Teaching Freedom: Incorporating the Principles of a Free Society into Pedagogy

by Rachel Davison
Oak Farm Montessori School

and Marsha Familaro Enright*

The Reason, Individualism, Freedom Institute
Teaching Freedom Illustrations‎


Free Enterprise educators are urged to examine their educational principles and align their classroom practice with their advocacy of liberty by providing a classroom environment that develops the virtues as well as the ideas needed to live in liberty. Such pedagogy has a direct benefit to the educator.  When freedom and autonomy are directly experienced, students become more engaged, interested, and enthusiastic learners and more often adopt the ideas and values of liberty. Combining empirical evidence from Socratic practice and Montessori education with research on development and optimal learning, the authors suggest ways to create such a classroom culture.


“To consider the school as the place where instruction is given is one point of view.  But to consider the school as a preparation for life is another. In the latter case, the school
must satisfy all the needs of life. ”
Maria Montessori (1994, p. 5)

I. Schooling Versus Autonomy

When we think of free societies, we often think of industry, free markets and minimal government. But real freedom starts within, with self-understanding, self-responsibility, self-direction, determination, and a nimble ability to adapt to life’s challenges.

If young people are schooled in the facts about the overwhelming advantages of a free society, and how to reason well about them, and they study the full range of great ideas, the likelihood that they will be convinced of the ideas underpinning a free society goes up greatly because the facts are on the side of freedom.

Yet, it’s one thing to be lectured to about liberty and the virtues needed for it; it’s another to know how to act in freedom. It’s valuable to know the ideas of liberty, but can you apply them in your life? Where do you learn how? As Aristotle said: “For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.” (Book II, Chapter 1)

It’s one thing to believe in the ideas abstractly; it’s another to experience what such a society would be like—and to be motivated to achieve it.

To build a free world, we need people at many levels of society and in many areas—

business, the trades, the arts, medicine, journalists, as well as intellectuals and professors—with the ideas, values, and habits friendly to liberty. This is where a sound, liberal education is essential.

With history as the measure, it’s clear that free society advocates don’t need to be a majority to significantly change the culture. But they need to be a significant, knowledgeable, and active minority. Such a minority made the progress towards full freedom and individual rights possible in Britain; such a minority in the American Colonies was instrumental in achieving independence from Britain.

Unlike the American Colonists, none of us has been raised in a highly self-reliant society of the Enlightenment Era—did we have the chance to develop the habits needed to embody its values? To act in our families, among our friends, in our towns and cities, the way a free person should act? To have the skills and force of personality to implement the changes needed to make our lives better and freer, whatever our professions, associations and interests?

Educators familiar with the facts, history, and ideas of free societies and spontaneous order understand the value of dispersed and localized knowledge and the prosperity and flourishing that results from individuals peacefully collaborating as trading partners.

What they might not have considered is the way in which the classroom is a micro-society in which students learn how to behave in the larger world and whether their classrooms reflect the social relationships, the virtues, and the psychological conditions that sustain and advance the behavior of free people. Educators have the opportunity to craft an experience in which students learn how to behave as self-reliant, independent, self-responsible individuals.

The modern classroom, from grade school to graduate school, relies heavily on a structure of a single arbiter of knowledge, often in the position of lecturer, discussion leader, knowledge authority, and director of learning. Directed group lessons in traditional grade school and lectures in higher education are favored methodologies of the traditional method of education.

The teaching paradigm encourages an authority to convey the “right” answers to the waiting student-receptacles. Yet, this top-down environment is counter-productive to conveying the ideas, values, and virtues of a free society.

In the traditional teaching model, students are considered passive empty vessels, to be filled with knowledge by the academic authority, rather than active agents in their own learning.

This model is a legacy of the movement to economically mass-educate the populace and is literally based on factory organization, i.e. everyone doing the same thing at the same time for mass production.

How is a young person supposed to learn to be an autonomous individual if he or she is being treated like an empty vessel to be filled with knowledge? What opportunities are students give to learn and practice the skills of a self-reliant, independent, and self-responsible individual?

If we are aiming to foster a society driven by free enterprise, shouldn’t the pedagogy of our classrooms align with those values?

Traditionally, “learning” is measured by the amount of information the instructor has offered which the student is able to reiterate on tests and in papers. How does the instructor know if real understanding has been achieved? Whether the student has deeply incorporated the instructor’s information and ideas into his or her thinking? Whether the student can use this information in his or her life?

