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!