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  • Writer's pictureAlexander M. Wegner

Freedom, Liberties, and Education

(C) Bruce Mars

MAN TENDS TO PERCEIVE HIMSELF AS FREE, that is, as autonomous. Within the perimeters of law an social conventions, he perceives himself as free to choose and thereby compose and conduct his being. This believe appears particularly prevalent in liberal democracies–most prominently, in the United States, where it takes the form of the American Dream; evidently, liberty is inherent in the economic, political and social structures and processes characteristic of democracies. Yet is this indeed the case; are liberal democracies in fact characterized by liberty?

In attempting to respond to this prompt, liberty is best referred to as liberties, and distinguished from freedom. Indeed, freedom–or autonomy–suggests that man is free to choose; according to Rousseau this ability diminishes as civilization takes hold. Indeed, his noble savage autonomously navigated the planet, not least as he was self-sufficient, and thereby understood as master of his fate. With 7 billion human inhabitants dwelling on this planet, such freedom is, of course, both entirely elusive and rather daunting.

Freedom is indeed illusory; through his existence alone, man is bound. Gravity dictates his movement, and survival commands his choices: he must eat and drink, cannot not relieve himself, must rest and will turn ever less capable, the older he becomes. Thus, the freedom with which man appears to be endowed as he enters into existence, is characterized by constraints that have always-already prevailed. Similarly, the choices man is allegedly free to make, are contingent upon his intellectual capacity–which can be cultivated, but whose scope is predetermined–and correspond to his consciousness. While man is intellectually relatively more capable than the beings with which he coinhabits this planet, and the nature of his conscience unique, he is but another creature on this planet, and thus not exempt from the dynamics of life, in their complexity, uncertainty and risk. Hence, man is free within a wide range of limitations.

Aside from his original freedom, man is provided with liberties. This is so, as man has come to organize himself, first in groups, then in societies and, eventually, in nation-states. Such organization has exerted an ambiguous influence; on the one hand, it has reduced risk, mitigated uncertainty, and veiled complexity–facilitating the freedom to choose through security and order; on the other hand, it has further constrained man’s original freedom, through the creation of social conventions–values and norms, which determine the worth and prestige of any choice and of those choosing–and observance of socialized natural differences–gender, race, physical and intellectual capabilities, which are influenced by social conventions, and can determine the scope of man’s potential. Organization, though fostering security and quasi-order (quasi, as the dynamics of existence overarch), has further constrained the original freedom with which man comes into existence, through social conventions and socialized differences.

Organization has, therefore, transformed the freedom with which man came into existence, into liberties. In other words, organization has reduced freedom to liberties–the latter being context-sanctioned options. Indeed, the liberties of man, amid social constructs, correspond to the orthodoxies upheld by the societies with which he is conditioned to associate. Hence, man is free–within always already prevalent limitations–at birth, and endowed with liberties once he is amid society.

These observations appear critical insofar that liberal economic, political and social structures and processes still are perceived as ideal, and deemed to be in the best interests of all stakeholders in the human project. While this may indeed be the case, relative to non-liberal structures, in which freedom and liberty are even more elusive, the potency of liberalism ought not to be overstated, and its likely perils recognized.

As Tocqueville anticipated, constituents of democracies have come to long first for equality and then for liberties. Thus, an extensive government retains its appeal–perceived to foster equality and provide sought-after comforts–even though it gradually erodes the very liberties that initially facilitated equality–or rather, equity. The desire for an extensive government is, however, misguided, as equity cannot be derived from technicalities. On the contrary, as the scope of freedom and liberties is constrained by intrinsic and socialized factors, the pursuit of choices that favor equity presupposes not intervention but redesign. In other words, in order to cultivate equity, the organization of man–with its social conventions and socialized differences–has to be rendered conducive to the idea of equity. Problematically, structures and processes tend to be tweaked but rarely redesigned, so that even as ideas evolve, these can scarcely be realized. Amid such stasis, the choices man comes to make are unlikely to be sensible.

Improvement, as the heart of Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, therefore relies on the preservation of already constrained liberties, which is hardly possible amid an extensive state that governs its citizens, instead of being governed by them–if only indirectly–which, of course, is the very idea of democracy. Nonetheless, the preservation of liberties alone–which grants man the ability to choose–does not translate into the capability of choosing. What good is it, if man can choose, but cannot choose sensibly?

Liberal education is, therefore, critical. While the particulars of such an education cannot be illustrated herein–but shall be sketched in forthcoming posts–a number of elements appear critical. Students must, first, be exposed to the complexity, uncertainty, risk and dynamism of their world, rather than to the particulars and peculiarities of the prevalent quasi-order. This may, secondly, endow them with an appreciation for knowledge and the ideas it brings forth. Thirdly, and through such curiosity and inquiry, students must be enabled to think, to question and to dare to differ, as orthodoxy is prone to stall evolution. Fourth and last, students must be enabled to translate their ability to think, question and differ into conceiving and designing the prevalent anew. Of course, such a transformation of education–or rather of learning–is hardly probable, as the most intellectually capable are lured into the private sector, where, as Clayton Christensen from the Harvard Business School suggests, “capitalists seem uninterested in capitalism–in supporting the development of market-creating innovations.”

So long as education illuminates the world as it is, rather than leading the learning to envision the world as it can be, there is little hope for the continuous improvement Smith describes, and virtually no relief from the pointed realism of a Reinhold Niebuhr.

Our problem is that technicians have established a rudimentary world community but have not integrated it organically, morally or politically. –Reinhold Niebuhr, “Education and the World Scene”
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