Spreading Libertarianism in the Classroom

By Glenn Verasco | Thailand

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 most students treat me as a respected and benevolent authority figure. In all scenarios, it is against my pedagogical creed to use my authoritative position to inculcate my students. Anytime my views slip out, which is rare, I take responsibility for the opinion, rather than allowing my students to believe them factual.

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, when discussing pollution or other environmental issues, my students generally want to ban certain practices or subsidize solutions. Prohibiting plastic bags and limiting car usage are common suggestions. If the conversation comes to a standstill, I may try to get their brains going. I ask if society can do anything 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 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. They then come up with several specific food concerns they are aware of in Bangkok. At this point, they choose one and find a solution to improve cleanliness or health.

Next, I use the Socratic Method to show students that 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 people still use and abuse drugs in Thailand. They say yes resoundingly, often giggling as well. So, do laws always work as a means of solving problems?

I then explain our activity. Each group is to come up with a solution to their chosen food concern. However, they cannot use laws or other government-enforced methods to do so. This forces them to consider the profit motive, the fundamental motive for business. They must manipulate it so that people will make the world better and also satisfy rational self-interest. When the easy way out, prohibiting unfavorable human activity, is not an option, the creative ideas my students generate consistently amaze me. Their critical thinking ability, in an educational system as anti-intellectual and archaic as Thailand’s, blows me away.

Another Libertarian component of my classroom is the way it is governed. I make many of my rules in the spirit of the Bill of Rights to the United States Constitution. Naturally, many are a reflection of negative rights. In honor of the First Amendment, all opinions are both welcome and subject to encouraged scrutiny.

Students are allowed to exit the room to use the restroom at will. Moreover, 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 on the first day of class that they are personally responsible for themselves only. Thus, I do not allow them to make others’ decisions, such as drawing their classmates’ attention away from my lesson. This is essentially an expression of the non-aggression principle as I only treat acts that victimize others as transgressions.

Fortunately, and I do not mean to boast, 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 relatively politely (at least as far as teenagers go). I do not know how much of this is a result of my teaching, how much is a result of my Libertarian governance, and how much is a result of their character independent of me.

There are, of course, instances in which my students break the rules. Some of my pupils seem to lack the ability to remain reasonably 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, like me, do not mesh with school.

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. Authoritarianism demands perfection; small-government libertarianism understands that that is 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.

One can easily argue 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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