Education, Democracy, and Wheels In the Head

Notes for IDS 6937 Class on July 22, 2004

Spring clarifies his central metaphor as follows:

[39-40] for Stirner, the test of whether a person selects an idea or belief—as opposed to it being planted in the mind by an outside force such as schools—is the ability of that person to get rid of that idea or belief.  Stirner writes, “The thought is my own only when I have no misgiving about bringing it in danger of death every moment, when I do not have to fear its loss as a loss for me, a loss of me.” Stirner refers to any thought that an individual cannot give up as a “wheel in the head.”  For Stirner, an idea or belief that is a wheel in the head owns the individual, as opposed to thoughts that individuals own and can use for their own benefit….
  Ownership of the self, Stirner argues, means elimination of wheels in the head.1

As he notes on p. 3, his goal is “to find a means for making schools sources of freedom and political power in contrast to institutions of social control and political despotism.”

     As he sees it, the flaw in authoritarian systems of education (from Plato to Makarenko—pp. 3-12) is that these thinkers must believe [12] “that particular individuals or groups have the ability and authority to know what is good for the rest of the population.  In most cases, what is defined as the common good is really what is good for the group making the definition.”

    Unfortunately, he maintains, [15] democratic governments are faced with two major problems in establishing schools.  The first is the ability of elected officials, special-interest groups, and the majority of voters to control the content of education….The second problem is identifying a source of authority that will determine what should be taught in government-operated schools.

Spring discusses the views of Amy Gutmann, John Dewey, and Henry Giroux in this regard concluding that [24] “implied in Gutmann’s and Dewey’s arguments is the idea that the school must be authoritarian in demanding a certain type of education in order to maintain a democratic state.

[27] Like Gutmann’s and Dewey’s theories, Giroux’s theories also can be criticized for imposing a value system—in this case, critical pedagogy—on students who might not want to adopt that style of thinking.  The objections might come most strongly from those religious groups I noted earlier in this chapter, who believe that a god has proclaimed the correct way to live.  For the same reasons that these groups might object to Gutmann’s principle of nonrepression of thinking about alternatives to the good life and to Dewey’s belief that truth and knowledge are products of social relationships, they would raise similar objections to critical pedagogy.

--Question: can an educational system not “impose a value system?”  Should a democracy not do so?  Is this what Perkinson wants?2
[33-46] He discusses what he calls “dissenting traditions” regarding the role of government in education, discussing Robert Molesworth, William Godwin, Max Stirner, and J.S. Mill.
[42-43] ...Dewey’s and Giroux’s instructional methods are each based on a particular concept of the origin of knowledge.  Since neither the methods nor their underlying assumptions have ever been proved, the possibility of creating better methods of equalizing power in a democratic society exists.  Therefore, any instruction that places the methodology into the mind of students could create a situation in which the methodology and the ideal behind it dominate the mind.  Rather than people owning critical methodologies, they are owned by the methodologies imposed on them.  To avoid this problem, Stirner would argue, students must choose the methodology so that they own it.  In this way, people would be able to rid themselves of the methodology when it is no longer useful.  In other words, Stirner would argue against the imposition of any methodology, even one that claims to free people, because people cannot be free if they are controlled by particular ideals, ideas, and methods of thinking.
-Question: can an educational system not “impose a methodology?” Should a democracy not do so?  Is this what Perkinson wants?

[47-61] He then discusses “free schools:” “by the end of the nineteenth century, criticisms of government-operated schools sparked the development of alternative forms of education.  Libertarian-anarchists organized schools that emphasized freedom of thought as a necessary condition for the progress of society….In alternative schools, uniformity of ideas was to be replaced by diversity of ideas.  They believed that diversity of ideas was a necessary condition for freedom of thought” [p. 47].  He discusses Emma Goldman; Francisco Ferrer’s Modern School in Spain; Leo Tolstoy; the Modern School at Stelton, N.J.; A.S. Neill’s Summerhill; and William Reich; and the problems these orientations encounter.

[63-73] He goes on to discuss “free space” and “no schools” orientations, discussing Paul Goodman, Ivan Illich [“deschooling society”], and the White Lion Street Free School.  Again, he finds problems with all these orientations.

[71] When freedom to learn results in no learning, free school advocates are presented with a major dilemma.  Historically, education can be used as a method of control by either denying people an education or imposing a controlling ideology.  However, people who are ignorant of any learning are perhaps the most easily controlled….
  ….Giving a child freedom not to learn can result in restricting the child’s future freedom and happiness.  For instance, without knowledge and understanding of the workings of government and the economic system, people can easily be oppressed and exploited.  Without basic reading, writing, and mathematical skills, people do not have access to history, literature, science, and all other fields of knowledge.