Consider the psychological effects of the traditional methods of teaching in which:

  1. The teacher is the repository of truth.
  2. The student is taught one line of reasoning given in the lecture or presentation.
  3. The student is the receiver, not initiator of learning.

In this paradigm:

How does the student learn how to arrive at truth himself?

How does the student learn that there are multiple ways of approaching a problem?

How does the student learn to find subjects of interest to himself, individually, and know how to go about the process of learning new material?

If students have no skills in these processes, how can they grow into autonomous individuals, arriving at their own conclusions and navigating all the choices and opportunities which freedom presents?

“‘Autonomy’ suggests, strictly speaking, that one gives or has given laws to oneself; that one is self-governing; that in essentials one obeys one’s own imperatives.” (Kaufmann, 1980,15).

The conditions of freedom cannot be consistently and sufficiently conveyed in a traditional, lecture-based environment because it does not provide the individual with opportunities to learn how to be a free, autonomous person.

Advocates of reason and freedom understand that the mind cannot be forced to accept truth. Nor does the social pressure of authority or peers result in a real understanding of truth, and certainly not the first-hand comprehension and autonomy of the innovator. Neither does a top-down environment cultivate an independent person’s ability to fight for his or her individual freedom.

To acquire truth, each person must observe and reflect on facts for him- or herself. Each person must compare and contrast, analyze and synthesize those facts, for him- or herself. Each person develops ideas, from those facts within him- or herself. Each person must integrate one set of facts with another, one set of ideas with another, for him- or herself. This is the only way to arrive at truth, since an understanding of truth cannot be transferred directly from one mind to another.

If a classroom structure can serve as the sandbox in which to practice how to live as a free person, then the independence of rational inquiry and the development of rational judgment, need to be incorporated into that sandbox.

Advocates of a free society understand the value and power of the dispersed and localized knowledge of the individual within the structure of a market, the creativity it unleashes and the flourishing that results.  In turn, the micro-society of a classroom structure that endeavors to encourage the exchange of ideas between individuals, while still incorporating the guidance and expertise of the educator, mirrors the creative process of the market. This is impossible in a strictly lecture structure, and difficult in many discussion structures.

Free society educators can endeavor to construct a classroom structure parallel to a market with a productive exchange of ideas between individuals, while still incorporating the guidance and expertise of the educator.

Such a classroom offers the student the opportunity to develop and practice the skills of rational independence, creative thinking, collaborative exchange, honesty, objectivity, justice, and honor—all skills and virtues valuable and necessary in a free society.


II. The Principled Pedagogy of Freedom

“The greatest [obstacle for] an attempt to give freedom to the child and to bring its powers to light does not lie in finding a form of education which realizes these aims. It lies rather in overcoming the prejudices which the adult has formed in this regard.”

Maria Montessori (1955, p.48)

Developmental and cognitive research, plus over 100 years of experience using the Montessori philosophy of education argues that optimal learning occurs through freedom within a structured environment, where the following conditions are present (Lillard, 2005, passim):

  • The instructor is informed about and alert to the developmental needs of the young adult student,
  • Questions are actively encouraged by classroom methodology,
  • Instructor’s activities are modified based on the interests of the students, within the limits of the studied material,
  • Activities are crafted with optimal learning conditions in mind, ones that engage the needs, attentions, and interests of young adults.

Methodologies rooted in the Montessori educational philosophy encourage individualism and self-reliance, foster individual development, unfettered creative discovery, exploration, and integration of newideas. In support of this claim, researchers have recently identified the unusual number of highly creative people who were Montessori students (Sims, 2011).

Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page, French cooking evangelist Julia Child, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos are among the many unusually creative and capable people with a Montessori background. Some insist this type of education was instrumental in their radical creativity.

For example, Brin and Page have identified the individually-driven exploration of the Montessori classrooms as a major source of their willingness to try new things and think out of the box again and again. (Goodwin, 2012)

The environment created in a Montessori classroom relates to the well-known facts of spontaneous order: The discovery of truth, the correct identification of life-supporting facts, is not a centralized, top-down procedure. Instead, it results from a complex process of discovery and argument, demonstrated through the history of thought and the progress of civilization.

Socratic practice, short lesson-lectures and self-selected research projects are examples of classroom strategies for higher education which encourage individual autonomy and contribute to fostering attitudes that are receptive to the complex ideas of freedom.

