionary Regime, complaining ‘equality’ did not seem to include female suffrage. She wrote that: “My aim IS TO SPEAK TO YOU FREELY” and that: “The free expression of thoughts and opinions is one of the most precious rights of woman…” She continued: “Let us move on and reflect on the frightful position that women held in society; given that a system of national education is now being contemplated, let us see if our wise Legislators will be rational in their consideration of the education of women.” She was guillotined for her fearless and outspoken words during ‘the Terror’ on 3rd November 1793. How tolerant of free expression can a society be?

How independent and free to think critically do we want our students to be? How far can they be free to disagree with their teachers? If the teacher is able to let go and is truly able to teach the student to be free of them, then we are performing a service that might be deemed ‘child centred’, in that the child, once free of the institution, has it within their grasp to be, forever free of that institution. Can the institution, the school or university tolerate individual freedom whilst the student is part of the institution or, in the name of equality, tolerance or respect, will it be stamped upon?

We might believe, strongly, that the values of the institution are the right ones for that child and that our institutional values will see that child through into adulthood but if we forever want that child to reflect the values of the institution this is far from a child-centred education, it is more ‘institution-centred’.

Can a school shape a child? Boris Johnson and David Cameron are known as ‘Old Etonians’ – no matter what they do they will find it hard to escape the epigram OE that is knitted into our consciousness of them. Is it that that school had an impact on these two or is it just the prejudices of we onlookers wishing that OE means something, maybe, privilege?

To what extent should a school go to deny freedom to those who want to go against the grain? Jenny Beavan the Oscar and Bafta winning costume designer for the Mad Max ‘Fury Road’ movie shows that standing out, going against the grain, still causes ructions… But as she says: “I am British with a slightly rebellious character…” implying that the nation of her birth and rebelliousness have a symbiotic relationship, if she had worn those clothes every day to school, what would have become of her?

If we teach a child to adopt, forever, the beliefs of an institution so that they might forever obey those beliefs then we are not inculcating an education for freedom but one of servitude. If we dictate and impose the ‘British’ values of ‘democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs…’ by repressing the individual liberty of someone who pushes the boundaries of what might be meant by ‘mutual respect and tolerance’ we act in a way that Olympe de Gouges might have recognised. Mutual respect and tolerance, can be an imposition, in much the same way as ‘equality’ was after the French Revolution, as one might be denying ‘individual liberty’ in order to ensure that ‘tolerance’ is shown. This is why we end up with such utterances as ‘intolerant of intolerance’; a moral dilemma that ought to be discussed rather than taken at face value.

Character education, values, beliefs, all sound great when they are values and beliefs you agree with and character traits you can warm to, but if schools have the power to shape the values, beliefs and characters of the next generation would we want everyone to be carbon copies of each other? How much freedom would we deny the school leaver in order to ensure they were carbon copies of a school values statement?

The rogue, the anarchist, the egoist, the sceptic, the awkward outlier, the shy, the introvert, the gritless, the witty and the witless… How many of these awkward cusses would survive in a new world order made out of the demands of school centred values? With a broad curriculum, a range of teachers and approaches and experiences, most children can find their niche, but in a narrower curriculum faced with the same old, same old, the same old children might struggle to find a ‘home’.

What about the rude, the right wing, the vile… according to Wikipedia, Kew-Forest School in New York: ‘provides a safe, nurturing, and intellectually vigorous environment that inspires every student to explore and expand creative interests, to apply courageous and innovative thinking, and to become an ethical contributor to ever-widening communities. Kew-Forest students develop the skills necessary for pursuing higher education and for acquiring the essential competencies of a responsible citizen.’ At thirteen years old, due to behaviour problems, Donald Trump had to leave this school (though I’m sure its mission statement was different in those days…) he attended instead the New York Military Academy which ‘was founded in 1889 by Charles Jefferson Wright, an American Civil War veteran and former schoolteacher from New Hampshire who believed that a military structure provided the best environment for academic achievement, a philosophy to which the school still adheres.’ Now, maybe, Trump was formed by his educational experiences, but would we want his character, beliefs and values to be tempered and formed by his school(s)? Would the world be better off if Trump was a different kinda guy? (Don’t answer that…)

Maybe a school can help with, socialisation, ’emotional intelligence’ or ‘manners’, within the microcosm of society that the school represents, but ought it encourage independence of thought? If a child is free to leave an institution so that they can then go ahead and forge their own way, even if that way flies in the face of the values that the school might have wished them to have, is that not preferable to a conveyor belt of similars being produced to a design deigned to be correct in the staff room?

