Jeffrey Tyler Syck is a PhD candidate in the University of Virginia Department of Politics.
There is nothing more American than freedom. The United States is the “land of the free” and her president is the “leader of the free world.” In short, there is little we Americans take more pride in than our freedoms. Despite this fact, we often find ourselves torn between two different conceptions of freedom – the personal and the political. Personal freedom demands that humans restrain our selfish passions, while political freedom requires the lack of restraint necessary to author our own destinies. Perhaps shockingly, given these seemingly irreconcilable differences, the reality is that liberal democracy can only ever be sustained by a civilization that appreciates both meanings of freedom. Without personal freedom society descends first into disorder and then into despotism, without political freedom we can only ever be slaves to the state. Modern America has tragically forgotten this important reality and thus imperiled both brands of liberty. John Quincy Adams, one of America’s greatest thinkers and statesmen, dedicated his life to solving this same difficulty in his own lifetime. Through his writings, he shows us that the path to renewing our free society and healing the political divide that dominates our age lay in strengthening both brands of freedom. The first step of this noble endeavor is the spread of liberal arts education.
That education is such a vital part of freedom may strike the modern citizen as unusual. After all, most of us today define freedom as simply doing whatever we wish as long as it does not harm anyone else. However, this is because we have lost a full appreciation for the two primary meanings of freedom.
Political freedom means that individuals can do what they think is right without undue interference from outside forces. As the British thinker Lord Acton put it, echoing Adams’ view, freedom is the “assurance that every man shall be protected in doing what he believes his duty against the influence of authority and majorities.” This first part of freedom is vital. Political tyranny corrupts both the ruler and the ruled. It turns the citizen into a servant and makes the unfettered pursuit of the Good nearly impossible. This freedom can be fully achieved only in a restrained government, one that places relatively few constraints on the individual or community.
In addition to the unrestrained nature of political freedom, personal freedom demands restraint and the fulfillment of duties. This sort of liberty requires dedication to virtue, essentially agreeing with the definition of freedom offered by John Paul II when he declared that “Freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought.” To achieve personal freedom we must all strive to cultivate virtue. This means aiming for improvement in all aspects of life and living selflessly for others rather than oneself. If we fail to cultivate personal freedom within ourselves, we become enslaved to our selfish desires. Just as a political tyranny makes us servants of the state, the tyranny of our degraded desires makes us mere animals. Both must be overcome if we truly wish to exercise our free will.
Reconciling these two different definitions of freedom served as one of the keys of John Quincy Adams’ broader political project and explain the vitality of education in creating a free society. He argued that a lack of personal freedom usually leads to a lack of political freedom. When a society becomes consumed with selfishness it becomes disordered. In the face of this chaos, the state assumes powers it has no right to, and the people, weakened by their lack of virtue, put up very little fight. As Adams once observed “Virtue is the oxygen, the vital air of the moral world. Immutable and incorruptible itself” unless “the whole soul of every citizen” of a republic is dedicated to improving “the condition of his country and of mankind” then freedom and justice cannot survive. This was no mere theoretical claim. Adams was always happy to point out examples of great republics that followed this pattern such as Athens, Rome, or Florence.
Many on the political right and left today seem to understand the danger of moral collapse in America, and to promote virtue they advocate laws that restrict human behavior. Just recently the Department of Education proposed regulations restricting due process in an effort to end sexual assault on college campuses. Meanwhile, some Republican candidates, among other personal restrictions, have proposed banning contraceptives. The problem with such laws is that they almost inevitably lead to political tyranny. Even if one was hypothetically willing to sacrifice political freedom for personal freedom, it is not possible. Adams pointed to the example of the Middle Ages as proof of his argument. Though much more religiously open-minded than most Protestants at the time, Adams thought the Catholic church–at least pre-reformation–had not allowed their parishioners to fully participate in the life of Christ. They could not read the scriptures in their native language, the sermons were usually in Latin, and priests existed on a social and intellectual plane far removed from their congregants. Instead, citizens were forced by the laws of their nation to behave virtuously without even understanding what virtue was. As Adams himself put it: “[i]n the theories of the crown and the miter, man had no rights. Neither the body nor the soul of the individual was his own.” Adams also observed that the works of Tacitus show that Augustus Caesar believed himself to be restoring Rome by assuming absolute authority and mandating goodness, but that this legally required virtue did not last long. Inevitably the people of Rome descended into selfishness and vice worse than that Augustus was attempting to avoid.
How does one reconcile the demands of personal and political freedom? John Quincy Adams’ answer was education. He contended that at its very best education acquaints students with a variety of ideas and subjects united by their permeant relevance to human life. No education is complete without a serious study of history, literature, mathematics, science, philosophy, or religion. All these subjects in their own way, and when taught correctly, instruct students in the permanent things. The things which have been true in all ages and upon which mankind can build a solid moral outlook. Adams summarized this point during a speech he gave while visiting his hometown towards the end of his life: “Education is the business of human life … as the child must be educated upon earth, so the man must be educated upon earth, for heaven; and finally that where the foundation is not laid in Time, the superstructure cannot rise for Eternity.”
As president, Adams emphasized the importance of to ensure that a liberal arts education formed a vital part of the nascent republic. He argued in his first annual message to Congress that the United States has a duty to “contribute their share of mind, of labor, and of expense to the improvement of human knowledge which lie beyond the reach of individual acquisition.” He argued that by bringing together the future leaders of the nation in one university we would be able to ensure the inculcation of values that naturally flow from a liberal arts education. In the process undermining sectional and factional divisions that in his lifetime (as in ours) increasingly threatened to split the country apart.
For a number of reasons, the idea of a national university is not as applicable as it once was. We are a much larger nation and the consolidation of training the nation’s future leaders in the hands of one set of faculty seems a recipe for disaster. However, Adams was right to emphasize the importance of a liberal arts education in cultivating a free society. Though tragically, for the last fifty years liberal arts education has been declining in the United States. Fewer and fewer institutions of higher education offer a curriculum that even remotely whiffs of the liberal arts and primary education long ago stopped equipping its students with this vital resource. The consequences of this decline are clear. Social degradation and the weakening of the moral imagination have led to a brutally self-centered culture. Everywhere people feel less free and less happy. The desperation to move past these problems has caused ideological extremism to flourish pushing our country further away from not only personal freedom but political freedom.
Given this, it is unsurprising that in the last year, education has become the centerpiece of American politics. Local school board meetings are suddenly national news and many of the most hotly contested policy debates revolve around the content found in our classrooms. As John Quincy Adams well understood, what we think as a people determines who we are as a nation. When the right ideas live in the heart of our citizens America is prosperous and free; when these ideas are corrupted society becomes oppressive and selfish. If our civilization is to truly flourish, we must push passed the clamor of the culture wars and build our society on the firm foundation of a liberal arts education.