What Does Free Education Look Like?

Many teachers in Hungary have been calling for free education: among other things, freedom to choose textbooks, more local control, and an independent education ministry that represents the profession.

Free education doesn’t exist in large school systems, at least not for long. But it can be found at any level, starting with the mind.

Many perceive the U.S. as a free country with free education. This is a misconception. School systems in the U.S. may be free of cost for students, but the teachers are not free to teach according to their judgement. Setting aside the extremity of the current situation—culture wars combined with the aftermath of Covid—which has many teachers fleeing the schools and abandoning their careers, teachers even in the best of cirucumstances lack pedagogical freedom (except for the glimmers that can be found anywhere).

Teachers in the U.S. may be left at liberty to choose what to teach (for instance, which literary works). There is no national curriculum; even states have generic standards, not curricula. A big part of teachers’ jobs is often curriculum writing, which takes place year after year. But the school districts are dogmatically specific—or can be—about how a lesson should be taught. An “aim” and a “do now” activity must be on the board before the students enter the room. The teacher gives a short mini-lesson on the “skill” or “strategy” of the day. Then the students go into their groups. There must be group work. If a high-level administrator walks into a NYC classroom at any moment and doesn’t see the students in groups, the principal might receive a talking-to about this state of things. At the end of class, the groups “share out,” and students complete an “exit ticket” that shows that they learned what they were supposed to learn. This model, while useful in some cases, precludes sustained, focused discussion and questioning (of a math proof, say, or a literary work). There’s little room for a student to think independently, since the group and its chatter press from all sides.

In addition, teachers are expected to keep the classroom decorated with recent student work, in the name of a “print-rich” environment. Supposedly, if students are “bombarded” with print, their literary will increase. And never mind the mandated bulletin boards in the hallways (which in certain districts have to follow a specific format). The student work gets torn down inadvertently by students pressing through the halls.

Add to that the extra duties (hallway, cafeteria, etc.; meetings at least several times a week; contact with parents—all teachers are expected to keep parental contact logs) and the general hecticness (2-5 minutes between classes, long days, noise) and the goal for many becomes to get through the day, then the week, then the year.

But even in the U.S., even under such pressures, a certain freedom can be found, when the principal and colleagues are sympathetic, the teacher knows and loves the subject, and the students want to learn it. There’s an old secret known as ignoring the nonsense and going to the heart of the subject. You can get away with it—not all the time, but enough to make the profession joyous for you and meaningful for the students. You can, for instance, teach a work of literature.

You can also find greater freedom if you accept lower pay. For instance, if you teach part-time, you are exempt from many of the bureaucratic demands and have more flexibility in the day. You may actually put in as much time as full-time teachers do (this was the case when I taught philosophy at Columbia Secondary School), but at least you have room to focus on the subject itself, the students and their work, and projects and activities under your care.

I sympathize with the demand for free education. But show me a country that has it. Finland? Finland was overidealized, propped up too high as the model of All Things Good. Recently its schools have been showing declines. Even if we take Finland’s system as an imperfect but promising model, it costs tax money and requires an intensity of teacher preparation that may not suit Hungary’s social structures well. In Hungary, maternal and childcare leave is so generous that a parent—typically the mother—can take two years off per child (while receiving 70 percent of their salary), plus maternal leave, and even a third year with support from a separate fund. A seriously liberalized school system, where teachers designed their own courses, would need not only more preparation (beforehand and every day), but also more continuity and funding.

Also, what does freedom mean? If I had my choice, the upper-level language courses would be literature courses (as they were when I was in high school). Students would no longer be using a textbook at all. There would be a grammar reference book, but the course materials would otherwise be the works of literature themselves, unadapted. The students could choose from an array of courses: “Shakespeare’s Tragedies”; “The Picaresque Novel”; “The American Dream”; “Stories of the Sea”;”Innocence and Experience”; “Mystical Literature”—you name it. Each of these courses would be filled with excellent literature—not so much that the students would be overwhelmed, but enough for focused reading and discussion and memorable encounters with language.

That would be my dream, and to me it seems natural. But few would sympathize with it. In Hungary, just as in the U.S., the principle of “usefulness” predominates. Both teachers and students assume that the curriculum should be pared down to what the students actually “need.” Some students consider literature essential to life, others consider it at least interesting, but the majority would probably balk at the idea of literature classes in foreign languages, unless the universities required them or gave special credit for them. Literature, in the eyes of many, is not “useful”—especially literature in a foreign language. Many in Hungary will grant that they should know their own literature, and certain works in translation as well. But why spend additional time reading? they would ask.

So, what I see as curricular freedom—or a form that I would like it to take—probably would not fly with the majority of my colleagues and students. Teaching literature also requires being immersed in that literature, which in turn would require a different kind of teacher preparation from what now exists. Those preparing to teach English must currently read a lot more literature than their counterparts in the U.S. do—but many treat this as a task they have to get through, instead of something essential.

Where is curricular freedom to be found, then? Surely some structural changes would assist it, but aside from that, people have to find it where they can. Supplement the lessons, find ways to follow the official curriculum while also giving it substance. In a good school, principals recognize the need for this and support teachers who add to or improve upon the official plan. I am not talking about teachers who (in the often insulting terminology of pundits) “indulge” in their own ideological slants and propaganda. It’s possible to depart from the script for the opposite reason: to encourage students to think deeply, in more than one way, about the subject.

