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Education and Freedom: From Epictetus to Russell


Andrew D. Irvine

 Author Notes

Department of Philosophy, University of British Columbia

 Essay - 4/27/1999

"Bachelors and Masters of Arts who do not follow Aristotle's philosophy are subject to a fine of 5 shillings for each point of divergence."

- Fourteenth-century statute of Oxford University

Fourteenth-century Oxford got it wrong. We know today that knowledge isn't advanced by regulation or intimidation. Education, we are confident, is not the same as indoctrination.

But why? Doesn't all education involve some degree of indoctrination? If not, does this mean that students should be free to believe whatever they want? Is the goal of teaching objective truth nothing more than a myth?

Within the western democracies it has long been recognized that different ideas and contrary viewpoints are not simply to be tolerated. Differences of opinion are essential for the advancement of knowledge. Without competing hypotheses about controversial issues, knowledge does not progress. And it is from this insight that we have built many of our most important institutions: the court and jury system, the division of government powers, her majesty's loyal opposition, an independent fourth estate, peer refereed scientific journals, and so on.

Even so, it is this same toleration of diverse opinion which has led to a decline of educational standards over the past half century. Recognizing the dangers of indoctrination, many reformers have given their implicit approval to the slide from toleration to relativism. Recognizing that the toleration of diverse viewpoints is not only a virtue, but a necessity, many educators have been quick to abandon the idea of objective truth. Concerned to avoid the charge of indoctrination, they have been quick to become "facilitators" rather than teachers, helping students discover that every falsehood is a potential truth and that every truth is a potential falsehood.

The dilemma arises from having to choose between relativism, on the one hand, and dogmatism on the other, between epistemic neutrality and epistemic indoctrination.

What is the solution? How can we accept epistemic toleration without embracing relativism? How can we agree that students need to be presented with all sides of an issue without admitting that the most outrageous of ideas deserves a place in the curriculum?

Before trying to solve this problem, let us first consider a more basic question: What is the purpose of education? What is it that we, as a society and as individual educators, want to achieve in the classroom? One answer comes from the eighteenth-century enlightenment: "Man is unhappy," says Paul-Henri Holbach, "because he is ignorant of nature." According to Holbach, it is through education that many of the great evils of the world-disease, famine, and even war-are diminished. It is by learning about nature, the enlightenment thinkers tell us, that we are able to master our world. And it is with this mastery that we will be able to reduce suffering and increase happiness.

A second answer comes directly from the modern period. This is the view that, in order for democracy to prevail, people must be educated. In a democracy, all laws and institutions find their ultimate foundation in the sovereign will of the people. As a result, we must all be able to understand and reason about a wide variety of topics. Without an educated citizenry, democracy itself is in peril.

Yet a third answer comes from the ancient Greek philosopher, Plato. Says Plato, "If you ask what is the good of education in general, the answer is easy; that education makes good men, and that good men act nobly." In other words, for Plato, choosing the right action and leading a good life require that we learn all we can about the world, about human nature and about ethics. Just as becoming a good carpenter requires that we learn about carpentry, becoming a good person or a good citizen requires that we learn about the nature of the good and our place in the world.

Another answer also comes from antiquity. This is the suggestion that education is of value, not for any instrumental reason, but simply for its own sake. In the words of Aristotle, Plato's most famous pupil, "To be always seeking after the useful does not become free and exalted souls." Enjoying good literature, understanding history, or how the world works, or appreciating music or art, Aristotle tells us, are all ends in themselves. If Aristotle is right, as educators we have an obligation to study and teach those disciplines which have formed the backbone of our common culture for the past 3,000 years, regardless of any short-term vocational consequences. At a time when so many people find their lives unfulfilling, Aristotle's point is worth emphasizing. If, as a society, we choose to devalue those very pursuits which are of value purely for their own sake, we are bound to find ourselves searching without a goal.

Although there is something right about each of these four explanations, it is helpful to mention one more. This final explanation comes from the stoic philosopher Epictetus. A one-time Roman slave, Epictetus argued that the good life was one, not of numbness (which is what the modern definition of "stoicism" has come to imply) but of balance between life's highs and lows. Thus we get from Epictetus the advice that we should "know what we can control and what we cannot", and that "self-mastery depends upon self-honesty".

It is from this former slave that we also obtain a rather remarkable insight: "Only the educated," says Epictetus, "are free." What Epictetus means is that education has the potential to free us from the constraints of class, culture, birth and nation. Education is what gives us the ability to go beyond our own experience, to see unexpected alternatives, to think outside the box.

By reading Anne Frank's Diary we are transported across time and space to experience what it was like to live in hiding during the Nazi purges. By learning about discoveries such as those of Gregor Mendel or Isaac Newton, we find it easier to face new scientific and medical challenges with optimism.

This observation - that education is connected to freedom - underlies all four of our earlier ideas about the value of education. Without the freedom to choose between competing alternatives, we would be unable to eliminate disease and decrease human suffering; we would be unable to exercise our sovereignty over government; we would be unable to act nobly; or to live the good life. Freedom, it seems, is inextricably linked to education.

What does this insight tell us about the difference between education and indoctrination? What does it tell us about resolving the dilemma between relativism and dogmatism? The main thing it tells us is that we will have failed as educators if we do not give our students the tools and the ability to think for themselves, to become free in Epictetus's sense.