[72] In other words, education is both a source of freedom and happiness and a source of control.  In recent years confusion over this issue has caused many problems for the free school movement.  Many parents scorn the free school movement because they believe their children should learn some particular body of knowledge….
  In addition…meaningful use of freedom of choice requires dome knowledge of what choices one has.

-Question: if education is both a source of freedom and a source of control, then how, in a democracy, can one answer the core questions the book asks: how can we make schools sources of freedom and political power in contrast to institutions of social control and political despotism control?  Specifically, how do we resolve issues regarding (a) the content of education, and (b) the source of authority that will determine what should be taught in government-operated schools?

[77-91] He discusses “cultural unity” and “cultural literacy” and the problems which multi-culturalism raises for this goal.  In this discussion he considers Allan Bloom [The Closing of the American Mind], and E.D. Hirsch [Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know].

[92-104] He also discusses the issue of “national” vs. “world” culture, and the role of global corporations.

[104] …the key factor in reducing discrimination and segregation in education is the exercise of political power by minority cultures over the schools serving their children.
  Finally, I believe that all forms of culturally-based education must include an education in human rights.  However, this proposition raises a whole series of questions.  Is human rights education a form of cultural imposition?  Are human rights doctrines compatible with multiculturalism?  Does human rights become another wheel in the head?
-Question: well, somehow the book seems to take a turn here, doesn’t it.  We’ve gone from concern with imposition of a value system, a methodology, and specific content, and concern with who should control the imposition of content and control the teaching, to a view that a rather specific imposition is praiseworthy!

[107-142] He goes on to discuss the clashing views of political liberalism and the politics of gender, considering John Locke [children are wax to be molded], Jean-Jacques Rousseau [nature is good], Mary Wollstonecraft [equal rights and education for both genders], Johann Pestalozzi [“motherly affection for other family members is the foundation for society], Carol Gilligan [male vs. female “reasoning”—rights vs. relationships], and Camille Paglia and the Marquis de Sade [men attempting to escape from female domination].

[145-end] He, finally considers issues surrounding the “pedagogy of the oppressed” and the “pedagogy of love” (Paulo Freire), and ends up with a conception of education based in “universal human rights.”

[145] This chapter will focus on the work of Paulo Freire, who is the most important contemporary philosopher to develop instructional methods designed to end oppression….His instructional methods are designed to raise the level of human consciousness so that those living in a culture of silence can escape what Max Stirner called “the wheels in the head.”3

[146] In the context of his argument, the revolutionary is the lover who, because of love, tries to free all people….his concept of love is directly related to his idea of human consciousness.  People whose consciousness is poorly developed…are characterized by stilted, misdirected sexual lives, while those attaining revolutionary consciousness…can freely express their sexual potential.

[146] “Oppression—overwhelming control—is necrophilic; it is nourished by love of death, not life.”  On the other hand, the biophilic personality is characterized by love of life and a desire to be free and to see all people free.  One goal of Freire’s educational program is to make the necrophilic personality biophilic.

[148] …in Freire’s framework, human consciousness is motivated by necrophilic or biophilic desires that are a product of child-rearing patterns in the family and school.  These desires determine what Freire calls the humanization or dehumanization of consciousness.  By humanization, Freire means a consciousness that desires to think about the world and transform it.  In the context of the biophilic personality, humanization includes a desire for freedom, justice, and the end of alienation and economic exploitation.  By dehumanization, he means a person who supports injustice, oppression, and exploitation.  Dehumanized people do not reflect on the consequences of their actions; they just act according to the prompting of their dominated consciousness.

-[153] To read or write about one’s own actions is a process of objectification.  In this process of objectification, a person reflects on the action embodied in the world.  This process of reflection can transform a person’s future actions.

-[153] One goal of reflection is the expulsion of the oppressor from the consciousness of the participants….
  This process of reflection, according to Freire, can result in the expulsion of the oppressor.  People become aware of how the family, the school, and the economic elite affected their consciousness so that they never realized they had the ability to change the world.  This awareness leads to an understanding of how they were made a part of a culture of silence.  As their understanding increases, the power of the oppressor over their consciousness decreases.

-[154] The expulsion of the oppressor according to Friere, results in a transformation of personality.  As the oppressor is replaced in consciousness by a critical awareness of reality, biophilic love replaces necrophilic love.  Energized by biophilic love, the fully humanized person is driven by a desire to free all people.  It is this passion for freedom that…causes a revolution of the left.  This revolution is primarily a cultural revolution in which Freirean teachers, driven by love of life, help people to understand and transform their lives.

[156] Friere tries to answer the question: Why do the oppressed of the world accept their conditions in a state of silence?  His answer is that the oppressor dominates the consciousness of the oppressed and, consequently, creates a necrophilic personality in the oppressed that desires and loves to be dominated.