For the student, freedom consists (partly) in the realization that it’s their own choice whether to find a subject interesting or not, useful or not, regardless of how it is being taught. Any subject can become interesting through a tilt of mind. That doesn’t mean that they—and others—should not demand changes to the curriculum. There are problems with the current state of things. Students have to cram too much material into their minds, mainly for the sake of regurgitating it at the exams. They should have more choices and electives. But it’s a mistake to think that such a change would not bring its own problems and constraints. Nor should education be confined to what students and others consider useful.

Granted, preparing for an eventual career is nothing to scoff at. In poor countries and countries with depressed economies (like Hungary), people do not have the luxury of learning subjects just because they’re interesting. That concept is largely absent from the universities (with some exceptions) and also unpopular in high school. Students are understandably worried about where their income will come from. But even then, education is also there to open up and tune the mind, to help us understand our own lives and life in other places and eras, to awaken the soul.

This shared understanding, if built and nurtured somehow, will bring great freedom to schools, but even then, things will not be perfect, not everyone will be happy, and there might even be enough discontent to tear down what has been built up.

Last week I taught several of my classes O’Henry’s story “The Gift of the Magi.” They recognized something special about this story, in the graceful but idiosyncratic language, the unusual images and similes, the narrator’s ability to see the truth of seeming opposites, and much more. One student said, at the end, “Thank you for this wonderful lesson.” Then this week, with one of the classes, we read a “story” in the textbook (involving a cell phone and teenagers—it had clearly been written with teenagers in mind, so that they could relate to it). That story wasn’t even a story; there wasn’t anything compelling about it, nothing that makes us see life in a different way. It was just a dutiful narrative about someone who had dialed someone’s number without realizing it, so that he heard in full a conversation about a birthday party. The accompanying “task” was for students to write a story like that, involving a cell phone. My students completed this task dutifully (or not-so-dutifully, in a few cases).

I doubt the day will come where stories by Poe, Hemingway, O’Henry, Wolff, Carver, and others—as well as poems, plays, songs, novels—are taught in English language class, officially, as part of the school curriculum. There is neither the will nor the money for such a thing; priorities lie elsewhere. But teachers can still find ways to work such stories in, and when this happens, it is a form of freedom, for them and the students.

Another form can be found in the moments of calm during the day. I think sometimes my colleagues see me as a bit aloof, because I am not all that conversational during the breaks. But I love to take a few minutes here and there to think. This is much more difficult in U.S. schools, where teachers rush from one class to another (with 3-5 minutes between them). The lack of time to think is one reason why I would not go back to teaching in a typical U.S. public high school (even though my starting salary would be at least four times what I make here). The room and time for thinking is so important to me that it’s even worth a lower salary. Now, I see the fault in that logic. Why should I assume that a teacher can’t be paid more and have a tranquil day? Why have I not assumed, all along (in the U.S. and here) that I deserve a higher salary than I am receiving? Why have I not fought along with others for big salary increases, or at least sought out jobs with higher pay?

I have had jobs with higher pay (higher, that is, than my highest teacher salary in the U.S.)—not only when I was a junior programmer at Macromedia, but also when I briefly worked as an education consultant, writing a sample curriculum, and (unconnected with this) when teaching at the Dallas Institute in the summers. The Dallas Institute was wonderful, but the other jobs’ high salaries came at a cost. In the tech industry, you are often expected to be available around the clock, work long hours, and take part in the team’s social life. Some of this was enjoyable, but I had other things I wanted to do with my life. In the curriculum writing project (in which I was involved for a few months), there were pressures to make the curriculum look more like what teachers were already used to and what they thought students could handle. They (the teachers we consulted) considered my proposed curriculum too hard. But why write a curriculum only to replicate and touch up what already exists? I saw their points as well; how could they be expected to teach works that they didn’t know and that seemed extremely difficult to them, never mind the students? A curriculum has to come with study; the teachers need room to immerse themselves in it and find its meaning.

I do not mean to imply that I knew more than they did. Rather, I had a comfort with ancient and old works, with works that bring a bit of bafflement at first. I love the initial bafflement and the understanding that comes with time. At the same time, I see some of my own misconceptions; I had assumed that the literature curriculum should be arranged in chronological sequence, but other arrangements would have made more sense. I, too, needed time to think this through. In any case, you can’t just write a curriculum and expect schools to use it. To use a curriculum well, a school has to know it deeply and have some say in it. (By “curriculum” I do not mean a script; I mean a basic outline of the works and concepts that will be taught.)

That was when I learned that not all teachers want the same thing, and that my dream curriculum would be a burden (at best) for others. In education you have to seek out kindred people and structures. When you find them, that still is not the end of the story. You may need more: a higher salary, better conditions. You may still yearn, justifiably, for greater freedom. But for some, freedom is found in a class discussion, a book in the hand, a few quiet minutes in the day.

I made a few edits to this piece after posting it.

Leave a comment


  1. Lots of food for thought here. I’ve been sharing this one.

    I frequently recall the poetry we studied in French class in high school.

  2. I have little or no memory of language classes before literature entered the picture. With a few exceptions—such as the time we learned “hic, haec, hoc” in Latin class—they happened and vanished. It’s the literature (and the accompanying discussions and recitations) that I remember more than forty years later.

  1. A Dream School (Varga) | Take Away the Takeaway

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  • “Setting Poetry to Music,” 2022 ALSCW Conference, Yale University

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    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In April 2022, Deep Vellum published her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.


    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.


    All blog contents are copyright © Diana Senechal. Anything on this blog may be quoted with proper attribution. Comments are welcome.

    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

    When I revise a piece substantially after posting it, I note this at the end. Minor corrections (e.g., of punctuation and spelling) may go unannounced.

    Speaking of imperfection, my other blog, Megfogalmazások, abounds with imperfect Hungarian.

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