The consequences of freedom Part 2

Last month I wrote about RD Laing and how his conception of freedom has had a lasting and negative impact on education as well as wider society. In this post I want to consider the role of Isiah Berlin in shaping how we have come to think about freedom. Berlin was a Russian born, British educated philosopher and political theorist. At the heart of his thinking was a concern with how to protect individual freedom. He wanted human beings to be free to make their own mistakes without well-meaning, paternalistic institutions making decisions about what is best for us. He saw this nannying attitude in the way the Britain had treated the native populations of its Empire, and the way schoolmasters treated school boys, and felt that eventually and inevitably, it would lead to negative consequences.

Berlin saw communism and the Soviet Union as the greatest threat to individual freedom in the world. The brutal crushing of the Hungarian revolution of 1956 shocked the world and for Berlin presented a terrible paradox: How could a system which had been conceived to liberate the people form tyranny end up tyrannising the very people it had sought to liberate? In 1958, Berlin suggested what he believed was a better and safer alternative. In his essay, Two Concepts of Liberty he set out these alternatives: positive and negative liberty. Both, he argued, were born in the crucible of the French revolution. ‘Positive liberty’ takes the view that in order to be free, people have to be transformed and become better and more rational. Revolutionary leaders determined both what this transformation should look like and how to bring it about. The inherent danger in this thinking is that if you don’t understand what true freedom really is, then it should be thrust open you, regardless of what you might think to be in your best interests. This lead to Robespierre justifying The Terror as “the despotism of liberty against tyranny.” This is the same sort of logic that leads to crusades and jihads; the beauty of the end justifies the barbarism of the means. Positive liberty would always fail, Berlin argued, because it rested on a belief that “more than any other, is responsible for the slaughter of individuals on the altars of the great historical ideals”:

This is the belief that somewhere, in the past or in the future, in divine revelation or in the mind of an individual thinker, in the pronouncements of history or science, or in the simple heart of an uncorrupted good man, there is a final solution. (p. 29)

It is because “the belief that some single formula can in principle be found whereby all the diverse ends of men can be harmoniously realised is demonstrably false,” Berlin argued, that choice is so important. ‘Negative liberty’ – or freedom from interference – is the freedom of everybody to do whatever they want and nothing more. He wasn’t arguing for a nihilistic, Hobbesian dystopia in which all are at war with all and was at pains to say that individual freedom should not be the only or even the most important principle at work in society:
We compel children to be educated, and we forbid public executions. These are certainly curbs to freedom. We justify them on the ground that ignorance, or a barbarian upbringing, or cruel pleasures and excitements are worse for us than the amount of restraint needed to repress them. (p. 30)

But other than these minimums, power should be restrained. Society would be better and safer without the ideals of positive liberty. To set itself against the tyranny of the Soviet Empire, the West should idealise only individual desires and the freedom to indulge them. All attempts at revolution, no matter how seductive they might seem, will always lead to brutality, horror and a loss of individual freedoms and charismatic individuals wanting to lead us to something better are potential tyrants and, “the liberty of the strong, whether their strength is physical or economic, must be restrained.”

Berlin was a strong believer that there was ‘no best way’ and urged for pluralism:
Pluralism, with the measure of ‘negative’ liberty that it entails, seems to me a truer and more humane ideal than the goals of those who seek in the great disciplined, authoritarian structures the ideal of ‘positive’ self-mastery by classes, or peoples, or the whole of mankind. (p. 31)

Berlin was wise enough to recognise the dangers inherent in negative liberty and warned against those who espoused it coming to believe in it as an absolute ideal arguing that “to allow [any ideal] to determine one’s practice is a symptom of an equally deep, and more dangerous, moral and political immaturity.” It wasn’t long before this warning would come to seem prophetic.

These two conceptions of liberty continue to dominate our thinking today. Revolutionaries the world over use freedom as their rallying cry, and the most conservative of politicians promise freedom in their bids for reelection. Everyone wants freedom, but maybe this just means we’re talking past each other; some of us want the freedom to transform the world, whereas as others just want the freedom to choose how to spend their weekends. In education, some people want to transform the lives of children so they can be more fully themselves and others want the freedom to determine whether they teach a concept using guided instruction or peer discussion.

Negative liberty has come to be enshrined in schools though the neo-liberal philosophy of the market forces; the idea that if we are all free to choose wha we want, the market can supply our desires better than any external source of authority. By the same logic, if children are free to do what they want, when they want, then this will somehow be better than adult authority restraining their impulses and whims. The problem is, the freedom to choose with little or no knowledge of what choices exist is a very shallow conception of freedom. Choice is only meaningful when you know enough to have an informed opinion on the options available.

The desire for children to have autonomy is no doubt well-intentioned, but when the narratives negative liberty – choice and freedom – are played out in schools, there’s an inevitable asymmetry in its effects. Those children from advantaged backgrounds with informed, knowledgeable parents are much better equipped to choose than students from less advantaged backgrounds.  The belief that all children will, if left to their own devices, choose well is naive.

In A History of the World, Andrew Marr suggests we need balance between new ideas and ‘the wisdom of the tribe’:

What is the right balance between state authority and individual liberty? No successful state is a steady state. All successful states experience a relentless tug-of-war between conservatism, the wisdom of the tribe, and radicalism, or new thinking. The wisdom of the tribe really matters: it is the accumulated lessons of history, the mistakes as well as the answers, that a polity has gathered up so far. But if this wisdom is not challenged, it ossifies. The political revolutions of the British and then the Americans encouraged individuals to alter the balance of powers, without destroying their states. In France, where a conservative monarchy collapsed, revolutionaries tried to wipe out the past entirely and create a new present based only on radical questioning, or ‘reason’; it was bold but bloody failure, copied again and again.

