An Education that Liberates

Sep 22, 2010

Education is freedom. Then we can determine ourselves truth and falsity, good and evil, and not behave like unthinking sheep in a herd.

"Education is a constant process for the liberation of human beings.”- Paulo Freire (1921–1997) Brazilian educator and activist.


In Cambodia, each student has a different educational background and in general, most students wait for a teacher to tell them what to do, what to study and how to act.

Many teachers have a tendency to take the curriculum from other countries and just copy them, letting the students study whatever is listed in those course books without really engaging them in critical thinking.

Most people wait for a leader to tell them what to do. They all wait for the master’s instructions and then follow without question. This approach is teacher-centred. The focus is on the instructor, instead of focusing on the development of each student’s unique capabilities and personal attributes to help them attain authenticity and self-actualisation.

This approach as a whole also creates intellectual dependency and lack of innovative ideas as well a stifling of freedom to think creatively. It encourages hard work, but suppresses creativity and innovative thoughts. Teacher holds the key to learning. Students remain passive.

Many of our religious, political, social and moral beliefs are beliefs that we accepted as children before we could question and understand the reasons behind them. The aim here is not to reject but to understand and to learn the valid reasons to continue keeping these beliefs, after personal observation and analysis.


A classroom in Pursat province

A classroom in Pursat province

Photo: Narith


Cambodian culture believes in authority, hierarchy and tradition. People all grow up in the narrow world of our parents and friends, a small place where their views, beliefs, and values become ours through the process sociologists call primary socialisation.

I believe only education gives us the opportunity to free ourselves from the accident of our birth in a particular time, place, environment and family. It broadens our horizons and helps us to become productive members of society. Education is then freedom and liberation. Is education a form of indoctrination? Why do we go through this struggle to be educated? Is it merely in order to pass the exam and get a job? Or is it the function of education to prepare us while we are young to understand the whole process of life?

In developed nations, we teach people that it’s all right to question, to challenge authority on logical, moral, or other reasonable grounds. Freedom is not only being allowed to do that, it is also learning the skills needed to do it well. Learning to be a critical thinker is what a liberal education should be about. Then we can determine ourselves truth and falsity, good and evil, and not behave like unthinking sheep in a herd.

I advocate liberating education where knowledge leads to reflection, introspection and action – where school is a place for learning, making mistakes, growing and creating memories. Liberating education is based on acts of cognition, not transfers of information. It is an education, which encourages critical and creative thinking, debate and dialogues on real issues (even controversial ones).

As teachers, we can teach more than the subject. We can cover life and how to live life with dignity, respect and honour.

Students learn through experience and construct their reality based on their experiences. They are encouraged to seek the truth by asking more whys rather than hows. In this sense, education invites students and teachers to put their learning and teaching into action for social development and justice. The curriculum is based more on the learner. In this student-centred approach, the focus is on what the student wants to learn – acquiring knowledge by reflection and experience, and not by copying and imitating. As teachers, we can teach more than the subject. We can even cover much more than the rigour of critical thinking. We can cover life and how to live life with dignity, respect and honour. We can teach the students to believe in their own abilities and to have faith in what they can achieve through hard work and dedication.

In this way, students learn to accept responsibility for their own life. Where they are today, what they’ve accomplished in their life, and who they will become is determined by one person – their own self! Once they grasp that concept, they take the first steps towards empowering themselves to become the person they’ve always longed to be.

Parker Palmer, an author, educator, and activist who focuses on issues in education, community, leadership, spirituality and social change, expresses eloquently in “The Aim of Education Revisited”:

“If higher education is to serve human purposes, we who educate must insist that knowing is not enough, that we are not fully human until we recognize that we know and take responsibility for it.”

To me the only lasting education is one that promotes higher modes of thoughts and moral actions not just storage of facts. In my view, these are the kinds of minds Cambodian society needs for a better future:

1. A disciplined mind that masters knowledge and skills.

2. A synthesising mind that decides what’s most important and puts knowledge together in useful ways.

3. A creative mind that ventures regularly into new, unexploited territory.

4. A respectful mind that prizes diversity and tries to work effectively with individuals of all backgrounds.

5. An ethical mind that proceeds from principles.


May the next generation of Khmer people grow up to become well rounded, knowledgeable and moral human beings through liberating education.


This post was originally published on Sovachana Pou in May 2010.