Learning should find its motivation in the natural joys, interests, concerns and curiosities of children. To force children to turn away from these intrinsic motivators, and to put in their stead artificial and extrinsic re-enforcements such as grades and fear of punishment, is to defeat real education before it has started.

The Connection with Health

An adequate education enables people to access information regarding health problems that they might have. Also a degree of literacy is needed to be able to read important health notices in the newspaper or the instructions on a pill bottle. There are less obvious be still important connections between psycho/social health and education. An authoritarian model of education is imposed on children almost everywhere. Such a system of education tends to alienate children and young people from their actual interests and wishes and thus from their essential selves. This alienation has far reaching consequences for the health of both individuals and the society of which they are a part.

Key Issues

Education is a two-edged sword. It can be liberating or oppressive: a tool for social change, or an instrument of social control. Schooling can be used to empower students to think for themselves, analyze their needs, and work together to build a fairer, healthier society. Or it can be used to teach people to obediently accept the unfairness of the status quo and to conform to a social order where some consume more than is healthy while others have too little to meet their basic needs.


Children are naturally curious. Anybody who has raised a child and tried to respond to all the questions he or she asked knows this. Yet conventional educational practice begins with the opposite assumption. It operates from the conviction that children will resist learning and that they will have to be forced into it.

It is ironic that formal education begins by alienating children from their natural curiosity. It does this by first imposing an artificial curriculum on children that has very little if anything to do with their natural interests, needs and concerns. Then it imposes an elaborate system of extrinsic rewards and punishments on children to force them to shift their attention away from matters that are intrinsically interesting to them. In this way most children come to believe that learning is something that they do not like, but are willing to put up with for the sake of good grades and peace in the family. A certain number do not adapt and are labeled as having “attention disorders.”

Children typically learn that their teachers care about their performance but not about them as human beings. Many – perhaps most – teachers resist this. But the system imposes its priorities on the teachers as well as the students. The teachers are themselves evaluated by their capacity to produce measurable changes in the amount of specific bodies of information that the children are to ingest. In her book, “The Challenge to Care in Schools: An Alternative Approach to Education,”1 Nel Noddings has addressed the need to give the issue of caring for children a more central place in educational processes.

Most educational systems are set up to teach children to absorb a quantity of predigested “facts” rather than to seek out information and reflect upon it. Paulo Freire refers to this as the “banking” concept of education. It is a system of education in which “the scope of action allowed to the students extends only as far as receiving, filing, and storing the deposits.” In this way children are turned into “’containers,’ into ‘receptacles,’ to be ‘filled’ by the teacher.”3 Real education, on the other hand, is about learning how so seek out information that is vitally relevant to one’s real interests and concerns and learning to reflect upon this information in a critical manner. Real education must take place in the context of a dialog between adults and children, all of whom are engaged in both learning and teaching.

The “banking” concept of education forces an interminable passivity on the students, who learn that their locus of control, at least during the time they are in school, is outside themselves. They are not consulted about either what they would like to learn or how they might go about learning it. In this situation, students come to view themselves as passive receptacles who are incapable of asserting their own needs or interests, and who are the helpless victims of situations they are powerless to effect. This learning of powerlessness, passivity, and helplessness would seem to be the exact opposite of what one would wish for in a democratic society.

Connections With Other Articles


One of the goals of a humanistic and progressive educational program is to teach children about the interconnectedness of all people, systems, and bodies of information. Ecology is the study of the interconnectedness of all living systems. As Chs. Birch and John Cobb suggest in their book, “The Liberation of Life,”5 an ecological awareness may be the most important thing humanity must learn if it is to have a viable and healthy future. DEMOCRACY

When assessing an educational system, one has to look at the process as well as the content. If we wish to raise children to be emotionally healthy, caring, just, thinking, and actively engaged citizens in a democracy, and yet the processes by which they are taught are alienating, non-caring, unfair, uncritical, passive and authoritarian, then we are not likely to have much success. In such a situation a few people will educate themselves in spite of the system and the majority will become blind followers of questionable authorities. This is not good preparation for participation in a caring, free and democratic society.


An equally strong connection exists between the topic of education and the concerns we have highlighted in the topic we have labeled “humanizing institutions.” Public school in most societies is a highly authoritarian social system. It meets most of the criteria that Irving Goffman delineated as being descriptive of “total institutions.”4 This is true even in Western Democracies. Many children experience school as a kind of prison from which they long to escape. This is a profound contradiction in societies that purport to have a deep commitment to democracy. If humanity is to have a viable and healthy future, perhaps society’s first agenda should be to develop schools where children feel cared for and where they learn to be active participants in an educational experience that is focused on their natural interests and concerns. Then, perhaps, school would be a place where all children – regardless of their interests, needs, or aptitudes – would want to be.         


Educational systems around the world are rift with inequities. In some places girls do not have the same educational opportunities as boys. While this is not true in most developed countries, other inequities are evident in virtually all societies. Schools, for example, are of a lower quality and educational opportunities more limited for blacks and the poor in the United States. Also, because of its highly competitive nature, education tends to be a frustrating, humiliating and painful experience for children who have a somewhat below average capacity for learning language and mathematical skills. Many boys and girls in this situation attempt to protect their fragile self-esteem by not trying. It is, after all, more embarrassing to fail at something when you have given it your best effort than if you make little or no effort.

Inequity, regardless of absolute levels of wealth, has been found to be strongly associated with poor school performance. A rather dramatic drop in reading test scores in England between 1985 and 1989 correlated with a dramatic increase in income inequity during the same period of time. The change in reading scores did not correlate with shifts in either teaching philosophies or the use of different texts.2  

Education is not just for children, of course. It should be a continuing aspect of ones whole life. Most adults receive their continuing education largely through the media. Issues related to the freedom and independence of the media are, therefore, strongly connected to the issue of education. In order to read a newspaper intelligently, a person be able to think. Without this capacity the population in a country are easily influenced by any distorted versions of reality that might be propagated in the media. It is hard to imagine a poorer preparation for assessing and using the mass media in a meaningful way than what Freire described as the “banking” concept of education.

What Can Be Done?

If we are going to educate children to become active shapers and builders of the environments in which they live, we need to be good examples. There are a number of things you or I might do to address the need for creating more equitable, democratic, and caring educational systems: Get elected to the local school board. Learn more about alternative forms of education – their rationals and their accomplishment. Initiate political debates about education through letters to the editor. Support students when they ask for more of a say in their schools. Demand that they be represented on the school board. Press for more student centered approaches in local schools – approaches that embody the principles of care, democracy and equity. Find out what policies elected officials believe in, and support those with more progressive notions. Advocate for free educational opportunity – through college – for all people.


1.Noddings, Nel. The Challenge to Care in Schools: An Alternative Approach to Education, New York: Teacher College Press, 1992. 2. Wilkinson, Richard G. Unhealthy Societies: The Afflictions of Inequality, London: Routledge Press, 1996, pp. 159-162. 3.Frerire, Paulo, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, New York, Continuum, 2002, pg. 72. 4.Goffman, Erving, Asylums: Essays On The Social Situation Of Mental Patients And Other Inmates,, Chicago, Ill. : Aldine Pub. Co., 1962. 5.Birch, Charles, and Cobb, John; The Liberation of Life: From the Cell to the Community, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981.