This is an important point, so it is worth taking a moment to state it again. If Epictetus is right, there is all the difference in the world between freedom and the preparation for freedom, and to confuse the two is to court failure in the classroom.

In other words, there is an important difference between allowing a young child the freedom to play in traffic, or to swallow poison, or to be a bully, and teaching that same child the consequences of these actions. Confusing freedom with the preparation for freedom is a little like confusing an athlete's years of disciplined training with his freedom to decide whether to run on race day. It is like confusing retirement with the preparation for retirement: a lifetime of unemployment is hardly an ideal way to prepare for one's future years of leisure.

Giving our students the ability to be free in Epictetus's sense requires not only that we eventually remove their constraints. It also requires that we teach them what it means to live without constraint, what it means to have choices. It also requires that we teach them that genuine choices require genuine knowledge, and that all actions have consequences.

Education without the eventual removal of constraint is indoctrination, but the removal of constraint, without education, can hardly be called freedom. It is this second point that we, as educators, have so often failed to grasp over the past fifty years. Grasping this point requires that we not abandon our role as teachers. It requires that we realize that it is only by giving our students the tools to exercise their options that they will have any genuine freedom at all. In other words, it requires that we remember that in the classroom we have something of substance to say, and that we are obligated to say it.

This point was recently brought home to me when, upon completing her studies, one of my doctoral students presented me with a small gift. It was a CD of Glen Gould's 1962 Carnegie Hall performance of Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 1 in D-minor. The recording is remarkable, not only for the music, but also for the unusual introductory comments made by the conductor, Leonard Bernstein.

Before inviting Mr Gould to centre stage, Mr Bernstein addressed the audience as follows:

"Don't be frightened, Mr Gould is here. He will appear in a moment ... but a curious situation has arisen which merits, I think, a word or two.

"You are about to hear a rather, shall we say, unorthodox performance of the Brahms D-minor concerto, a performance distinctly different from any I have ever heard, or even dreamt of for that matter ... I cannot say I am in total agreement with Mr Gould's conception. And this raises the interesting question ... 'In a concerto, who is the boss? The soloist or the conductor?'

"The answer is, of course, sometimes one and sometimes the other, depending on the people involved. But almost always the two manage to get together, by persuasion, or charm, or even threats, to achieve a unified performance.

"I have only once before in my life had to submit to a soloist's wholly new and incompatible concept, and that was the last time I accompanied Mr Gould. But this time the discrepancies between our views are so great that I feel I must make this small disclaimer.

"So why ... am I conducting it? ... Because I am fascinated, glad to have the chance for a new look at this much-played work. Because, what's more, there are moments in Mr Gould's performance that emerge with astonishing freshness and conviction. Thirdly, because we can all learn something from this extraordinary artist who is a thinking performer. And finally, because there is in music ... that factor of curiosity, adventure, experiment. And I can assure you that it has been an adventure this week collaborating with Mr Gould on this Brahms concerto. And it's in this spirit of adventure that we now present it to you."

Now, I expect that giving me this recording was a none-too-subtle way of reminding me that students and teachers can have differences of opinion, and that it is not always the teacher who is right and the student who is wrong.

But I prefer to think of this gift as marking a turning point in our relationship, a graduation, if you will, one in which, like the soloist and the conductor, the teacher and former student have become equal partners in the search for knowledge. Prior to graduation, it is the teacher who is "the boss", for if graduation is to mean anything, it must mean graduation from one position to another. And if the teacher has done his or her job well, this means that the student will have graduated from a position of ignorance to one of genuine freedom.

Returning to the question of neutrality versus indoctrination, we now see that we have been offered a false dilemma. The choice for the teacher is not just a choice between neutrality or relativism, on the one hand, and dogmatism or indoctrination on the other. There remains a third option. The point with which we began, namely that the advancement of knowledge requires the toleration of diverse opinion, remains true. But it does not follow from this that being tolerant and open-minded leads to relativism. It does not mean that the most outrageous of ideas are to be placed on an equal footing with those which are most likely to be true. It does not mean that we should give up preferring the National Post to the National Inquirer.

No one has made this point more clearly or more forcefully this century than the British philosopher, Bertrand Russell. According to Russell, although education clearly requires an open mind on the part of both the teacher and the student, we should not be tricked into thinking that an open mind is an empty mind. Being open-minded is not incompatible with having opinions. It does not entail a lack of conviction. Being tolerant of diverse points of view does not mean giving into relativism. Rather, being open-minded means having a certain kind of critical attitude. It means being willing to weigh the evidence, both pro and con, about even our most cherished and deeply held beliefs. It requires, not that we abandon our intellectual standards and embrace relativism, but just the opposite. Being open-minded requires that we use our intellect to examine the ideas which others offer to us for our consideration. Since genuine intellectual tolerance is rooted in the desire to have truth advance, it cannot be that open-mindedness requires the embracing of relativism. In fact, just the opposite. In Russell's words, "To teach men how to live without certainty and yet without being paralyzed by hesitation, is perhaps the chief thing philosophy can still do."

Being open-minded means being open to the possibility that we may discover evidence in favour of even the most unlikely of ideas. Yet this, in turn, means being committed to the view that it is the presence or absence of evidence which is the crucial, determining factor in identifying rational belief. It means being committed to the view that some ideas are true while others are false. None of this moves us any distance towards relativism. What it means, instead, is that ideas have to earn our respect, and that relativism itself must be abandoned.

As teachers, we do our students a disservice whenever we teach them anything less.

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