Carl Rogers on learning to be free

This post explores Learning to be free, a piece written by the late American humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers. The chapter was written in 1967, two years before his well-known ‘Freedom to Learn’ was published. Learning to be free explores the notion that human ‘congruency’ and curiosity serves as a catalyst for growth, empathy and understandings between oneself and the world. Rogers argues that these emerge from interconnected relationships between an individual’s freedom from things and freedom to choose and be.


What is the meaning of freedom?

How does an individual learn to develop inner freedom?

What is the role of teachers in supporting student’s processes of learning to be free?

These existential questions form the core of Carl Roger’s inquiry into the complexity, contradictions, assumptions and ethics of developing inner freedom, a process he believes can be used construct meaningful, authentic lives in which individual’s reach their highest potentialities.

There are growing debates around school curriculum that are premised on the understanding that children are ultimately not free. Constraints such as standardised testing, pre-set curriculum, mass media, cultural norms and class systems limit what an individual can and cannot do, feel and think. Taking these beliefs one step further, these forces fundamentally shape what people will become in the future. Rogers advocates for the need to explore individual contextual complexity and create learning situations that emerge from this.

Rogers believed that humans are naturally curious being eager to learn about themselves and the world. He also believed that forces in modern society, such as mass media, cultural norms and the expectations of others were preventing individuals from creating lives that are authentic and meaningful to oneself. To counteract this, he developed the theory of human-centred psychology that advocated for individual’s need to explore and construct their unique and subjective feelings, goals and understandings. These can then be used to inform the decisions that shape their lives and connect with “the experience of freedom to be one’s self” (Ibid, p.47).

According to Rogers, this process then holds the possibility of individual’s gaining greater awareness of themselves, other people and the world around them, creating more independent, confident, creative and spontaneous beings. In schools, learning can more readily happen once a student accepts and connects with their internal feelings/beliefs/understandings and acts in a way that is in alignment with these. This self-actualising process is what Rogers termed ‘congruency.’

So what exactly is this inner, subjective and internal freedom? Rogers believed that it was one that:

“…enables a person to step into the uncertainty of the unknown as he chooses himself. It is the discovery of meaning from within oneself, meaning which comes from listening sensitively and openly to the complexities of what one is experiencing. It is the burden of being responsible for the self one chooses to be. It is the recognition by the person that he is an emerging process, not a static end product.”

This comes from:

“… movement from as well as movement towards. From being persons driven by inner forces they do not understand, fearful and distrusting of these deeper feelings and of themselves, living by values they have taken over from others, they move significantly. They move toward being persons who accept and even enjoy their own feelings, who value and trust the deeper later of the nature, who find strength in being their own uniqueness, who live by values they experience. This learning, this movement, enables them to live as more individuated, more creative, more responsive, and more responsible persons” (p.49). 

This suggests that freedom is not just emancipation from particular external forces but also freedom to do and choose. Deep consideration is then given to what needs to happen in a learning situation to support student’s ability of learning to be free. Feelings of empathy, curiosity, the role of the teacher as facilitator and a display of teacher’s ‘real’ emotions are explored as key conditions that construct exciting, meaningful learning for students. Rogers believed that learning is a deeply personal, social, emotional as well as an intellectual process – an understanding that also premises his broader theory of human-centred learning. The conclusion is drawn that in order for exciting and meaningful learning to occur, learning environments need to be constructed so that students have:

  • access to the appropriate psychological and technical resources;
  • the opportunity to explore real world problems;
  • the ability to learn alongside educators who also show acceptance and empathy towards themselves and others. The teacher is therefore a facilitator of learning and growth.

Teachers therefore rely on students to initiate learning that is meaningful to them –  a process that requires trust and patience. I really connect with Roger’s conceptualisation of learning as a continuous process that takes into consideration the all facets of human experience (emotional, social and intellectual), something that his contemporary John Dewey also advocated for. For 1960’s America, this proposition was well before its time. Roger’s greatest contribution to human knowledge is possibly also the simplest – be yourself, whilst also being empathetic towards others who may have different understandings, feelings and beliefs about the world to you!


Rogers, C (1967). ‘Learning to be free,’ in Rogers, C & Stevens, B, Person to person: The problem of being human. Real people press, Utah. p.47-66.

Rogers, C (1969). Freedom to learn: A view of what education might become. Merrill Publishing Company, Columbus.


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