The Roles We Play: How Adultism and Schooling Dehumanize Us All
This article takes a closer look at how the roles that students, teachers, and parents are often cast into dehumanize us and how to move away from oppressive and adultist roles towards more authentic ways of being.

The institution of compulsory schooling is often taken for granted as a necessary and benevolent aspect of modern society. We assume that without forced education, children would not learn, develop, or become productive members of their communities. However, when we take a closer look at the power dynamics and social roles that define the typical school experience, a more disturbing picture emerges — one of systematic dehumanization and the perpetuation of adultist oppression.

At the heart of this system are the rigid and hierarchical roles of student, teacher, and parent. These roles are not natural or inevitable, but rather socially constructed identities that shape how we relate to ourselves and each other in profoundly limiting ways. When we inhabit these roles uncritically, we become complicit in a process that strips away our humanity and potential, and that reproduces patterns of domination and subordination across generations.

The Dehumanizing Roles of Forced Schooling

The Role of Student

Consider the role of the student. From a young age, children in school are taught that their primary purpose is to follow instructions, please authority figures, and compete for grades and approval. They learn to suppress their own curiosity, creativity, and independent thinking in favor of conformity and compliance. They are treated as passive recipients of knowledge rather than active agents in their own learning and growth. This role of the “good student” is fundamentally dehumanizing, as it denies children’s inherent worth, autonomy, and capacity for self-direction.

The Role of Teacher

Teachers, too, are trapped within a narrow and oppressive role that undermines their humanity and potential. Even the most well-intentioned and caring teachers are pressured to act as enforcers of a system that prioritizes obedience and control over authentic learning and relationship-building. They are expected to wield their authority in ways that stifle student agency and creativity, and to evaluate and sort children based on arbitrary standards of achievement. This role of the “effective teacher” is one that requires a disconnection from one’s own values, emotions, and sense of ethics, and a willingness to perpetuate harm in the name of “education.”

The Role of Parent

Parents, meanwhile, are cast in the role of the “supportive adult” who must defer to the expertise and authority of the school system. They are encouraged to see their children’s education as a product to be consumed rather than a process to be co-created, and to measure success based on grades, test scores, and future career prospects. This role undermines parents’ ability to trust their own instincts and to form authentic, nurturing relationships with their children. It also reinforces a sense of powerlessness and dependence on institutions that may not have their family’s best interests at heart.

Adultism and Systemic Oppression

These roles of student, teacher, and parent are not just personally damaging, but also serve to reinforce and reproduce a larger system of adultist oppression. Adultism is the belief that adults are superior to children and youth, and that they have the right to control and make decisions for them without their consent. It is a form of prejudice and discrimination that is so deeply embedded in our culture that it often goes unrecognized and unchallenged.

Compulsory Schooling

Compulsory schooling is one of the most powerful tools of adultist oppression. It teaches young people from an early age that their voices, experiences, and desires are less important than those of the adults around them. It normalizes a power dynamic in which children are expected to be seen but not heard, to follow orders without question, and to accept arbitrary authority as natural and legitimate. This conditioning carries over into other areas of life, from the workplace to the political sphere, perpetuating a society in which the needs and perspectives of young people are systematically marginalized and dismissed.

Becoming An Authentic Human Being

The Solution

The solution to this dehumanizing system is not to reform or tweak the roles of student, teacher, and parent, but to fundamentally transform them. We need to create environments and relationships that honor the full humanity and potential of all individuals, regardless of age. This means rejecting the adultist assumptions that underlie compulsory schooling and embracing a vision of learning that is self-directed, consensual, and collaborative.

Taking Kids Seriously

In practical terms, this could take many forms, from unschooling and democratic free schools to community-based learning co-ops, unschooling kidspace and intergenerational partnerships. What all of these approaches have in common is a commitment to taking kids seriously as unique and valuable human beings, and to creating structures and practices that support our natural curiosity, creativity, and desire for connection and meaning.

Intergenerational Partnerships

For adult-identified humans this transformation requires a process of deschooling and rehumanization. It means unlearning the adultist scripts and roles that we have been conditioned to accept, and reconnecting with our own authentic desires, values, and ways of being. It means letting go of the need for control and certainty, and embracing the messiness and joy of genuine human relationships. It means seeing ourselves not as authority figures or managers, but as partners and allies in the journey of learning and growth.

This process of deschooling and rehumanization is not easy, and it requires a great deal of courage, humility, and support. It means confronting the ways in which we have been hurt and limited by our own experiences of schooling and adultism, and taking responsibility for healing and transforming those patterns in ourselves and our communities. It means being willing to sit with discomfort and uncertainty, and to trust in kids’ inherent goodness and wisdom.

Beyond Age Segregation

But as challenging as this work may be, it is also deeply liberating and life-giving. When we shed the dehumanizing roles of student, teacher, and parent, we open up space for more authentic and fulfilling ways of relating to ourselves and each other. We discover the joy and vitality of learning as a collaborative and creative process, rather than a competitive and coercive one. We build communities of trust, respect, and mutual care, in which all members are valued for their unique gifts and perspectives.

Ultimately, the liberation of kids from the oppressive system of compulsory schooling is inseparable from the liberation of adults from the adultist roles and mindsets that keep us disconnected from our own humanity. By rejecting the false hierarchy of age and embracing a vision of intergenerational solidarity and partnership, we can create a world in which all people, young and old alike, are free to learn, grow, and thrive on their own terms.

This is the world that the movement for Self-Directed Education and youth rights is working towards — a world in which the diversity and potential of every human being is celebrated and nurtured, and in which learning is a lifelong adventure of discovery, connection, and transformation. It is a world that is possible, but only if we have the courage and imagination to question the adultist assumptions and institutions that hold us back, and to trust in the power of love, freedom, and mutual respect to guide us forward.


As we embrace the process of deschooling and rehumanization, we work together across generations to create a culture that truly respects everyone’s humanity. Let us have the courage to let go of the roles and scripts that diminish us, and open our minds and hearts to a new way of being and relating that honors the full humanity and potential of all. The future of our world depends on it. The time to begin is now.

If you enjoyed this article and feel called to give back to ASDE, here are ways you can support our work:

  • Donate money
  • Share our content with others! Click one of the buttons above to easily share on Twitter, Facebook, or email.
  • Consider becoming a Contributor for Tipping Points

Tipping Points Magazine amplifies the diverse voices within the Self-Directed Education movement. The views expressed in our content belong solely to the author(s). The Alliance for Self-Directed Education disclaims responsibility for any interpretation or application of the information provided. Engage in dialogue by reaching out to the author(s) directly.

Asking the right questions...
What is Self-Directed Education?
Building a movement...
About the Alliance for Self-Directed Education
Sharing our stories...
Tipping Points Press