How much freedom can an educational institution endure? Free speech, we’re banning it; the right to offend, we’re offended by it; eccentricity, we can tolerate it as long as it’s in your own home, in your own time, it’s not on Facebook and nobody knows about it… if not, there’s probably a therapist for it; politically incorrect? There’s a punishment for that…

When we say we want independent, creative and critical thinkers do our schools really have the power to achieve this and, if they do, can we tolerate a good degree of freedom within our walls to show we value these aims or do we wish to turn out independent, critically thinking clones of ourselves who agree with our every value and utterance?

An education that fosters individual liberty is a difficult aim to have, I wonder if it is an achievable one.

10 thoughts on “Independent, Critical Thinkers and Schooling

  1. I interpret “child centred” to mean that my instruction is designed in the best way for the learner to learn the material, be that facts, concepts, procedures or higher order thinking skills.

    This contrasts with me teaching the material in a way that suits me to teach it. This for me is “teacher centred”.

    “Content centred” would be where the instruction/learning was designed around the material to be learnt, the concepts to be mastered or the procedures to be applied.

    I feel that “individual liberty” is an unrelated issue. Individual liberty is something someone takes if they have the power. I try to empower.

    An interesting post.


  2. I’m not sure there is a solution for this dilemma. It doesn’t help that there is no clearly defined definition for what it means to be “educated”, although everyone has an opinion about it. It also doesn’t help that for most people, to be “educated” involves a process called “school” by which certain facts, habits of mind, and values are conveyed.

    Maybe it doesn’t matter. For what it’s worth, it’s never been at all obvious to me that any policymaker saying they want schools to help students become “critical thinkers” is telling the truth.


  3. Interesting post. I think that this gets to the heart of the issue but I don’t come to the same conclusion. Institutions can hinder critical thinking BUT so can individuals and for very different reasons.

    The main issue here is that it is not critical thinkers who are educating children, it is a bunch of people who see themselves as rebellious when in fact they are simply a group of sheep spouting the words critical thinking without being able to do it themselves.

    The most telling thing about this is that there has been no majority revision of the class Progressive education theories or ideas. How long did it take to get from Marxism to neo-Marxism? For it’s application in other socieities to bring up issues that Marx had not envisaged? Yet not one of the advocates of critical thinking – including Sir Ken can put together a coherent revised theory from Dewey, Freire, etc.

    The social justice warriors were not produced by traditionalists – who actually managed to produce revolutionaries in their institutions! It is empty sheep like spouting of messages – which ironically is what the far left ends up insisting on – a la big brother.


  4. Thanks for this Martin – a serious question I find myself thinking about allot, so it’s great to be able to connect with others here who find this problem interesting.

    The thing with any typical school, especially for teens as we start to get a sense of what we can and can’t do ourselves, is they are either all or nothing. As a student who knew (and quite enjoyed the freedom of figuring out) how to get top marks in the exams we have to take, I didn’t need all the lessons where my wonderful teachers spent time teaching syllabus content, revision and exam practice – I was happier and more efficient doing those things myself, but had to kill that time in class anyhow, while other student’s valued those lessons the most.

    If I’d once felt like I could speak freely about my own education, without judgement, I’d have requested permission to only attend lessons I felt would help me personally. Even to think this way felt wrong at the time – who am I to be critical of this education I’m so fortunate to receive? So I shut down, took what I could. Formal education taught me that all I had to offer this world is to do well what other people imagine for me.

    Students are beginning to see and follow my Beyond the Box work now (alongside parents, teachers and ex-teachers) and recently one asked me a question I’ve seen many times on student forums, namely; “Hi Leah – How did you deal with incompetent, lazy or unbothered teachers?” The audio reply I’ve created for the student sparked critical thinking where it was about to end. It’s here – – and teachers may feel defensive listening to it, until the last section. I’d be interested in your thoughts Martin and indeed to hear any feedback from the others in this thread.


