Watch Out For Snakes

I reached back to 2011 for this repost. It deals with one of my favorite topics and remains as relevant today as it did then — especially with an election coming up. 

If I enter a room filled with paper bags, one of which holds a rattlesnake while the others are filled with treats, am I free to grab a bag filled with treats? 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 treats and which might hold the rattlesnake. Real freedom consists of knowledge and if I am ignorant I am not really free. There is a fundamental difference between blind choice and 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 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. Just think about political elections and the snakes we have grabbed, especially of late, to guide the country!

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. Ironically, Harvard College introduced the concept of “elective courses” into their curriculum in the 1930s when they mistakenly assumed 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.

Freedom regarded simply as blind choice will eventually become chaos when carried far enough. 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 treats and away from the bag with the rattlesnake. Education, properly understood, is about real freedom, not about blind choice.

9 thoughts on “Watch Out For Snakes

  1. Hugh, I am glad you re-played this pertinent post. While the tea leaves were all there, too many folks took a chance on the disruptive influence who became president. Some of these folks have observed the havoc of opening that snake filled bag and will not make the same mistake again. Yet, too many of those folks are still convinced the snake is not in that bag, with so much evidence to the contrary. The snake’s genius is convincing people there is a worse snake in the other bag, but don’t look, just trust him. Keith

  2. Dr. Curtler,

    Your post about the candy and the snake reminded me of the final line from Frank Stockton’s classic fable:

    “And so I leave it with all of you: Which came out of the
    opened door,–the lady, or the tiger?”

    This leads to a question in anticipation of November 2020: Which shall come out of the door, democracy or fascism?

    So, we must choose, America or AmeriKKKa. This has always been a choice, to be sure, but the odds seem stacked in favor of fascism at this point.

    Which shall we choose? A more important question is, will we be allowed to choose?

    Dark thoughts for an even darker time.

    Regards, respects, and best wishes.

    Jerry Stark

  3. One sentence says it all … “Real freedom consists of knowledge”. Today, as never before in my lifetime, people are shunning real knowledge in lieu of lies and conspiracy theories that fit better with what they would like to believe … they would like to be convinced that the bag with the snake will be marked with a huge “D” and a picture of a donkey, and that all the rest are candy-filled. I keep thinking of the expression, “Ignorance is bliss” … but for whom??? Good post, my friend.

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