Master Slave Questions

Here are some starter questions that few teachers are willing to ask in serious ways.

  • What is it to be free?
  • Are we free? Are we free at work, at school, at play? If we are not free: What would we need to know, and how would we need to know it, in order to be free?
  • Are there people among us who appear to be much more free than others? If so, what is it that makes them different? What do they have in common, worldwide?
  • Who is less free? What elements do they have in common?
  • Is freedom achieved through isolation, or friendly connections with other people?
  • If we are not free, in part because we are isolated from each other, often in ways that we do not see (the normalcy of segregated schooling), then what might we do to be more free?

These questions rise from the Critique of Tyranny. This critique has been applied to every society, ever since the first food surpluses made inequality possible, and it became possible to make an argument that separation from others might be a good thing--in contrast to early societies where those who behaved the most collectively survived longest and best. The critique was the interrogation of domination that, in ideas, forged the US revolution. It is absent from most social studies textbooks.

The Critique of Tyranny leads to a question that can be asked of any society, to judge it: How does this society treat the majority of its citizens, invariably the workers, or slaves, i.e., the common citizens, over time? This reasonable question sweeps aside the notion that poisons conservative forms of postmodernism, which insist that there really is no rational way to judge any society, that one society or social movement or idea might be as good as the next, that all is mere viewpoint and, at the end of the day, maybe Mussolini was not such a bad guy after all.

Are teachers willing to ask these questions to students in their classrooms, not of abstract distant societies, but of their condition inside school? My experience is that most teachers are not willing to seriously pose the issue, in fear of lack of control.

Psychiatrist Robert Kaye says students in the world's classrooms are not free, using a metaphor that suggests that compulsory attendance laws make them "incarcerated." This would be a good place to start. Are we here because we want to be here?

Indeed, many teachers will insist that they live in a free society. But they will also agree that they cannot probe the question of freedom in school, or really speak their minds. The Bill of Rights, for example, stops at the door of most work places.

Here are some questions that students can work out themselves to, perhaps, better understand the foundation of most societies throughout history: The Master-Slave Metaphor.

In A Master-Slave Relationship:
  • What does the Master want?
  • What does the Slave want?
  • What must the Master do?
  • What must the Slaves do?
  • How do Masters Rule?
  • How do Slaves resist?
  • What does the Master want the Slaves to know?
  • What does the Slaves want the Master to know?
  • What does the master want the slaves to believe?
  • What does the slave want the master to believe?
  • Is truth the same for the Master as it is for the Slaves?
  • Who has the greater interest in the more profound truths?
  • What mediates the relationship of the Master and the Slaves-both in theory and practice?
  • What elements within this relationship, as it exists, provide clues to how the relationship might be changed?
  • How will the slaves get from what is, to what they think ought to be, without relying on magic?
  • What will the Masters do in response to the struggles of the slaves?
  • What would be the masters' greatest victory--or the slaves' worst defeat?
  • Is it possible to end the relationship of Masters and Slaves, or are people trapped within this forever?
  • If people are not trapped in the Master-Slave relationship permanently, and if they should actually overcome it, what will preserve their common freedom?


On Tyranny, by Leo Strauss (the classic in the field)

History and Science for Boys and Girls, by William Montgomery Brown (early success of friendly connections, written in 1931)

Guns, Germs, and Steel, by Jared Diamond

Phenomenology of the Spirit, Hegel

Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, Marx (and all of the rest of Marx's work)

Alienation by Bertell Ollman (why we are estranged from one another and how we might reason our way out).

The Politics of Obedience, the Discourse of Voluntary Servitude, Etienne De La Boetie

On Mussolini as a Kinder, Gentler, Fascist, see the New York Times, 9/28/02 A17