Freedom, Scale, and Education

Freedom, having been reduced to the right to do and say whatever you want – with the rapid and empty qualifier “as long as you don’t hurt anybody else” – has gone the same way everything else goes when its nature is changed. It is somewhere between imperiled and nonexistent.

If we reduce freedom to the vacuity of the foregoing common definition, the person who wants to be free needs to ask a question. “Why is the second clause, the qualification needed?”

Perhaps the answer is too obvious to bother noting: It is because freedom so defined puts the individual in conflict with everybody else.

[Brief aside: That conflict gives rise to the so called social contract, a very highly refined political theory necessitated by the development of this childish view of freedom.

Locke had a pretty sophisticated version of it. Rousseau had more of a reactionary, emotionally driven, childish version. I’m subject to correction, but it seems to me that both of them root their theory in this reduced notion of freedom – one that arises from the application of Newtonian physics to politics and human psychology (Locke) and the reaction to that soul-depleting application (Rousseau).]

Here’s one way of looking at it, let’s call it the practical way.

Freedom is the right to make your own decisions – within certain boundaries.  Those boundaries reflect the need for the qualification noted above. The person who said that definition to me, a very wise young lady named Larissa, followed it up with another qualification, which indicated great thoughtfulness on her part. She said, “I don’t think there is any such thing as ultimate freedom.”

That last clause reveals a great deal. There is no absolute freedom. In strictly logical terms, this position seems to create a rather nice syllogism.

Freedom is the right to make decisions.
You can never have the absolute right to decide whatever you want.
So you can never be absolutely free.

Politics, in this scenario, becomes the domain in which we negotiate the boundaries of our freedoms with each other. Our constitution is the product of those negotiations. So we have the right to free speech because our forefathers came to the general agreement that our congress should not have the right to restrict people’s freedom of speech.

Since then, the negotiation has continued. Now that the text is sealed, we can only change it through an amendment. Therefore, various parties have claimed the right to freely express themselves by arguing for new interpretations of that text.

Some have argued that we should only take it to mean what its authors meant. Others have argued that we are all engaged in an ongoing negotiation about how to interpret the words. In fact, that negotiation has itself become the interpretor of those words.  

One Supreme Court justice (Berger, Holmes?) pointed out that the freedom is not absolute; that you cannot cry “fire” in a crowded theatre and expect to go unpunished. So we have to be aware of the limits of freedom of speech.

Since WWII and especially since the 60’s, a new frontier was engaged in this negotiation. Since everybody is a sexual pervert, it was argued (though not usually in those words), we should stop repressing ourselves sexually. We should allow Playboy and other forms of pornography.

Indeed, pornography, it seems to me, is the test case for our abstract ethical theories, especially with the easy access to it provided by the internet. Should we support unfettered capitalism? Or should we negotiate limits on it?

So, as a practical matter, we are continually involved in negotiating the terms of our freedom.

I could go two ways here. I could (and maybe someday will) explore the shortcomings of this understanding of freedom. When our Lord said that His disciples would “know the truth, and the truth will make you free. And if the Son shall make you free, you shall be free indeed,” he doesn’t seem to be offering a social contract. Free indeed seems to refer to ultimate freedom. Maybe that will come up again in what follows, but for this entry I am going to go in a different direction.

I’m going to stay with the practical matter for now. Let us accept that we are constantly negotiating the terms of our freedom, that freedom is relative, and that it is secured only if the government agrees to secure it and to enforce the negotiated settlement.

In this situation, a very practical problem inevitably arises and its resolution defines the kind of society you live in and the kind of freedom you enjoy there. It’s a simple problem too, though not easy to resolve. It’s the problem of scale. If I have a thesis in what follows, it is this:

Freedom has a fitting scale.

Break the scale and freedom breaks. Freedom has a scale because you cannot be free beyond your ability to self-govern. You cannot be free beyond your ability to self-govern because your inability to self-govern will put you in conflict with others. And your inability to self-govern will put you in a very weak negotiating position in that conflict.

The individual must be able to govern himself. If he cannot govern his passions, he will have problems with his temper. If he has problems with his temper, he will be in conflict. If he enters into negotiations over this conflict and he is inclined to argue with an uncontrolled temper, he may get his way, but he will not secure his relationships.

The community must be able to govern itself. If it can’t, its members will either lose their tempers and revolt or they will seek redress from a higher level of government. It seems to me that when a higher level of government is called on to resolve a matter from a lower level, that lower level has failed to govern itself. The primary role of that higher level is always to make the lower level independent and self-governing.

The community may be a family. If it fails, it might call on the tribe or the law courts. It may be a church. If it fails, as in Corinth, it may call upon the law courts. It may be a neighborhood.

The circles of governance expand ever outward. Very few decisions should ever reach the outer circles (e.g. the Supreme Court).  Every such decision indicates a local failure.

Here’s a crucial point: the role of government changes with each level. This is necessary for the simple reason that the kind of knowledge available changes at each level. What a father can know about his daughter is information unavailable in any moderately healthy community. It is also more personal, more relational, more spiritual.

The farther you remove yourself from the intimate personal relationships of family and community, the more abstrct and impersonal the governing authority. This is a principle with ramifications that extend to the finest details of contemporary life and politics.

The creation of sophisticated bureaucracies under Henry VIII and Louis XIV enabled the governments of England and France to govern with an efficiency unknown before them. They also enabled them to spy more effectively, to build crown-controlled armies such as the western world had not seen since the fall of Rome, and to put in motion the forces that would lead to the modern world of impersonal politics, neighborhoods without neighbors, schools without education, and people without souls.

