Understanding Sets Us Free

A recent skit on John Stewart’s Daily Show made fun of college students for the amount of debt they are piling up while majoring in subjects for which there is little demand.

In the skit a recent graduate with $170,000 in debt tells a group of high school students, “I graduated with a degree in illustration. I don’t even do it. I don’t do art at all.… Illustration is an economically useless degree…. Don’t make the mistakes I did.”

An interviewer asks a high school student what he learned from the graduate’s experience:

Student: “It is clear I shouldn’t major in illustration.”

Interviewer: “That’s your take-away.… You’re getting a photography degree!”

Student: “Two different things, right?”

The skit is funny on many levels. We may laugh, but many people seem to be unable to draw a general principle from a specific example. As the skit illustrates, this failure to conceptualize has real consequences in life.

Consider the recent IRS scandal. If you read newspaper forums about the scandal, you saw posts that cheered the behavior of the IRS since the IRS was going after its perceived “conservative” enemies. Those writing the posts seemed to have no understanding that their own rights are only as secure as the rights that someone else enjoys.

Others are upset when the government raids raw milk producers, but the same people might justify a government raid of Walmart for selling imported clothing.

Still others cheered the passage of the Patriot Act, but are now alarmed at the inevitable growth of large and intrusive government. Why can’t they grasp that their own rights are only as secure as the rights that someone else enjoys?

Mary Theroux writes:

Mr. Bush was given a pass by conservatives who either thought an extraordinarily dangerous world required extraordinarily extra-Constitutional powers for the presidency, or who viewed him as a nice guy who could be trusted.

Mr. Obama is similarly being given a pass by liberals who like his rhetoric on gays or abortion or something. But the plain fact of the matter is he’s not a liberal. He demonstrably believes he can do whatever he wants, and that his motives and ability to do as he believes must not be questioned.

The problem with personality politics—giving a politician a pass based on what he says or how “nice” he is, vs. holding elected officials accountable to the Rule of Law—is that it leads to where we are getting uncomfortably close: tyranny.

There are principles operating behind the functioning of a free society. We do not get to pick and choose à la carte freedoms.

Thinking an à la carte model will preserve your most favored freedoms is like turning loose a tiger in your house and hoping it will only attack burglars.

The antidote to our inability to conceptualize is to take a step beyond merely learning information: We must understand the knowledge we learn.

Understanding is more than an intellectual process. When we understand we own an internal guidance system that allows us to apply what we have learned.

Insight facilitates understanding. Insight occurs when the mind begins to still. Insight deepens understanding, overcomes our ignorance, and frees us from our conditioning and prejudices.

The Founding Fathers understood the dangers of ignorance. Thomas Jefferson wrote pointedly in an 1816 letter: “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”

James Madison, in his first inaugural address in 1809, said, “The advancement and diffusion of knowledge is the only guardian of true liberty.” In an 1822 letter he wrote: “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

History, as taught in our schools, is often nothing more than a tedious collection of dates and facts. Economics, as taught in our schools, is often nothing more than a tedious collection of graphs and formulas. This is not what the Founding Fathers had in mind.

A student can study history and economics and have little understanding of the principles that underlie the free society. Indeed, most formal education develops our ability to memorize rather than to conceptualize.

Those who have little understanding of principles are like the high school student in the Jon Stewart skit—their only take-away is the example. They believe they can pick and choose the freedoms they like.

They miss the essential point. We are by principle inherently free men and women. Government’s function then is to protect our freedoms and not to grant us freedoms. We are not inherently free men and women if our freedoms are derived from government. When we argue for freedom for only the things we value—à la carte freedom—we are taking the position that inherently we are not free. Why should we be surprised that government is now trampling on our liberties?

Consider this analogy. A person who has no understanding of the principles of healthy eating simply chooses to eat “tasty” foods. Occasionally they will stumble on a healthy food, but by and by they select unhealthy foods loaded with fat, sugar, and salt. As a consequence of being an unprincipled eater, their health deteriorates.

An understanding of the principles of healthy eating sets us free to choose foods that support the advancement of our health. Understanding sets us free to live a life in balance.

An understanding of the principles of a free society allows us to have views on important issues of our time and to support our views with principled reasoning. Our understanding of principles sets us free—we know right from wrong. That understanding is the only real defense of our own rights.

One final example. The last three American presidents have been drug users. Many who have cheered for Clinton or Bush or Obama have chosen to ignore the fact that millions of American citizens have served time for drug use. Is the art of reasoning from principles almost totally lost? If so, our remaining freedoms will be soon be ancient history too.

Recently Oliver DeMille wrote: “We want America to be America, but we have forgotten what this requires.” We can choose to understand again.

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