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!

 

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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.

Gay By Choice?

“Cynthia Nixon learned the hard way this week that when it comes to gay civil rights, the personal is always political. Very political.”

So the story begins. It goes on to point out that Cynthia Nixon has been pilloried by the gay community for claiming that she is gay by choice, not by genetic disposition. Good grief! One would think that the gay community would gladly welcome one who is in sympathy with their sexual preferences  — or, more to the point, a well-known personage who is outspoken about being gay herself. But not so.

Apparently, there are those in the gay community who think that by saying she is gay by choice she will lead many to think that one can simply choose to be gay — or to cease to be gay. I can understand this, as it is certainly the case that many of those in the “straight” camp who fear gays make the claim that is is simply a matter of choice and therefore those who choose to be gay should choose not to be gay  (at the risk of becoming like their critics, of course).

But at the same time, as Nixon herself points out, those in the gay community should rejoice that a person of her standing would openly embrace their life-style and not remain in the closet pretending to be something she is not. In other words, what difference does it make why a person is gay — or straight? Whether it is a matter of choice or a matter of genetics or a matter of conditioning, or a magic wand, it matters not a whit. Those without, and especially those within, the group should realize that this is all about opening the minds of up-tight people to the issue of sexual preference. It’s part of our world and has been since the beginning. One would hope greater understanding will lead to less fear and wider acceptance. In this case, the end does justify the means.

The interesting thing about the story is the thought that being liberal no more means being tolerant than being conservative means being narrow-minded. I assume that most of those in the gay community are liberal,  but we tend to simplify things by identifying such notions as “liberal” and “tolerant,”  “conservative” and “narrow-minded” when, in fact, there is no necessary connection among these terms whatever. We can only say some liberal people are tolerant, some are not. Some in the gay community are liberal, some are not. Further, some conservative people are intolerant while others are not — assuming that we know what it is that defines a “conservative,” or a “liberal.” Once again, it is a matter of “showing the fly the way out of the milk bottle.” We need to define our terms and then proceed from there. My sense of things here is that any generalization in this case is questionable because we are talking about people and they hold different ideologies and embrace differing life-styles, for various reasons.

“I say it doesn’t matter if we flew here or we swam here. It matters that we are here and we are one group and let us stop trying to make a litmus test for who is considered gay and who is not,” Nixon told the Times about her decision. Hear! Hear! One would think the gay community should be all about tolerance. One would think. Cynthia Nixon’s declarations about her sexual preferences most assuredly should not be turned into a political issue. This sort of criticism from within the gay camp will close more minds than it opens.

Are We Free?

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.

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.