[157] …Freire, similarly to many philosophers discussed in this volume, holds out the promise that a particular educational method will lead to freedom, equality of political power, and a loving personality for the oppressed of the world.  And, similarly to other philosophers, his method depends on unproven theories about the human personality.  Do we know for a fact that critical consciousness results in a biophilic personality?  Is one’s level of consciousness a reflection of one’s sex life?  If Freire is wrong about the relationship between Eros and consciousness, then his argument collapses.

[158] I propose that education for political power and freedom of thought and action can be achieved by making it a duty of governments and individuals to ensure a right to an education that includes an education in human rights.  This proposal does involve the planting of “a wheel in the head.”  However, this “wheel in the head” provides protection against authoritarian ideas and domination.  A knowledge of human rights, I maintain, provides protection against “wheels in the head” that control and exploit the individual.
Question: so now, it seems, there are good wheels and bad wheels, and the issue becomes putting the right ones in people’s heads?

[159] He rewrites Article 26, of the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” [1949, United Nations] to emphasize his view of the importance of education that emphasizes universal human rights.

[160-161] According to Spring, human rights are claim rights: ones which “…impose a duty on society and government to ensure that people have the ability to exercise a right.  In contrast, liberty rights provide the tight to do something without the obligation of ensuring that a person can exercise that right.  Liberty rights only require that individuals and government do not interfere with the exercise of liberty.  For instance, the right to an education as a liberty right guarantees that individuals will not be interfered with as they pursue an education for themselves or their children.  It does not guarantee that a person or child can actually receive an education.  As a liberty right, the right to an education places no burdens on society or government to ensure that all people receive an education.
  On the other hand, the right to an education as a claims right places a duty on society and government to ensure that everyone can exercise that right.  If I am taught human rights as claim rights, then I am taught that I have a duty to ensure that all people have the ability to carry out their right to an education.  It is my duty and the duty of all people to guarantee that all people can acquire an education.  A claim right places a general burden on society and government.  If the right to an education includes an education in human rights, then, as a claim right, everyone has the duty to unite in a common struggle to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to exercise this right.

[162] My criterion for identifying human rights is based on the work of…Alan Gewirth.  Gewirth equates human rights with the necessary conditions for human action.  All humans have the right to act.  He provides for major justifications for this approach to human rights.  First, he argues, the existence of conditions for human activity are “undeniably of supreme importance.  Second, he contends, “to tie human rights to the necessary conditions of action is to connect the rights directly with morality, since action is the common subject matter of all moralities.”  In other words, for a person to be moral or engage in moral activities they must be able to engage in purposeful behavior.  Thirdly, he argues, human rights considered as necessary conditions for human actions allow for more specific identification of human rights in contrast to human rights being based on concepts “like ‘dignity’ and ‘flourishing.”
  Gewirth’s fourth justification emphasizes the importance of the duty of all individuals to protect the human rights of others.  In his concept of human rights, “duty” becomes a “moral duty.”  Gewirth contends that grounding human rights in the necessary conditions for human actions provides the possibility of moral activity.

[164-166] Spring’s restatement of the Universal Human Rights Declaration [as claim rights].

-[166] He notes that these rights conflict with the views of various cultures and religions, but contends that the growth of a global economy and of international law provides one justification for maintaining that these rights are “universal,” and “…take precedence over cultural [and religious] differences.”

-[167] Moreover, universal human rights “…might provide a means of protecting cultures.”

-[168] “Therefore, human rights protect cultural and religious differences, while at the same time, require that cultural and religious practices do not violate human rights.”

--Question: isn’t this “garbled?”  He has gone from a potentially dangerous “wheel in the head” to neutral one without making any real change or argument.

[168-169] Instruction in human rights as claim rights, creates a wheel in the head that ensures freedom of thought and democratic action and creates a moral duty that serves as the basis for human relationships.  It resolves the problem of how to teach political ideas without those ideas becoming a source of outside control.  Unlike the patriot who is taught to de for the state, the first lesson in human rights is the right to life.  A student is given the moral duty of protecting other peoples’ rights to life while, at the same time, ensuring their own right to continue living.  Human rights education resolves the problem bothering so many past educators that schooling primarily exists as a method of social control by those with power.

   Now, it seems, my wheels are spinning!


  Joel Spring, Wheels in the Head: Educational Philosophies of Authority, Freedom, and Culture from Socrates to Human Rights (second edition) (N.Y.: McGraw-Hill, 1999), pp. 39-40.  Emphasis added to passage.  Further citations to this work will be accompanied with the appropriate page numbers in the citation, and all emboldened passages are emphases which I have added to the passages.   Back

2  Cf., Henry Perkinson, Teachers Without Goals, Students Without Purposes (N.Y.: McGraw-Hill, 1993).   Back

3 Cf., Tom Hayden and Dick Flacks’s “The Port Huron Statement at 40,” The Nation (August 25, 2002, p. 1.   Back

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