The point is that the various scales of government operate on different principles because they have access to different kinds of knowledge and therefore can make different kinds of decisions. Whole theories of knowledge developed out of the British and French political developments, theories that undercut personal knowledge and replaced it with abstract increasingly statistical knowledge.

In so doing, these theories of knowledge diminished the decision making authority of local communities and families. By the 20th century, farmers didn’t feel qualified to run their own farms without experts from the universities telling them how to do it, parents didn’t feel qualified to raise their own children without exprerts putting their theories in books, teachers didn’t feel qualified to teach unless they learned the theories of the universities, largely ordered to either Locke’s or Rousseau’s theories of how to educate children.

Everywhere, the self-confidence of the local was undermined and dependence on the distant was expanded.

But freedom has a scale. These different kinds of knowledge enable one to make different kinds of decision. Different levels of authority attract different character types. [One wonders if a healthy psychological state could possibly aspire to being president of the United States. What kind of person would believe himself capable of exercising that level of responsibility and authority. Can you possibly take responsibility seriously and want that much of it?

Only if the role of the president is strictly defined (as it was in the constitutional negotiations of our founding fathers) and the potential damage you can cause is strictly limited.]

But now people want the government to do too much. Let me illustrate with education. If I’ve been at all clear in the foregoing, you can see that education can only be effectively accomplished within a community. This is the very nature of education. It involves every kind of knowledge. It nurtures every faculty of perception, sensory, intellectual, and noetic. Therefore, the teachers must have mastered to the degree possible all the types of knowledge.

That is how it was in the Christian classical tradition.

But now we want the federal government to provide education for every American. The seductive power of this idea is as irresistable as the Playboy model referred to above. It is downright pornographic. It promises so much, but it delivers nothing but frustration and self-loathing.

And it changes the nature of the act performed.

The scale of modern schooling utterly undercuts education. The only exceptions are when a particular teacher connects in a particular setting with a particular group of students and those students are brought to life, enlightened, revived. But do not believe this is easy or common.

The problem is simple, though not easy to solve. Education requires authority in the hands of the person with the most intimate knowledge of the matter taught and the students being taught. That, of course, is the teacher. The teacher should report directly to the parents in the form of the “elders” of the community.

Instead, a teacher is an adminstrator of information on behalf of a government agency, reporting to an adminsitrator of teachers who works on behalf of a government agency, maybe the same one. Administrators report to adminstrators and the bulk of the money is spent on the tests and salaries and reports that strangle education. The results of what instruction takes place is reviewed by self-appointed experts who administer abstract tests to determine how children are doing against abstractions.

The goal of all this busy work is to “change the world” or some such nonsense. It is certainly not to teach the child, which seems ambition enough and a change worth pursuing!

The right of the teacher to make decisions has been negotiated to virtually nothing that matters. So much is promised and virtually nothing is received but frustration and self-loathing. And an alteration in the nature of the act of education.

There is, however, a snake in the grass. I fear that our United States are still and will continue to be punished for the evil of slavery and racism till we are no longer a people or a nation. Nowhere can I see this more clearly than in education.

The “Savage Inequalities” that Jonathan Kozol reported in the book of that title are a reality. And they are a reality than cannot be overcome in this discussion.

It parallels the problem of states’ rights. When states’ rights was used as a defense for slavery, every freedom loving person in the world should have cried foul at the top of his lungs and never stopped crying until the slave abusers backed down.

No man has a right to own another man. This is the law of nature and of nature’s God and casts down into the bleeding mud the freedom-and-rights-destroying abuse of the noble American concept of states’ rights.

Now states’ rights are synoymous with slavery and racism for millions of Americans.

The rights of communities to develop their own schools and hold them accountable has sunk into the same cesspool.

The trouble is quite simple, but it is not easily solved. When the authority to educate children is removed from the teacher and the local community, it is put in the hands of people who can only oversee it on the basis of a different kind of knowledge and with a different means of assessment. The nature of education is changed.

To watch this happen, simply read any book on the history of American education and watch what happens during the triumph of scientific management theory during the early 1900’s. Education is not what education was.

It is now overseen by experts and agents instead of teachers and parents.

This is not a question of the morality of the people involved. It is a question of their wisdom. They have replaced wisdom with expertise. They think in quantity instead of form. They want efficiency instead of humane learning.

And nobody suffers more than the inner city minority child who is a statistic on the charts of the educator instead of the child in the heart of the teacher and the community.

The scale of American education has destroyed it.

The social salvation of our country, therefore, requires two things:

  1. A return of education to the teachers and the local communities
  2. A relentless commitment by the American people to ensure that the local communities who lack resources are given them.

I cannot see the first of these happening in the near future, but I also cannot believe that we are a racially healthy country until we have the interracial confidence that we can do it.

And we will not be free to teach until we negotiate the right to make decisions back into the hands of the people placed to make decisions that can matter. I suppose what I’m saying on the education side is, empower teachers! But it’s more than that.

  • Disempower interfering bureaucrats who cannot possibly know what particular children and schools need.
  • Empower local communities to be communities again.

That last point is where I lose all my confidence. I read somewhere that something like one in ten American adults served on local school boards in the 1850’s and it is closer to one in 1,000 now. We don’t involve ourselves in local government anymore because we don’t have local communities anymore. Because we don’t involve ourselves in local government anymore, we don’t learn how to operate politically unless it is within a business. But they have very different ends.

I’m getting carried away. We must recover the scale of freedom, not as a theoretical abstraction, but as a concrete necessity for a free people.


One Response

  1. Perhaps you have seen the bumper stickers that encourage us to buy local, eat local, grow local and maybe we should add a new one: educate local.

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