By Father Jeremy Tobin, OPraem
It is August in Mississippi. School is back in session. Everywhere you go, in the grocery stores, you see school supplies displayed prominently. You see printed lists of supplies and books for various schools and teachers. School busses are rolling. It is the annual rite of mid-summer, moving into fall.
I want to reflect on education as a tool for liberation. Children returning to school is encouraging to all of us, but there is a lot more. It begins with the human thirst “to know,” “to discover,” “to explore.” It begins right after infancy. Little children sitting on the floor in the kitchen, opening all the doors they can reach, and pulling everything out on the floor. They are exploring their world. Parents “baby proof their houses” but the instinct to know and to explore is built in all of us from infancy on.
When the desire to know and discover is frustrated or blocked can lead to all manner of psychological ills. When children light up after learning something new is hope for all of us. School is many things, but also a laboratory for growth and development. Teachers mold and shape this, and they prepare our future leaders. They can never be paid enough for what they do.
Back to liberation. The ability to read and comprehend and analyze in order to improve living conditions for people can only come from education. Developing writing skills enables others to learn and educate themselves and see the possibility for change. Social justice organizations will have writing workshops or contests for young people to explore and express new ideas. Giving them a safe space and permission to say what they are thinking is education for liberation.
This goes on throughout life. The traditional steps through higher education or graduate school continues, only we call it training. Teaching people to think critically is crucial in forming an educated public. Critical thinking transcends ideology. It evaluates, changes, even eliminates ideas that are causing harm to people. In educating for liberation we must teach people not to be afraid of a new idea. We hear colleagues speak of spending time at a training for some new specialty, or a new approach to accomplish their goals.
There is a certain amount of humility in all of this. The attitude of going through life as a “perpetual student” having an open mind, and not being afraid of something new and different, is in itself, a liberating experience. It is a positive attitude that wards away boredom. The critical mind set accepts new things or rejects new things, but it has a reason to do so. Merely reacting negatively demonstrates a closed mind and an attitude of fear.
We can speak of education as a tool for liberation, but the first thing we have to do is liberate ourselves. The little child on the floor emptying out the cabinets in front of him has no fear. He does not know what fear is. It is all about exploring and discovery.
Of course as we grow we learn what is safe and unsafe. We develop a healthy fear that is akin to caution and discernment. All that is growing up. What we develop over the years is a healthy curiosity, a desire to learn and to know.
I began this piece thinking that education as a tool for liberation in a political frame, but more importantly it is about liberating oneself. In doing so we develop courage and confidence. This is so important in facing a world that is trying to scare the bejeebies out of us, and most of that is bogus.
Fear is the opposite of freedom or liberation. People who are afraid are not free. Knowledge and critical thinking eliminates fear.
Education is many things. It is what kids learn in school and lifelong human development open to everyone.
Self- liberation is basic to any social change. Look at the leaders who made the social changes in the past century. They were free persons. They owned their ideas and they had courage to move forward. They were able to think critically and express themselves. They could even face death in the face and not flinch.
Education is a life-long project. Whether young or old it is seeing opportunities to learn new things and do new thing. It keeps old folks young and young folks energized.
(Father Jeremy Tobin, O.Praem, lives at the Priory of St. Moses the Black, Jackson.)