Freedom versus autonomy

I just finished reading Herndon’s The Way It Spozed To Be, and it has given me pause for thought.

About half-way thru the book, I summed up Herndon’s approach to myself like this: “teaching as therapy”. Therapy for the students, therapy for the teacher, a way to “work things out of one’s system”. Herndon’s approach is exceedingly hands-off because he feels that students need to work things out themselves.

I looked up and watched 9D organizing itself. It’s really almost impossible for adults, and no doubt especially for adult teachers, to see anything “constructive” going on in a bunch of kids shouting at each other. All the adults can see is just that: kids, all bunced together, yelling at each other. You can’t believe they are doing it for anything you’d call a purpose; they are simply creating a problem… The adults also can’t imagine that this problem is going to cease to exist unless they, the adults, make it cease. They feel that unless they issue orders and directions and threats, the kids will never stop making noise, never stop yelling, never get organized.

This feeling is wrong. The adults are wrong… because almost no one can stand to wait around long enough without doing anything, so that they can see what all the shouting is about, or what might happen when it eventually is over. They can’t stand to, and so they never find out. Never finding out, they assume that there was nothing there… There they were, about fifteen or so kids all in a cluster, standing, shouting at each other… a hundred demands, questions, orders, all at once… But the fact is this outcry was orderly in intent and in effect, for in about four or five minutes it was all over, readers were sitting down, they had books, the audience was getting ready to listen. I doubt very much if 9D could have been organized to read a play in five minutes, even by an experienced teacher with a machine gun.

Self-regulation, that’s what Herndon is aiming at, tho he never uses the word once in the book.

The thing is, Herndon is not afraid to stick to his guns and to see it out, where many teachers (like me) might dabble but then get cold feet when things start to get serious. This points to a difference in attitude and fundamental belief about the nature and purpose of human nature and human existence between Herndon and the school’s administrators.

Here’s Herndon listening to the vice-principal’s lecture for the teachers on the first day:

In order that learning may take place, Miss Bentley was saying, there must first be order… She didn’t do much smiling. She had a job to do… and if she seemed to look us over speculatively it was probably to wonder which of us was going to understand. Which would be able to help – who might hinder? It never occurred to her, I think, that someone might not choose to act the way she thought correct; if some of us didn’t do so, it was because we couldn’t understand. At least, that’s the way I came to think later on in the year. At the time, I wasn’t very interested… My lack of interest wasn’t simply naive, at least not in the way which springs immediately to mind, that of the imaginary progressive eduator who imagines, or has been popularly supposed to imagine, that given a nice, friendly teacher and lots of freedom of action and very little planning, the students will always be good-natured, orderly, interested, motivated, well-behaved and studious, in short, nice themselves. I didn’t doubt that there might be noise, disorder, anarchy, chaos and all that in my own classroom; I just didn’t see that this constituted a “problem” any more than a quiet, studious class was a “problem”…. But what administrations mean when they say “problem” is something which is not supposed to happen, something which happens all the time of course, or it wouldn’t be a “problem”, but which isn’t supposed to happen. A problem. You were supposed to believe in, and work toward, its nonexistence. Noise, quiet. I simply wasn’t making any plans to promote one and forestall the other.

Herndon sums up his approach:

you do what you want to do or can in a classroom, and then you see the result, or something of the result, and then you deal with that as you want to or can. One result isn’t really much better than another, as far as you can tell.

Herndon faces his first class:

After the roll call, I wasn’t quite sure what to do. I had nothing in particular planned, but had counted on the class to give me a hint.

Whoah! Unthinkable! What kind of loon is this? You’re the teacher, you’re supposed to be the man with the plan.

I can’t find the exact quote now, but somewhere in the book he writes about students working stuff out of their systems, implying that what he’s trying to do is give them room and time to do this, hoping that they will eventually discover a self-discipline, an order from within themselves, not one imposed from outside. Herndon gets lots of predictable advice from his colleagues:

My problem was not what to use but how to get the kids to respond in such a way that they learned something… the other kind of advice, which was also the most common and which was useless to me… was a conglomeration of dodges, tricks, gimmicks to get the kids to do what they were spozed to do, that is, whatever the teacher had in mind for them to do.

This last distinction is an important one for Herndon, I feel. Think about it. Is there a difference, or is Herndon just splitting liberal hairs?

It really involved a kind of gerrymandering of the group – promises, favors, warnings, threats, letting you pass out or not pass out paper, sit in a certain place or not, A’s, plusses, stars… The purpose of all these methods was to get and keep an aspect of order, which was reasonable enough, I suppose. But the purpose of this order was supposed to be “so that learning could take place.” So everyone said – not wanting to be guilty of the authoritarian predilection for order for its own sake – while at the same time admitting that most of the kids weren’t learning anything this way.

Herndon spends much of his time (and the book) focussed on his own classes and students, and pretty much ignoring what everyone else is doing. However, at one stage he starts to get hints that he is being observed and judged, and that those judgements are not favourable. Inevitably, Herndon gets fired.

(to be continued)

One thought on “Freedom versus autonomy”

  1. Found your blog looking for the author of “Way its spozed to be.” Thanks for your help. It’s been quite a while since reading and learning from James Herndon. Wanted to recommend him to the new principal of an inner city middle school. Bob Goger (

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