Slavery and Freedom

The worst thing about slavery in America would have to be the simple fact that people owned slaves. In addition, the consequences of that evil institution are never-ending.

One of the worst consequences of American slavery is that, because of the sort of slavery we practiced, we narrowed the definition of slavery in the public mind. I think if you asked most Americans what slavery is, they would probably tell you that it is when one person works for another without being paid. Or they may say that it is when you cannot leave another person’s control, which is an awful lot like kidnapping.

In general, I don’t get the sense that people think a lot about what it means. That’s not a good thing, because there are different forms of slavery, some of which aren’t even unpleasant for the slave.

But in the end, the root notion of slavery would seem to be the inability to control your own life, i.e. the inability to make and live by your own decisions.

We have a rather Romantic view of human beings, in which, as Rousseau claimed, “All men are born free.” I suppose in some mystical sense this could be true, but practically speaking it is pure nonsense. A baby does not have the strength to move from one room to the next, to pursue any of his own desires without calling on others to fulfill them, even to clean himself.

Freedom is an achievement, and not an easy one to attain. People who are bound by debt are not free. People who are bound by their appetites are not free. People who are unable to make decisions for themselves are not free.

That last one is really the point. And it underscores what I am getting at.

If you are easy to manipulate, if you look to others approval for what is honorable or dishonorable, right or wrong, practical or impractical, and if you cannot draw back to self-knowledge and principles, then you are not a free person.

If you cannot reason through the variables, if you lack the intellectual strength to distinguish truth from falsehood, natural from unnatural, real from fake, appropriate from inappropriate, then you are not a free person.

If you lack the capacity to use language to communicate and reason in community, to persuade when you know the truth, to submit when you don’t, to know when you do and when you don’t, to be a vital member of the decision making process in your community, even to be involved in choosing the representative heads of your community, you are not a free person.

Freedom is nothing less than the opportunity to discover and become what you are. It is not an abstraction, but a vital relationship between a person and the circumstances in which he lives. It is rooted entirely in human nature and the nature of the cosmos. It is not a Romantic fantasy, always tantalizing, just beyond the reach of the zealot.

Therefore, since it is not a Romantic fantasy, but is rooted in reality, one cannot become free by deciding on Tuesday afternoon to do so. You might have to fight with others for your freedom; you will certainly have to fight with yourself.

You are not free until you have mastered the disciplines of the free person.

Freedom is personal first, ethical second, and political last.

But our schools, claiming to teach the liberal arts, are making slaves of us all.

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One Response

  1. This is the most educationally fruitful definition of freedom I have ever read. An educator on any grade level could take each of the points you make and write out specific curriculum content and classroom activities to address each one.

    Too many curricula today are ruled by what you have called the “Romantic fantasy.” Most schools/departments/faculties of education are based on Rousseau’s thinking, romanticizing the child, and providing an airy, inadequate understanding of freedom and what it takes to become free.

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