Education for Freedom

When Voltaire’s Candide goes to the Land of Eldorado, he finds children playing with gold, emeralds, and rubies strewn about on the ground among their other playthings. For Candide, these “pebbles” are precious gems that, in sufficient quantity, could garner him wealth and therefore power in his own home country. Freedom is such a precious gem: deeply desired by those who do not have it, taken for granted by those born into it, and abused by those who subordinate it as a means to secure ends that can even be inimical to freedom itself. Unlike the pebbles of Eldorado, freedom is itself not free, as the memorials on the Washington Mall, Arlington National Cemetery, and other such august venues remind us. Moreover, once instituted, even in the form of a legally binding, national constitution, it remains fragile, open not only to attacks from without, but to being undercut by forces within (such as corruption or bureaucratic strictures, among others). As Socrates observes at the end of Plato’s Republic, it is the evil naturally connected with a thing that most immediately destroys it, and indeed, he finds that all forms of governance, from the rule of one, to a few, to many, including the philosophical life, have such inherent vulnerability.

The vulnerabilities of freedom and its institutions are too many to recount and analyze here, but examples abound in the great texts of the ages, and even just a few selections (with regard to trial by jury and free speech) show us how familiar they remain. When Athena introduces trial by jury in Athens (as recounted by Aeschylus), she affirms that the tribunal she establishes shall be “untouched by money-making,” that it shall be “watchful to protect those who sleep,” and that her words are for her “citizens, advice into the future.” Thucydides’s account of the Peloponnesian Wars shows us how terribly wrong things nonetheless subsequently go in Athena’s city, and in Plato’s Laws we find the blunt statement that the “technique … of conducting one’s own suits and pleading those of others, which can win the day regardless of the rights and wrongs of the individual case” is a “kind of evil genius” which “pollutes and corrupts” the institutions of justice and advocacy. In the fourteenth century, in his On His Own Ignorance and That of Many Others, Petrarch describes a city where there are many “who practice philosophy and pass judgment without any knowledge. Much freedom reigns there in every respect, and what I shall call the only evil prevailing—but also the worst—far too much freedom of speech.”

Petrarch continues, “Confiding in this freedom, the extremely inept often insult famous men, much to the indignation of the good … So sweet does the word Freedom sound to everyone that Temerity and Audacity please the vulgar crowd, because they look so much like Freedom … And the good do not oppose the licentiousness of the bad, because the bad are the greater number and more in favor with the public, which believes it to be expedient to let everyone talk as he likes. So deeply fixed in the mind is that word of Tiberius Caesar: ‘In a free state tongue and mind ought to be free.’ They ought to be free, of course, but so that freedom remains free from injustice and injuriousness.”

In the first century B.C., Cicero in On the Commonwealth (through Scipio as his mouthpiece) had already found corruption by rhetoric to be worse than corruption by money: “And since nothing in a state should be freer from corruption than the use of the ballot or the decision of judges, I do not see why a man who corrupts by money should deserve punishment, while one who corrupts by eloquence should actually win praise. I, at least, feel that a man who directs his eloquence to corrupt ends really does more harm than one who corrupts a judge by money, because, while no honest man can be seduced by money, he may be corrupted by a specious plea.” Fast forwarding to our own time and place, in his A Third Concept of Liberty, scholar Samuel Fleischacker has argued for making the “world free for good judgment,” a freedom that on his view is “closer to what we really most want out of freedom than any of the standard versions of negative and positive liberty: consumer sovereignty or ‘solidarity’ with a community, a right to ‘private’ choices or choice by our general will, expressive individualism or Marxist species-being.” It is the freedom of judgment that on Fleischacker’s account best suits the dignity of human nature.

The latter quote points to what historian Eric Foner has analyzed in his work: the ever changing, actually operative sense of freedom held by the people of the American nation in its relatively short 240 year history. The precious gem of freedom then is both inherently vulnerable and at best variously understood, or at worst, even misunderstood. While in a democratic society stewardship of and responsibility for the integrity of freedom is incumbent on every citizen, paradoxically its two institutions of law and education (implicated in the above quotes) are both primary avenues for its very possibility and themselves the potential source for its corruption. From Solon to Aristotle in the ancient world, law itself had an essential educative function in the city and so it is not surprising that in de Tocqueville’s observations of the burgeoning American democracy, he notes that jury trial and the instructions by the judge serve as an education for the citizens. He also observes the problem that he terms the tyranny of the majority and further concludes that in fact he sees the citizens valuing equality over freedom. In his Radicalism of the American Revolution, Gordon Wood spells out how among the reformers and founders themselves, the classical, cosmopolitan republican ideal (propounded on the Federalist side) came head to head with the universal egalitarian demand (insisted upon by the populist anti-Federalists). In these debates surrounding the very establishment of the government and of the nation, Wood also identifies an anti-intellectual sentiment which dismissed the link between freedom and liberal education.

In this light, the dysfunctional discourse of our recent election cycle and its continuation into apparently the foreseeable future (what Petrarch would undoubtedly identify as the unfreedom of free speech) calls for a Socratic self-examination by the institutions of education. A major spur to the intense education debates of the eighteenth-century was precisely the question of preparing the public to be morally and civically minded citizens of the emerging, modern nation state. In the mid twentieth century, Robert Maynard Hutchins of the University of Chicago exhorted that “either we must abandon the ideal of freedom or we must educate our people for freedom … And since it is a long job, and one upon which the fate of our country in war and peace may depend, we shall have to start now.”

In the two decades leading up to our recent election, both university presidents and scholars have weighed in on the state of the academy and its relations to the public, economic, and governmental spheres. At this present time, in the arena of the Philosophy of Education Society and its members, there is an instauration of sorts underway that is moving beyond its long time focus on questions of methodology and policy and attending to the question of education for freedom. These developments are heartening, but if they are to make a difference we all need to play a part. A federal judge (a graduate of Notre Dame) recently testified to his profound sense of stewardship with regard to the judiciary of this country, calling it an inheritance that is a sacred trust. Freedom is our shared inheritance, a sacred trust to pass on to the next generations that are in our classrooms. How will we articulate and exercise our stewardship of it?

Felicitas Munzel is a Professor of the Program of Liberal Studies whose research focuses on Kant, ethics, and philosophy of education.

Print Friendly