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‘Forbidden Education’: The Dark Side of Traditional Schooling

By: Adam Dubove - @dubdam - Sep 17, 2014, 1:31 pm

Español If we were to survey people in the Americas on the role of education in society, the majority would undoubtedly agree that it is of paramount importance.

The documentary The Forbidden Education presents alternative approaches to traditional school.
The documentary The Forbidden Education presents alternative approaches to traditional school. (The Forbidden Education)

Both governments and NGOs consistently highlight the crucial role that education plays in the development of a society. They concern themselves with designing educational and pedagogical policies, assigning school budgets, and promoting programs to improve test scores and lower dropout rates.

However, these endeavors tend to focus more on the schooling process than on learning itself.

Formal Education

The Forbidden Education is an independent documentary film, produced in Argentina and filmed throughout different parts of Latin America. The first part focuses on the history of our modern education system, its founding principles, and its effect on children.

Since its origins in the late 18th century, the school model has been based in the need for “a docile, obedient public ready for war,” says Rafael González Heck of the Rudolf Steiner College in Chile.

It is no coincidence that the school system as we know it today was conceived in Prussia — the empire that Minister Friedrich von Schrötter once said was not a “country with an army, but an army with a country.”

The core of this education model has remained intact for the last 200 years. Standardized tests, mandatory classes, outdated grading systems, curricula detached from reality, and a centralized, top-down structure are a few of the classic features that have shaped this model for so long.

While economic progress and technological advances have provided us with a quality of life that would have been unthinkable just a few decades ago, schools in the 21st century are a window into the past. During the same period of time that we’ve gone from listening to music on phonographs to portable MP3 players, classrooms have remained virtually unchanged.

Centered in its denial of the individual as unique, schools have developed programs that promote conformity and uniformity, stifling any chance for critical thinking.

To paraphrase Henry Ford, anyone can choose what education he wants, so long as it’s a formal education. In the opinion of several of the educators who participated in this film, a rigid, centralized, and authoritarian structure conspires against the educational development of children. For this reason, they argue education is forbidden.

Education beyond the State

In the second part of the documentary, filmmakers present interviews with dozens of educators from various Latin-American countries and Spain, and offer alternatives to government schools.

The film focuses here on alternative pedagogical approaches, each based on granting greater independence to students.

“Life is full of choices, and we must learn to take them,” says Vicky Colbert of the New School Foundation in Chile. “Therefore, the organization of all educational material is geared toward allowing all children to make decisions.”

Experimentation is another central feature of alternative pedagogical approaches, many of which are banned in certain countries for failing to conform to the criteria set by authorities.

In contrast to the traditional classroom, where students sit in uncomfortable chairs and try to memorize their teacher’s words to pass the final exam, alternative schools offer students the opportunity to construct their own learning processes. Children are provided a space with educational tools freely available to them, which they can choose to use according to their own tastes and interests. Without the rigidity and the aligned desks, spontaneity and creativity are prevalent.

The film seeks to inform viewers of education models that have been overshadowed by the laws that promote the traditional approach to schooling. It accomplishes this goal, although with some complications.

The differences between each competing theory or approach, and the rationale behind them, however, are not made clear. Faced with a proposal for education that is radically different than the model most are familiar with, the film’s overly abstract statements may give viewers the sense that these are more “hippie-style” proposals, rather than viable alternatives.

Gaps and Absences

Notably absent from The Forbidden Education is the option to homeschool. Parents who choose to educate their children at home are hardly mentioned in the film, despite this being a prominent alternative-education method throughout the world, although often prohibited. The same is true of the more radical “unschooling” method of education.

Given the format of an in-depth documentary lasting over 145 minutes, which at times becomes repetitive, room for parents who have adopted these methods would have been enlightening.

Criticism of government hierarchies is present throughout the film, but it does not address the problems with the vision of the education establishment. The current state of education is dramatized with a fictional story that runs parallel to the film’s interviews and explanations.

The characters are teachers and principals who constantly scream and do not allow their students an opportunity to express their dissent. Although many of us have surely experienced a character like this at some point through our journey through the school system, the film’s examples often fall into caricatures.

The film's representation of traditional teachers and principals devolves into caricatures.
The film’s representation of traditional teachers and principals devolves into caricatures. (The Forbidden Education)

The film also does not address alternatives that may allow for greater diversity of choice in currently established education systems, such as school vouchers or tax credits — relative improvements to the status quo.

Unlike many independent documentaries, The Forbidden Education is well produced and polished. The animation that accompanies the film’s narrative is a testament to its high production value.

The film’s message, despite its shortcomings, engages the viewer and has the capacity to significantly impact people unfamiliar with alternative-education models. Its constant questioning of authority, centralized systems, and top-down structures also make it a must-see documentary for those who favor education freedom.

Adam Dubove Adam Dubove

Adam Dubove is a journalist, co-host of The Titanic's Violinists radio show, and the secretary of the Amagi Institute. Follow him on Twitter: @dubdam, and read his blog: Diario de un Drapetómano.