When I was a young school Head I wrote and thought about big things. For example, the meaning of freedom. Twenty eight years ago in 1990 myself and my wife, who is still with me today after some 58 years, were directors of our own middle and high school founded in Berkeley, CA in 1972, established a few months later in Rockport, and a few years later in Beverly, MA. We published for our own community journal or monthly that we called Le Temps Retrouvé. This is where I would put the big ideas that I had about school. I realized at the time that there were few members of our community, other than my father and my wife, who would read them. The kids for their part filled out the journal with their poems, drawings and stories.
My wife, Josée, will often remind me of these earlier writings of mine. And sometimes I’m happy to meet up with them again, although not always. The piece below, on the meaning of freedom, she found in our school and family archives that she’s been putting together it seems for years and years. Now the meaning of freedom is a big thing, right? Something I wasn’t at all prepared for when she gave it to me. And I was surprised as I read it. My words of nearly 30 years ago could with few if any changes could have been written yesterday. Have I not changed in all that time? Maybe it’s because freedom itself hasn’t changed. That must be it.
The meaning of freedom.
The other day during meeting I asked the new students to Waring this year whether or not they felt they were freer here than they had been in their previous school environment, … “Well, yes,… no,… there were more things 1 had to do there, …here, there are more required courses…”
But most of all, they were silent, asking me by their silence about what I might have meant by being freer. The question was important, but they were by and large unable to answer it. In any case, they didn’t yet seem to know what freedom in this school environment might mean. There is a paradox to be uncovered here.
On the one hand in the world at large there has never been so much talk about freedom—openness or freedom of expression in Moscow, still the Soviet Union; the freeing of the captive East European countries; the toppling of the Berlin Wall; and then today, just a few hours ago, the freeing of Nelson Mandela by president de Klerk of South Africa.
On the other hand, the particular freedom that this school fosters in the lives of its students goes pretty much unrecognized as such. Are you free at Waring? The answers are on the level of: “yes, we address the faculty by their first names; yes, we don’t have to raise our hands in class; yes, we can dress and act pretty much the way we want.” Or, “no, we are not free to not do the program, we have few elective courses to choose from, we are not free to have different goals, and we are all expected to become self-learners.”
I believe that man is right now learning to become free, just as in earlier periods he learned to use tools and language. He is right now in the throes of the most recent evolutionary developments, although the continued and further realization of his nature may not fully assert itself before another thousand or more years.
There are those who do not share my admiration for man’s becoming free—materialists and determinists for whom man’s freedom is an illusion; dictators and autocrats, such as in Soviet Russia, for whom the idea of freedom was detrimental to their goal of a totalitarian state. Both materialists and the statists would reduce man to being no more than the sum of his parts, —at the highest levels to being a member of a social organization or political party, or a physiological organism or animal, and at the lowest levels to being collections of cells, macromolecules, atoms and subatomic particles.
These same people would say that since states and organisms and cells can ultimately be understood in terms of physical laws, any illusion of freedom that we might experience in our own lives simply results from our ignorance of those laws. When those laws, or blueprints for what we are, become completely known, when, for example, we know the substance and significance of the tens of thousands of genes on the 46 chromosomes in every nucleus of the trillions of cells that make up our bodies what then would we mean by being free?
The materialist philosophy, called reductionism, says that to understand something, say the hereditary factor or gene, we need only “reduce” it to its parts, in this case a portion of a single chain of the spiraling double helix molecules of DNA. In turn the DNA may be reduced to the carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen and phosphorus atoms and molecules of which it is made.
Many biologists do not adhere to this philosophy. They have known for a long time that some of the most important concepts in biology, such as life itself, mind, and consciousness, seem to be inexplicable in terms of their parts. Nor, they say, can these concepts be reduced to what came before. Those who once would explain the origin of life in terms of the readiness of the so-called primordial soup, with its proper mixture of water, amino acids and other essential organic and inorganic compounds, are more and more forced to admit that life seems to be something more than the sum of its organic components.
Biologists now recognize the existence of phenomena seemingly inexplicable except on their own terms. They call these phenomena emergent phenomena. Life emerged, as did mind and consciousness. Emergence can be seen in physical phenomena as well. For example, wateriness is not there in the separated atoms of oxygen and hydrogen, nor saltiness in the atoms of sodium and chlorine combined as salt. Emergence is the name for the appearance of new characteristics in new wholes.
Freedom, as I would like to suggest, is an emergent quality, somehow emerging from consciousness, just as consciousness emerged from life, and life emerged from non-life. But there is an important difference between life and consciousness and freedom, the former are by now well-entrenched, well-rooted in man’s nature, have been around for a long time. In important ways their evolutionary stories are now over, in the case of life, appearing first on this planet billions of years ago. And consciousness? We don’t know, but probably millions of years ago. We are still heatedly debating whether or not not only men and dolphins but also bacteria are conscious beings. But at some point in evolutionary history, between bacteria and me, thinking or consciousness probably did emerge. Finally I would like to emphasize that the story of freedom is something else, it is new, and it’s what man’s short history of just tens of thousands of years (not billions, not even millions) has been most about, and continues to be most about.
Everyone will have remarked on the fragility of external freedoms, of freedom of movement and speech, in both the ancient and the modem worlds. Even more fragile is the more important freedom that each individual may or may not achieve in his or her own lifetime. This kind of freedom is not brought about by opening prison doors, or tearing down walls and barbed wire fences, nor even by attaching Bills of Rights to
Constitutions. This freedom is an individual phenomenon, within the power of the individual to achieve, as only individuals can be alive and conscious. By this kind of freedom I mean the breaking down of the barriers in one’s own mind which the great men in history have all set out to do. By this freedom I mean freeing oneself from inert ideas and thereby realizing one’s own unique potential. James Watson (the co-discoverer of the double helix model of DNA) said something like this: I don’t have his exact words. “I think it’s important that you establish conditions where people will become important early in life, because being important will somehow give them the self-confidence to think big.”
This for me means that it’s important that kids make use of their freedom, learn what it means to rely on themselves, to bring things about by their own efforts “to think big.” Again, I would ask, not only the students new to Waring, but all of you, do you feel freer in this school? Do you feel that more than before your life is taking on a shape of its very own? Are you becoming someone who makes things happen, rather than a follower and bystander, a looker on? In order to learn and grow, that which school is most about, students must sooner or later, I hope sooner, come to grips with the meaning of freedom in their own lives. Do you understand that you are free? That the good that you will accomplish will be up to you. We are helping you to understand that. That’s our main job.
Philip B. Waring