Reconsidering Freedom

[Two of our granddaughters were visiting us for five days during their Spring break and I didn’t get a chance to write a daily blog. So I have revisited one of my early blogs that was written before I had any readers! My apologies to WordPress: they don’t tell me how to not count this one!]

If I enter a room filled with a dozen paper bags, one of which holds a rattlesnake while the others are filled with cupcakes, am I free to grab a bag that has the cupcake? In one sense I am, in another I am not. I am free to grab any bag I want to because no one is holding a gun to my head and my hands are not tied. But I am not free in the sense that I do not know which bag holds the cupcake and which might hold the rattlesnake. Real freedom requires knowledge and if I am ignorant I am not really free. There is a fundamental difference between blind choice and informed choice. Freedom is a function of informed choice.

This is a simple illustration of a very important point that has been lost on most of us because we think that the more bags we have, the more bread in our stores, the more cars on the lot, the more items on Amazon, the freer we are. And in this sense, we in America are more free to grab almost any bag we want to — well, most of us are, and the wealthier we are the more bags we can grab. But real freedom is not a function of the number of bags. Unless we know which bag holds the snake, we are hopelessly ignorant and our ignorance can render us very sick or even dead from a fatal rattlesnake bite — or worse yet, stuck with a rotten politician.

This is why education is so important: because it is only through an education properly conceived that we can be truly free. A liberal  education sets us free from ignorance, that is, from the things that can truly harm us. Indeed, it helps us distinguish those things that are potentially harmful, like rotten politicians. Ironically, Harvard College introduced the concept of “elective courses” into their curriculum in the 1930s on the mistaken assumption that freedom is a matter of blind choice. Other colleges soon followed their lead, as did the high schools and even many grammar schools (the “free schools”). Now the idea has become so entrenched in the heads of educators that they are eliminating any semblance of liberal education by reducing — or eliminating altogether — the core courses that are pretty much all that remains of the notion that there are some things people should know in order to become truly free. The assumption that the young are free is absurd, since freedom does not consist in the ability to choose the bag with the rattlesnake in it. It requires that we know which bag is which.

Freedom regarded simply as blind choice eventually becomes chaos when carried far enough — like a group of people all trying to find the cupcakes without having the faintest idea which bag contains the rattlesnake. Real freedom comes from a restricted number of choices based on knowledge and the ability to think about the clues that might lead us to the bag with the cupcake and away from the bag with the rattlesnake. Education, properly understood, is about real freedom, not about blind choice.

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6 thoughts on “Reconsidering Freedom

  1. Well done again, Professor. Teaching kids to write and think is nirvana. My youngest son had a freshmen English teacher who snuck up on them. My son, who hates to write, loved this class. Apparently, her first assignment had them pick three topics off her blog and comment on them in a paragraph. Then, they had to comment on six others comments, again in a paragraph. So, in doing it this way, she had them think and write nine small paragraphs in one homework assignment. I thought that was cool. Enjoy your granddaughters. BTG

  2. I like this metaphor for education. And I had no idea about Harvard and the elective courses. Thanks for sharing! And I hope you had fun with your granddaughters.

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