III. Specialized Discussion Methods and Individualism

“Discipline must come through liberty. . . . We do not consider an individual disciplined only when he has been rendered as artificially silent as a mute and as immovable as a paralytic. He is     an individual annihilated, not disciplined.” Maria Montessori (1912, p. 86)

The classroom is a micro-society in which the social order emerges through the exchange of ideas and values, explicit and implicit, and from the way in which participants interact with each other according to the discussion principles.

The term “Socratic Seminar” is used variously. We are using it here to mean a very particular discussion format and methodology in which students are engaged in examining, analyzing, and discussing the material themselves, first-hand. They are synthesizing the information themselves, rather than having it handed to them. It is an active learning environment. Michael Strong’s book, The Habit of Thought: From Socratic Seminars to Socratic Practice well describes this particular methodology and its benefits.

Socratic Practice harnesses important and powerful social-psychological elements that encourage a freedom-oriented classroom culture while increasing learning. It is a process of collaborative inquiry which develops fact-based reasoning, objectivity, listening skills, and team work for problem-solving.

Seminars run by the principles of Socratic Practice function as a market of ideas, where reason, combined with the invisible hand of individual self-interest, results in greater knowledge, reasoning, and social skills for all. As a collaborative learning experience, it taps into all the advantages of learning by imitation; it’s an opportunity to see multiple ways to reason on the same materials. Research by the Jasper Project on Cognition and Learning at Vanderbilt University shows meaningful group problem-solving results in superior learning (Jasper Project, 2000).

“One particular thing that I learned at Queen’s [College]—both from faculty and students—was how to work collaboratively with smart people and make use of the Socratic method to achieve commonality of purpose.”  Billionaire founder of Paypal, SpaceX, and Tesla Motors, Elon Musk

This method requires each participant to focus on what exactly is said in the text, and what can be surmised from it; the instructor guides the discussion with incisive questions and by requiring the participants to stick to the facts of the work when arguing their opinions.

  • All opinions must be grounded by reference to the work studied, developing the habit of fact-based judgment and objectivity.
  • The teacher acts as a facilitator, encouraging the students to use their own minds to find the meaning of the text; the teacher does not act as an authority on the text.  The best reasoning is the highest authority.
  • The teacher demonstrates and encourages questions and thinking in different ways when approaching the material. The points of view and questions of the different participants demonstrate how material can be approached in a variety of ways. This outcome encourages creativity by illustrating many ways to reason about the same issue. Consequently, not only excellent deductive reasoning, but creative, inductive reasoning is encouraged.
  • Participants effectively trade their knowledge and skills by example.

These elements work together to strengthen student reasoning skills and instantiate the value of individual differences.  Displays of inordinate knowledge about a subject are irrelevant and discouraged because each discussion member cannot verify them. This reduces non-productive jostling for social position. Reason’s authority is the great equalizer and students come to appreciate each other as helpers in their learning. This results in a psychologically safe environment, which encourages exploration and creativity.

At the end of every Socratic seminar, the instructor guides a “debrief,” a self-reflective discussion in which each participant comments on what went well and what could be improved. The beneficial effects are:

  • Significant improvement in the discussions from one session to the next by raising conscious awareness about participant actions and interactions,
  • Participants learn to be equally responsible for the quality of the inquiry,
  • A culture of equality among peers is established, including the instructor; the instructor and other participants values each individual’s thoughts and reactions, while the best reasoning remains the highest authority; Mastery Learning research on how individuals acquire mastery in knowledge and skills found that the attitude of the teacher seriously affects the students self-image and motivation, (Dweck, 1999, passim),
  • The validation of the person of each individual because each person’s participation with rational arguments adds value for the other participants,
  • The encouragement of the habit of taking responsibility, giving validation to the virtues of others, and working together in a rational way.

The discussions improve radically from one session to another because of the awareness generated by the debrief, and the expectation of achievement and cooperation. These methods benefit from the strengths of peer-learning and exchange (Brown, et al., 1989, Orr, 1987).

In Socratic Practice, the teacher uses his or her expertise to craft the entire environment of the class:

  • Physical:
    • Every participant sits in a circle facing all the others as equal intellectual explorers.
    • The room is well-lit and comfortable to enhance concentration.
    • No phones or outside distractions are allowed.
  • Cognitive:
    • Works are chosen and taught in a purposeful order, so that students can discover their meaning and connections themselves and find joy in doing so. They are invited to engage with the material rather than passively receive it.
    • Focus is on paying attention to the deepest meaning of the works studied and each other through questions of clarification, i.e. what does the other person mean?
    • Solid evidence and reasoning are required for all opinions.
  • Social:
    • The instructor takes a limited role and gives feedback in a way that is kind, but honest, encouraging student awareness of each other, and cooperation through self-moderated exchange.
    • Students are encouraged and enlightened as to how to respectfully listen by the instructor’s sincere attempts to hear and understand what the other is saying, before replying.
    • Students are responsible for their own contributions and encourage contributions from others.
  • Psychological:
    • Reflection at the end of the discussion about what went well in the discussion and what can be improved generates a high level of self-awareness and self-generated improvement in learning from session to session.

