The ideals of freedom and self-government are closely intertwined. Self-government relates both to external and internal freedom, a distinction I made in my last post. One is not free in an external sense if one’s life is governed or regulated by another. At the same time, the ability to self-govern requires internal freedom: having control over one’s emotions, impulses, desires, rather than being controlled by them. Failure to govern oneself, due to a lack of internal freedom, will result in decreased external freedom.

I have four children, ages 1 through 10. They are not yet free in an external sense because my wife and I govern them (as do other adults outside the home, like teachers). Our goal as parents is to raise them to be independent of us, a process that extends at least throughout childhood. Thus, they should be progressing in their freedom as they mature. Our four year old cannot walk the dog or stay home by herself, but our ten year old can, because he can govern himself enough to not get lost in the neighborhood or get hit by a car, and to act safely at home or control his fears when we are away. As their ability to self-govern grows, we have to govern them less, and they become more free. One day, they will be out from under our authority, calling their own shots in their own homes, for their own children.

The ability to self-govern relies on what developmental psychologists call “executive functions.” Executive functions are those operations of the mind having to do with goal-setting, strategizing, planning, execution, organization, judgment, and self-control.  Studies have shown that the maturity of one’s executive functions is a significant predictor of future success (more than IQ, SAT scores, etc.) and that these functions are strikingly undeveloped in this current generation of young adults.

I have seen signs of underdeveloped executive functions in my students throughout my teaching career.

I once had a conversation with a basketball coach at my school about preparing our students for life as adults.  He observed that while his players are very faithful to do what he tells them to do in practice and during games, they usually do not exercise their own judgment to make good decisions on the basketball court independently of his orders.  I mentioned a similar observation of students in even my advanced courses:  that they are very responsible to do what I tell them to do, but generally will not work independently to do more than what I tell them to master the curriculum. Most will not do extra work – in the form of extra reading, additional practice on problems, etc. – beyond what it is assigned. And when they are not learning, many will not take it upon themselves to struggle to figure things out, but passively wait for me to intervene to help them. This even describes populations of “good students” – students that are mostly well-behaved, are motivated to do well in school, and have definite life goals for which completing their education are essential

On the other end of the spectrum are “bad students” that often misbehave, have low motivation, and are unsure of their life goals. These students often clash with authority the most, and are frequently subjected to punishment. One of the most common forms of punishment is in-school-suspension (ISS), where students sit in silence all day in an isolated classroom. They are supposed to work all day,  and teachers are responsible to send work to their students who are in ISS for that day.  I believe this duty is reasonable and so I am consistent to do it, but occasionally I forget. It is a common problem, actually, that teachers neglect to send work, and ISS supervisors lament about how students always use not getting work from a teacher as an excuse to do nothing.  I have found that even though students in ISS usually know what chapter we were in, what topic we were doing, or that we had a test coming soon, they do not exercise initiative to do anything productive, but just act like they can not do anything unless the teacher tells them exactly what to do.

I have seen this enough to discern a pattern:  the more rebellious students are (which is why they were in ISS in the first place), the more dependent they are, ironically, on authority.  On the one hand they have contempt for my authority, but on the other they are completely dependent on my authority – they cannot (or will not?) operate without me telling them exactly what to do. Without the abilities to self-govern, self-regulate/manage, set goals and make a plan to achieve them, etc., they need me to do those things for them in my class. Needing me and other adults to govern them, they are not free.

While some of my students self-govern more and thus have better developed executive functions than others, by and large I would describe most of my students over the years (all of whom have been just a year or two away from adulthood) as being in a state of dependence, especially as it pertains to thinking and acquiring knowledge.

Public schools have an important role in sustaining freedom by developing children into adults that are capable of self-governing. I have doubts about whether this is happening to an extent that our country needs to remain free. In subsequent posts, I will describe more indicators I have seen that children have low capacity for self-governing and common policies and practices in schools that discourage self-governing and becoming independent.