  5. I’m less concerned about coerciveness of formal institutions or authority figures when they can be openly shamed, as in your piece. I am more concerned about the consequences of indoctrinating large numbers of young people who are not only opposed to contrarian ideas, not only underexposed to them, but taught behaviour that amounts to the prevention of contrarian ideas being expressed.

    Conservative thinkers are nowadays accustomed to being shut down on campuses. I can list a dozen instances in Canada in the past few years. When I say “shut down” I mean not only banned by university administrations from speaking on campus (this has, shamefully, happened a few times) but also, when they do come, are met by wild and unruly mobs, often with a threat of physical violence to the extent that campus security or civic police request the event be cancelled because of the predicted behaviour of students OPPOSED to the ideas being given a hearing in the first place.

    In the U.S. there is now pushback against this behaviour — and the ugly behaviour has no intelligent response beyond amplifying their shrill objections and increasing the scale of their thuggish actions.

    Three recent events, all with predictable outcomes:

    A series of talks by Conservative writer Ben Shapiro discussing precisely this (i.e., when diversity is a problem — meaning when diversity of THOUGHT on campus is seen as such a problem that conservatives — today’s dissenters on campus — must be met with violence and silenced). His recent talk at CSULA is a must-watch in this regard. Note the complete lack of irony or self-awareness in these “protesters”.
    Also check out the scenes outside the hall

    You can look up filmmaker, president of King’s College and outspoken conservative Dinesh D’Souza’s recent speech series at various campusses focussed on the suppression of speech (of Conservatives) and — was met by students and administrators eager to suppress his speech. D’Souza is no stranger to suppression tactics. He is, after all one of only two filmmakers (that I know of at any rate) who have been convicted of petty crimes and incarcerated, quite transparently in response to films they have made which the Obama administration finds objectionable — in D’Souza’s case a blockbuster political documenter, — the second-highest earning political documentary of all time — that was critical of the president.

    Even more outrageous, from a certain angle, is Milo Yanopoulis (outspoken homosexual and conservative) and Christina Hoff summers (conservative feminist) in their appropriately named speaking tour on fixing femism, “Calm Down: Restoring Common Sense to Feminism”. Check out the childish response:


  6. Excellent blog- reminded me of Giles Cooper’s brilliant ‘Unman, Wittering and Zigo’ and the terrifying outcome of total compliance.


  7. Thanks Martin – I’m a bit late to the ball, so many won’t read this.

    I think a few of your commentaters haven’t really got the heart of your conundrum Martin.

    No, we can’t escape this. There is no perfect option for educating our children to be free of our values, because that ideal is itself one of our values – poised to be imposed on our children.

    I can imagine a child (I have 4 children of my own, and I have REALLY imagined this situation with concern) who later spits on me with derision because I have withheld opinions and advice from them in the interest of them being ‘free’.

    It is the natural order of things that humans thrive on freedom.

    Yet, it is the natural order of things that species pass down to their offspring the best wisdom that they have to offer – not just in knowledge of ‘things’ but also knowledge of ‘oughts’.

    Creative types often point to the necessity of having constraints for them to be able to properly exercise their creativity. And “There is no right choice other than that which we make it to be…” or something suchlike.

    The bottom line is that we need to accept the following: Freedom is only as valuable as the playground of principles and opinions which it is gifted the chance to play within. It NEEDS anchor points to help it orientate itself, and indeed human freedom can withstand a lot of ‘oughts’ coming it’s way without it being trampled. In the modern world most of us already have more than enough choice to overwhelm us, and the truth is – there rarely is any best choice from any objective viewpoint. Things are what we make of them.

    Yes, let’s indoctrinate children in what we think is ultimately the best way forward for them. That is both ours and their birthright. But let’s also do it with humility, and the awareness that there is nothing absolute. If we pass that on as well, then we probably will square the circle as best we can.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. My parents would say ‘We’re doing our best because we love you and if you begin to hate us please remember that we’ve never been parents before’ – you mean that kind of humility? I’d have liked that in school. Would have done allot to help me not develop anxiety issues as a student in establishments managed (from the highest levels) in ways that promote certainty over connection and humility.


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