Csikszentmihalyi’s research on Flow, the psychology of optimal experience, shows that attention is the most limited cognitive resource (Csikszentmihalyi, 1991). But it’s husbanded very well in this type of seminar.

  • Every person’s reasoned contribution is valued; being active makes it easier to pay attention,
  •  The specially selected texts are of deep interest about issues of importance; this makes it highly motivating to pay attention to the discussion.

These skills are enormously practical: a 2014 study by Association of American Colleges and Universities and the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems analyzing Census Bureau data of 3 million U.S. residents found “the overwhelming majority of employers are desperate to hire graduates who have a demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems.” (Samuelson, 2014)

Lastly, students report that these seminars require the best of them; their best thinking, behavior, and awareness of others.

 “You see how much value you have to offer and to add to your own thinking. It’s not a zero sum game like in traditional education where you’re trying to compete with each other and there’s one answer. It’s not “the right answer”; it’s better and better answers. Everyone’s building a mosaic of truth together. We all study one text but there many objective truths in it, you’re benefiting from hearing all these different ways to understand things objectively and truly. And you realize you have something to contribute. It doesn’t have to be the perfect thing, but together it fits with what other people are saying.” –   Michael Natividad, junior, University of Nevada, Las Vegas


IV. Conclusion

“Be careful not to ask [your] questions of the [students]. Only when [students] seek to answer questions which they themselves ask, do they commit themselves to the hard work of finding answers that are meaningful to them…give only as much guidance and encouragement as is necessary to elicit the [students’] interest.” Maria Montessori (1937, p. 26)

Comparing this method to the regular educational system, this unavoidable feeling of frustration comes up: Why, with such a fantastic method, isn’t there a change? The passion in learning that everybody had is proof of this seminar’s effectiveness.”  Tobias Mihura, junior, Clarin High School, Buenos Aires

The authors are sure they have not communicated all the ways in which teachers of free enterprise can encourage the values of a free society in the classroom micro-society. We welcome suggestions and wish to learn from the skills of others. But we urge such teachers to reflect on what kind of habits they are encouraging in their students. We hope that we have triggered reflection on how to develop the virtues needed for freedom.



Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book II, Chapter 1, Moral Virtue

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Csikszentmihalyi, Mihalyi. 1991. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper Perennial.

Dweck, C.S. (1999).Self-theories: Their role in motivation, personality, and development. Philadelphia: Psychology Press/Tarylor & Francis.

Goodwin, Danny. August 31, 2012. “Maria Montessori Google Doodle: How Montessori Education ‘Programmed’ Google’s Founders.” Search Engine Watch.

Jasper Project on Cognition and Learning. 2000. Vanderbilt University.

Kaufmann, Walter. 1980. Discovering the Mind. New York: McGraw Hill.

Lillard, Angeline. 2005. Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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Montessori, Maria. 1938. The Secret of Childhood. Bombay: Orient Longsman.

Montessori, Maria. 1989 (1955). The Formation of Man. Oxford: Clio Press.

Montessori, Maria, 1994 (1948). From Childhood to Adolescence. Oxford: Clio Press.

Orr, J. (1987). Talking about Machines. Palo Alto: Xerox PARC.

Samuleson, Scott. March 28, 2014. “Would You Hire Socrates?” The Wall Street Journal.

Sims, Peter. April 5, 2011. “The Montessori Mafia.” The Wall Street Journal.

Strong, Michael. 1997. The Habit of Thought: From Socratic Seminars to Socratic Practice. Chapel Hill: New View Publications.

Association of American Colleges and Universities. January, 2014. “Liberal Arts Graduates and Employment: Setting the Record Straight.”


Ms. Enright would like to thank Rachel Davison for initiating the idea of the presentation leading to this paper as well as for her lovely work on the presentation, and K.R. for his encouragement and help with the ideas and vision.

Originally published at the conference site of the Association of Private Enterprise Educators.