How Free Are We?

If I am led into a room where there are five baskets on the floor and told that a million dollars is in one of those baskets, but in another there is a live cobra, can I be said to be in a position to make a “free choice”? I answer, No I am not. Freedom means knowing which basket contains the million dollars and which basket contains the snake and choosing accordingly. Knowledge makes me free.

We have forgotten this plain fact because we have misused the term “free” for years and now routinely confuse freedom with the ability to choose which of three dozen cereals we want to buy for breakfast next week. We confuse freedom with blind choice, or, worse yet, with chaos — the absence of all restraints. We think that as long as our hands aren’t tied and we have a variety of things to choose among we are therefore free. We no longer see any real relationship between knowledge and freedom. We have forgotten the adage that “knowledge will set you free.”

The fact that the liberal arts are held in such low esteem these days is the result of many causes. One of those causes, at least, is our ignorance of what freedom means. For many it means “elective courses,” choosing blindly just as we do in the grocery store when we are selecting cereal. But the purpose of the liberal arts was always to help set us free (hence the term “liberal). Free from ignorance, prejudice, peer pressure, and the like. And while our colleges and universities continue to pay lip service to “the liberal arts and sciences” (which in itself shows our ignorance, since the liberal arts include the sciences and always have) they do so with decreasing conviction as they meekly accede to the demands from the students and their parents for more “relevant” courses of study that will guarantee them jobs. And more electives, of course. Unfortunately the rising costs of college educations has made this demand seem reasonable. But in the end it reflects our confusion between training and education. Education has never been about training young people for specific jobs; in principle, if not in fact, it has always been about liberating the young, putting them into possession of their own minds so they can make informed choices. And the irony is that those who can use their minds, who have been liberally educated, will make the best, most productive employees in the end.

We prize our freedom in this country. We see the word everywhere and we insist that our freedom is guaranteed by the United States Constitution which, we are confident, allows us to carry deadly weapons and say what we want whenever we want. But, again, this reflects our confusion about what freedom is. It is not guaranteed by the Constitution. The only guarantee is a good education, which is increasingly rare these days, but more important now than ever before. For one thing, it would make us realize that carrying a deadly weapon is not a right; it is stupid. Like opening the basket with the cobra inside!

 

12 thoughts on “How Free Are We?

  1. Quote: “And the irony is that those who can use their minds, who have been liberally educated, will make the best, most productive employees in the end.” Perhaps Hugh, but your corporate employers aren’t stupid and they know that educated employees question everything and they are the ones who will be most aware of the endless injustices against employees in the work force. They will be the ones to organize unions and fight for their rights. Make no mistake, there is here method to madness, if madness it is. They want trained monkey for the jobs, not intelligent, educated individuals. If the capitalist corporate sector had its way, all universities would be replaced by technical schools and “institutes” because what oozes out of those are not humans but androids who firmly believe in the new religion of technology to pave the way for the good life, even if that means eliminating 3/4 of the world’s population and its natural environment if necessary. That may seem over stated but 42 years as a unionized employee of a major corporation and much activism sandwiched in between, including walk outs and strikes, taught me a thing or two.

  2. ” But publicly they keep saying they want people who can read, write, address a group, and think.”

    They not only say this they also actually want employees who can do this in a goal directed way. The goal being to increase the production or sales etc. of the corporation. They do not want to pay their money to philosophize or to moralize. They are are running a business in a competitive environment and not a social service organization.

    • I don’t see the equation between helping young people to achieve autonomy and thus become intelligent, useful citizens and a “social service organization.” It has been know since the founding of this nation that a democracy is predicated on a liberal education. As the latter gradually disappears, so does the democracy. To be replaced by an oligarchy, apparently.

      • My comment was written in response to your this comment:-

        “This is true. Some of them actually screen out applicants who have had a good education. But publicly they keep saying they want people who can read, write, address a group, and think. I suspect this is just good PR.

        My comment to this is:- They not only say this they also actually want employees who can do this in a goal directed way. The goal being to increase the production or sales etc. of the corporation. They do not want to pay their money to philosophize or to moralize. They are are running a business in a competitive environment and not a social service organization.

        .

  3. Hugh, well said. Education is a neverending pursuit. Staying curious is a lifetime gift to oneself. This concept that liberal arts is less important is self- limiting thinking.

    I have a very analytical degree and professional designation. Yet, I still remember various lessons from liberal arts professors. My world literature professor taught me how to see contradictions and hypocrisies. My public speaking professor (and fellow students) taught me how to prepare, speak and fly without a net or with a modicum of notes. My history professors highlighted how leaders don’t see the trouble brewing or cannot stay out of their own way. Or, how a good plan today often can beat a better plan tomorrow.

    But, I think every class teaches us how to learn, to ask questions and to try.

    Keith

    • PS – You might find of interest the comments in an interview by the new CEO of Best Buy. She started out as an auditor for Deloitte and then moved to Best Buy as a Financial Analyst, working her way up the ladder. She said the higher she got, the analytical skills became less important than the social skills of making a decision, gleaning input and getting buy in. There was a time when Davidson College, a liberal arts school, had the highest percentage of CEOs among its graduates. That is an old data point, but telling.

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