Friday, March 4, 2011

Mental liberty

Talking to my grad student friends about teaching reveals a lot of agreement. For instance, one of the things that strikes all of us who teach calculus is the way our students tend to ask this particular question:
Am I allowed to do that?
Are you allowed to do that? I think to myself. Who ever suggested to you that you were somehow under someone's authority? Notice what the student doesn't ask. She doesn't ask, "Is this true?" She doesn't ask, "Is this the correct meaning of the symbol I'm using?" She doesn't even ask, "Will this get me the right answer?" Just a simple, submissive question: Am I allowed to do this?

Semantics, you say. All of those questions are really just different ways of asking the same thing. Nonsense! It is no accident that students ask this wretched question. From the time they are little children, they are trained to think that truth is a matter of authority. They are trained to look in the back of the book for answers to their math problems, they are trained to solve problems using the exact step by step process spoon fed to them by their teachers, and they are trained out of the creativity they once possessed as children. Because they also happen to be imbibed with an American sense of anti-authoritarianism, they simply become relativists, not having any sense of truth as an objective reality. American individualism notwithstanding, this view of truth degrades human freedom and is the source of all political evil.

I try to tell my students, There are no rules! You are constrained solely by what is true! Only a free person understands this; indeed, it is the definition of freedom. You are never free of all constraints. Objective reality does not give in to your whims. But you are free to poke it and prod it as you wish. What students fundamentally misunderstand about their education is the relationship between themselves and reality. They believe that in some aspects they can stand in authority over reality, whereas in others they must bow in submission. Neither is correct; the human mind never transcends the world, but neither is it simply drifting in the wind.

In short, no one can be free from God; but to be free of every will that is not God's is true freedom. There is a reason we call it liberal education--it is the education of free people. It is not my students' ability to reason quantitatively that I most worry about. What I worry about is their desire for truth, which is fundamentally linked to their creativity and above all their ability to exist as free people. Truly, no one can enter the Kingdom of Heaven except as a child. It is when we lose our child-like tendency to ask questions out of sheer curiosity, to poke and prod and play with, to seek out boundaries and see how far we can push them--then we lose our freedom, and with it our thirst for truth, and with that the things that make us most fully human.

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