My Libertarian Classroom

For the past six years, I have been teaching high school English in Thailand. I love what I do, and I’m good at it. My classroom, for the most part, reflects my Libertarian worldview, and it works.

I certainly don’t preach my politics to my students. This is because the level of respect I receive from most of my classes leads them to treat me as a trusted and benevolent authority figure. And it is against my pedagogical creed to use my authoritative position to inculcate my students. Anytime my views slip out of my mouth, which are rare occurrences, I take responsibility for them rather than allow my students to understand them as fact.

This does not mean my views are never a part of class discussions or activities. When we discuss and debate political and social issues, I sometimes ask questions that allude to the Libertarian thought process if my students do not invoke them on their own. For example, if we are discussing pollution or other environmental issues, my students generally want to ban certain practices or subsidize solutions. If the conversation comes to a standstill, I may try to get their brains going by asking if anything can be done without the government’s participation. This sometimes leads them to suggest privately-organized awareness campaigns, neighborhood cleanup efforts, or innovations that can lead to profitable and environmentally-friendly business ventures.

One chapter of the textbook I use with my 11th graders focuses on the topic of food concerns. Bangkok, where I currently teach, is famous for its delicious street food, which is often less than sanitary and unhealthy. The vendors who sell this food are usually low-income, so regulating their businesses could lead to them having to absorb crippling costs. This winds up being an excellent opportunity for Libertarian thinking.

As a brainstorming activity, I put my students in groups, and have them come up with several specific food concerns they are aware of in Bangkok. They must then choose one and find a solution to improve cleanliness or health.

Next, I use the Socratic Method to lead my students into proving that government laws and regulations do not always serve their intended purposes. I do this by asking them if drugs are legal in Thailand. They say no. I then ask whether drugs are still used and abused in Thailand. They say yes resoundingly, often accompanied by giggles. So, do laws always work as a means of solving problems?

I then explain our activity which is for each group to come up with a solution to their chosen food concern, but bar them from using laws or other governmental methods. This forces them to consider the profit motive, the foundational motivation of many businesses, and find ways to manipulate it so that people will do what makes the world a better place as a byproduct of their own rational self-interest. I am consistently amazed by the creative ideas my students generate when the easy way out, prohibiting unfavorable human activity, is not an option. Their ability for creative and critical thinking, even in an educational system as anti-intellectual and archaic as Thailand’s, blows me away.

In spirit of the Bill of Rights to the United States Constitution, I explain the rules of my class on day one, many of which are a reflection of negative rights. And in honor of the First Amendment, all opinions are welcome, and all ideas expressed are subject to scrutiny (and that scrutiny is encouraged).

Students are allowed to exit the room to use the toilet at will. In fact, they are not even required to pay attention, and I make this explicit. These freedoms are retained under the condition that my students do not disrupt my teaching or their classmates’ learning. I explain to them on the first day of class that they are personally responsible for their individual selves and are prohibited from making decisions for others, such as drawing their classmates’ attention away from my lesson. This is essentially an expression of the non-aggression principle as only acts that victimize others are treated as transgressions. Going to the toilet and missing key parts of a lesson is allowed. Reentering the room noisily is not.

Fortunately, and I do not mean to toot my own horn here, I happen to be quite charismatic at the head of the classroom. The vast majority of my students find my lessons to be engaging, and they eventually respect me enough to behave highly politely (at least as far as teenagers go). I do not know how much of this is a result of my teaching and how much is a result of my Libertarian governance.

There are, of course, instances in which my students break the rules. Some of my pupils seem to lack the ability to remain quiet for more than a few moments during my interactions with the class or quiet work activities.

While my students are aware of my rule against audible disruptions, I enforce it within reason. My personal view, as a so-called poor student throughout middle and high school myself, is that not all children and teenagers are predisposed to the capability of learning and behaving in a traditional classroom setting. If I could go back to my childhood and be presented with the option of working a part-time, minimum wage job instead of going to school, I’d jump at the opportunity. I have learned more at work than at school throughout my life, and my main motivation for becoming a teacher was to provide an outlet for students who do not mesh with school like me.

So, I do not lose my rag as soon as a student causes a disruption. I let them get away with a few shushes before taking action. Fascism demands perfection; Libertarianism understands that’s impossible.

When shushes don’t work, I have no choice but to bring the gavel down. And this is when I do something that may seem anti-Libertarian at face value. When I lose control of the class, they lose points collectively. Rather than punishing the individuals who are causing disruptions, I deem all of them guilty by association and reduce all of their scores.

Punishing many for the actions of a few is sacrilege to an individualistic philosophy like Libertarianism. But the lesson learned, not the punishment itself, is the key. What I hope the well-behaved students learn (and I explain this to them if they don’t seem to) is that failing to police one’s neighborhood autonomously eventually leads to restrictions in freedom from a higher authority. If a society (or classroom) can keep itself in order, there is little risk for strict laws, rules, or interventions to be enacted. Peaceful populations are more likely to retain self-governance than chaotic and unruly ones.

It could easily be argued that a public school teacher arbitrating the way a classroom runs is a laughable attempt to illustrate Libertarianism. But as of now, I think I’m practicing what I preach.

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My Libertarian Classroom

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