Maybe it’s equally true that no successful school system is a steady school system? Maybe we require the tug of war between the desire to give children choice and to guide them to make wise choices. We want neither an ossified idea of what children must do nor a ‘bold and bloody failure, copied again and again.’ We need to find a way to give children meaningful freedoms that allow them “to alter the balance of powers, without destroying their states.” To that end, maybe we should start asking what freedom is for?

The positive liberty which Isiah Berlin so dreaded has been thoroughly discredited but the alternative of negative liberty consists of little more than consumerism, void of meaning which only adds to inequality. Is this the freedom we want for our children, or would we prefer that their freedom meant something? Maybe Berlin was wrong and we can attempt to improve the world – or at least our small part of it – without becoming tyrants.

11 Responses to The consequences of freedom Part 2

  1. Tom Burkard says:

    I was hoping that you’d address the question as to how much freedom teachers should have, and whether those who determine how our schools are run are committed to a vision of ‘positive liberty’. From my son’s experience and my own, I’d argue that teachers have far less freedom than a corporal in the British Army. In most schools, teachers are forced to generate masses of wildly inaccurate data to paint pictures for Ofsted and to implement school improvement programmes like Kagan, even if they honestly believe that these activities are not in their pupils’ best interest (to say nothing of their own). In the army you were given an objective and left to draw upon your training to achieve it in any way possible. I’m sure Isiah Berlin would have approved of the latter.

    As for our pupils’ freedom: in terms of behaviour, even in ‘good’ schools, many teachers feel it’s not worth the effort to stop low-level chatter or even to keep pupils in their seats. They know that any attempt to impose sanctions is more likely to make trouble for them than for the miscreant. In terms of learning, pupils have the freedom not to learn much of anything at all: routine testing is opposed by the profession because such tests would rapidly reveal how little knowledge they retain.

    Insofar as we have schools that run strongly against this trend, they generally have fairly firm notions as to what pupils should study as well as how they should behave. I don’t think this argues for ‘positive liberty’: indeed, I think it’s essential if any degree of negative liberty is to survive. Traditions are standards which societies internalise to ensure that individuals exercise self-restraint, which is far healthier than external restraint.

    Thomas Sowell put this very nicely: “For the anointed, traditions are likely to be seen as the dead hand of the past, relics of a less enlightened age, and not as the distilled experience of millions who faced similar human vicissitudes before.”

  2. Mario says:

    Can children’s autonomy in schools be traced back to Berlin? I think it’s more related to ideas from the left such as domination and alienation. Daisy Christodoulou in Seven Myths About Education cites Rosseau, Dewey and Freire, not Berlin, as theoretical evidence in favor of minimal guidance.

    • David Didau says:

      I’m not claiming that Berlin’s ideas have led directly to child-centred ed. I’m talking about he negative liberty of individual choice. What I’m suggesting is that his ideas have been hugely influential on wider society, particularly politics. Project Democracy, the neo-con philosophy of spreading democracy by force is directly traceable to Berlin’s time in Britain’s embassy to the US. And we know Blair had read Berlin and was convinced by the idea of negative liberty. We can see how the political spread of consumerism has infiltrated popular thinking so why should we be surprised to see this enacted in schools?

      • Mario says:

        “We can see how the political spread of consumerism has infiltrated popular thinking so why should we be surprised to see this enacted in schools?”

        I’m not convinced by that correlation. Is a pedagog more likely to read Berlin than Rousseau, Dewey, Russell or the Franfurt School? I personally doubt it.

        I attended a conference by Jonathan Haidt earlier this year where he showed a graphic that linked values with wealth. The road from poverty to wealth has different phases, and when a society is transitioning from one state to the other we see a burst of consumerism. Once wealth is consolidated, there’s a shift towards more humanistic values, as the nordic countries show us. I’d be very careful blaming a consumer society as the root of all evil, specially considering how much wealthier we’ve become in the last fifty years.

        Pinker makes a similar point in The Better Angels of Our Nature regarding the pacifying effects of commerce.

        • David Didau says:

          1. It’s fine not to be convinced
          2. We’re very often influenced by things we don’t know we know
          3. Rousseau et al will of course have been influential on pedagogy generally. I’m making a claim about neo-liberalism specifically.
          4. I’m not blaming consumer society for anything – I’m saying it’s a product of political ideology. Commerce *is* good, but, over the past few decades, mainly as a cold war response to communism, negative liberty has been increasingly espoused as an ideal in and of itself. I’m basing my thinking in part on having read and agreed with Better Angels.

          • Mario says:

            What about the asian tigers that do so well on education? Those are societies where consumerism is alive and well, however, their education system does not seem to suffer because of it.

          • David Didau says:

            Again, I’m not claiming there’s a link between consumerism and poor standards in education.

  3. David says:

    I presume you know Adam Curtis’ TV Series ‘The Trap: What Ever Happened to Our Dream Of Freedom’ covers a lot of these ideas including RD Laing and Isiah Berlin:
    I love the bit about target setting from around 38:00 minutes into this episode especially when Prescott talks about Target Setting for bird song.

  4. Mario says:

    Yes, I’ve seen the The Trap. Quite good, I must add. Friedrich Hayek’s famous essays on knowledge explaining the impossibility of central planning show why Blair’s policies where destined to fail. The problem with using the neo-liberal tag is that Hayek himself is often portrayed as one of the most important neo-liberal thinkers. Meanwhile, he considered himself a classical liberal, even an old whig. To me, what you describe is related to an attack on the authority principle, castrating the teacher using the student’s autonomy as alibi.

Constructive feedback is always appreciated

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