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Posted October 9, 2002 

By Lon Woodbury

Freedom is perhaps what Americans consider as our most important institution. For more than 200 years, most public debate has focused on maintaining and increasing the freedoms enjoyed by Americans. However, freedom is not simple to define and is easily over-simplified and misunderstood.

Since the 1960s, in many circles it has been almost a mantra that “Freedom is Choice.” According to this view, the more choices a person has, the freer that person is. For at least the past forty years, our society has made many decisions consistent with this view, with the goal of reducing ways that power that is assigned to authorities through our customs, family systems and our laws. The underlying assumption has been that by decreasing the amount of authority held over us, we increase individual choice and thus individual freedom.

At the same time, the mental health industry has had a slightly different view, which might be called “empowered freedom”. They claim that a person’s freedom is limited when they are suffering from a disorder such as being Bipolar or having ADHD, because it can dominate a person's life to the degree that he or she becomes a slave of the disorder. Consequently, personal choices are limited unless the person is treated, and without treatment intervention, the person cannot be really free.

Emotional Growth schools and programs have elaborated on this theme, explaining that a person can only be free when he or she is emotionally mature. What might be called ‘emotional freedom’ can only occur when people demonstrate the maturity to exercise self-discipline to control their emotions, so that they are no longer slaves to the passions of the moment. Because immature people do not understand the impact their actions can have on others, they can’t understand why people get angry with them and don’t know how to change their behavior to prevent hostile reactions. In this sense, they cannot be really free as long as they are slaves to their undisciplined emotions. As a consequence of their emotional immaturity, they lose out on many opportunities.

In light of what we have learned from the therapeutic and emotional growth perspectives, the idea that "Freedom is choice" is too simplistic. If “Freedom is choice,” it would also include the choice of self-destructive activities, which obviously limit a person. A better and more accurate concept would be "Freedom is informed choice." That is, real freedom is possible only when people have the maturity and self-discipline to control their emotions, which in some cases, includes undergoing treatment.

There is one more important criterion for people to truly be considered free: it’s the ability to think for themselves. While this is partly a function of emotional maturity, the process of gaining this ability to think occurs primarily in the arena of academics. A person must be knowledgable in order to exercise informed choice. Without the ability to comprehend information and discern truth from half-truth or falsehood, a person is prey to whatever plausible scheme a huckster can perpetuate. This is especially important for good citizenship, which requires the ability to recognize self-serving agendas of politicians, or corporate managers, for example. Without the ability to make informed choice, a person can easily wind up supporting policies that are contrary to their own best interests, as well as contrary to the public good.

In academics, it is primarily in classical liberal arts education that this concept of freedom through informed choice is addressed. Typically, education in the United States gives lip service to the ability to think, but in practice, educators in the United States are oriented to job training. The most common public justification used by educators for their curriculum and course offerings is to say they are preparing students to get good jobs. Most college degrees are heavily focused on career preparation, to become, for example, an attorney, an accountant, a therapist, a teacher etc. Courses of study such as history, philosophy, literature and the other components of what would be called a classical liberal arts education are more tolerated than emphasized. Or, they are used only to meet elective requirements, because the career opportunities resulting from these courses of study are limited.

The philosopher Santayana expressed an important truth by saying that a person who does not know the past is condemned to repeat it. Learning about our past by studying history, philosophy, and human nature becomes the capstone in the effort to help a student to become free. It creates true informed choice, which is the stated goal of classical liberal arts education.

The goal of gaining the freedom to have a degree of control over one’s destiny is shared both by Therapeutic/Emotional Growth schools and programs, as well as by classical liberal arts education. This obvious alignment suggests that Therapeutic/Emotional Growth schools and programs should as much as possible promote liberal arts education in their academics. Hopefully it will soon be more widely recognized that study in the liberal arts is a natural enhancement to the process of fostering emotional growth.