February 23, 2010

Education is Freedom

I installed a counter on this blog today and also posted the URL on my Facebook page. I noticed that I have some new visitors tonight and you may be English speakers. Since the two previous posts were both in Spanish, I thought that I should return to English for a while so that you were not put off by the my use of Spanish.

Tonight I would like to write about a favorite quotation from one of my favorite thinkers from premoden times: Cicero. We all know Cicero, the Roman philosopher, I am sure. One of Rome's greatest orators, politicians, statesmen and philosophers he was a towering intellect whose insights into life have weathered the decay of centuries and retain their significance even now. The quotation (translated to English because I don't read Latin) is as follows:

"The purpose of education is to free the student from the tyranny of the present."

This rings true in several ways. First, education is a way to look beyond our present circumstances and open our minds to greater possibilities. It is easy to become trapped in our own personal situations, in our own narrow limits of thought and opinion about the world around us, and grow ignorant of the wider world. Learn about another culture and you enrich your own just that much. Learn to speak another language and your mind and your view of the world opens up not only because you can communicate with more people but the act of learning a new tongue frees the mind from its linguistic and cognitive bondage as new ideas can be thought. As we learn new languages, learn math or physics that allows a greater understanding of the physical world, and learn history that provides us with a clearer picture of the human world, as we do these things our minds break free from the tyranny of the present and expand into the multitudinous possibilities of the intellect. This is the first power of education.

I can imagine other worlds. I can imagine my life different than it is now. I can imagine ways to change my life and to change our world. I would not be capable of such imagination without the education to formulate such theories. Not all education is equal and it is the proper education in critical thinking, imagination and historical perspective that provides us with the clearest lens to other possibilities. This is the first way in which we can interpret the quotation, as a sort of freedom of the imagination.

The second way that we can interpret the quotation is a more practical application of education to material freedom. If I hold a masters degree in finance, or a la3 degree, I will have more financial freedom, I will have a greater capability to find a job, I will have more power over my fellow man and thus greater freedom to act on my will. Education, in our modern society is the way to attain anything we want. Those who cannot read are shut off from many of the avenues of our modern society and unable to participate fully in the social fabric that surrounds them. Those who don't graduate high school have extremely limited employment prospects. Those who attend college and graduate study choose their own path in life and attain the freedom to chose not only the benefits they will derive from society but the effect they will have on it. Do you want to earn $100,000 per year? Go to law school or get an business degree. Do you want to save people's lives? Make it through medical school and become a doctor. In either case, our present circumstance, with less education, is one of restriction and enslavement, enslaved by the bonds of our own ignorance. It is through education that we break free.

I see the present as not an end state but as an ever present beginning and I believe it healthy to fix our gaze on the future. I derive a great deal of joy from the acts both of learning and of teaching. I have much to learn myself, as we all do, but there are few pleasures more pure than inspiring others to new intellectual heights and provoking their minds to gain new understanding.

Education and the quality of education is most often what separate one social group from another or one person from another now in this increasingly modern world. And our families and their influence on our attitudes toward education determine, to a large degree how successful we are breaking free from the tyranny of the present. I have seen this again and again during my time in education. The attitudes of the student and his or her family are the largest determiners in his or her success in school. Some choose to remain ignorant and will never succeed, no matter how intelligent they may be. Others choose to embrace education, to work hard and to break free from the slavery of their ignorance. It is very much a choice.

Finally, another way to read the quotation, or at least a corollary that adds an interesting twist. It is through education, both of himself and of others, that Cicero truly broke free of the tyranny of his present. He now continues to educate us more than two thousand years in the future and has attained a sort of immortality. Very few of us will be able to say the same in two thousand years as the ravages of time will have washed our memories from the sands of time.

As a closing thought, for all those who are still in school: remember why you are there. You are there to learn. To learn math, to learn history, to learn new languages, to learn science, to learn new ways of thinking and new possibilities. You are there to grow and become better people and it is not just a place to pass the time or have fun. Looking back later in life, you will appreciate it more, but then it will be too late. Heed my words now, and free yourselves from the tyranny of the present.

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