The challenge is this: to create and maintain an environment in which people can speak freely.
It doesn’t seem terribly difficult does it? Americans are accustomed to free expression. We share our opinions with few reservations, and if we don’t like what we hear from others, we can always change the channel.
But this challenge is different. The free speech environment we need to create is within the walls of a classroom. We can’t just leave if we don’t like it. And we can’t overcome our discomfort simply by suppressing expression that bothers us. We need to maintain an environment, an enclosed environment, in which people can speak freely. That is easier said than done.
So why go to all the trouble? There is a reason schools and classrooms are typically maintained as spaces where behavior is under tight control. It’s easier that way. If there is disorder, it is clear who the authority figure is, and what the solution to the “problem” will be – almost always some variation of sit down and shut up.
But there is something deeply incongruous about teaching children civil liberties in an environment that is innately authoritarian and repressive. Freedom is not something that can be learned in the abstract – it must be practiced.
And it is not like the only alternative to authoritarian control is chaos. Americans have been working on finding a balance between order and liberty since the country began. We generally agree that shouting “fire” in a crowded room with limited exits is a form of expression that might cause real physical harm to others, and may be punished by law without violating the principle of free speech. But we acknowledge that in circumstances where physical harm would not likely result, anyone has the right to startle others, to mislead, even to lie. We have accepted court decisions that carved out restrictions on free speech for “fighting words” and obscenity. But in the war of ideas, we have generally stood back and taken the position – let the best idea win.
Students of American government need to understand not just the rights we are entitled to exercise, and not just the reasonable limitations on those rights, but also the reasons for those limitations.
Students need to understand that there is a difference between democratic government – in which the people’s voices are heard on the way to a consensus formed by a popular vote, and free speech – in which the goal is not consensus but rather acceptance of disagreement.
So I am going to suggest something radical in the context of a traditional American classroom. Put the students in charge and let them figure it out themselves. Establish a few ground rules – but very few. No speech that causes physical harm to anyone. No speech that singles out an individual as a target (we are dealing with children, after all, and we don’t want to protect bullying). No speech that is intended primarily to be offensive, obscene, or insulting to anyone in the room. This takes us into territory that is somewhat subjective, but that is nothing to shy away from. Every community has its own standards, and establishing rules of decorum is one way societies define themselves.
Students should choose from among themselves a moderator for the discussion, or devise rules for an orderly exchange of ideas. It is essential that students maintain their own system of rules for the conversation. That is part of the learning experience – navigating between freedom and order.
Teachers should have little role to play. In fact, the less role they play the better. But since verbal communication is a skill that schools are expected to teach, encouraging students to practice those skills and helping students to articulate ideas is worthwhile and extremely pertinent to the exercise. To that end it is good to have an expert in the room. The usual authority figure is thus set in a support role, stepping in to control things only if the discussion gets out of hand and students can’t seem to hold to their agreed-upon rules. Imagine – the teacher simply teaches, while the students play the role of policeman.
Because this configuration of order and authority is untraditional, it may take some practice to get it working. Much depends on the existing climate and expectations of the school. But the rewards are immeasurable, and the stakes are extraordinarily high.
Freedom of speech, like other civil liberties, is part of a negotiation between individual rights and social responsibilities. The only way we can expect children to understand their rights, and to take their responsibilities seriously, is to give them an opportunity to practice them.