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Freedom and the Moral Compass

Freedom in our great country is entirely dependent upon a moral compass. For example, our freedom of speech is predicated upon a moral understanding of how the tongue can divide, deceive, and denigrate. All individual freedoms are tied to this moral compass. This means we don’t need additional rules or laws to regulate behavior if an individual’s moral compass guides the exercise of free speech, for example to limit yelling “fire” in a crowded theater.

The dependence of freedoms on a moral compass is what allows an individual (a sworn School Resource Office) to be inside a school with a loaded gun, no matter the gun. We don’t worry about regulating the gun because we trust the judgment and integrity of the person holding it. Freedom with a moral compass is what makes peaceful assemblies normal and not to be feared. The issue isn’t whether or not freedoms are acceptable. The crux of the issue is whether or not individual freedoms can be exercised devoid of a moral compass and, if so, how? Government intrusion.

When citizens exercise their freedoms without a moral compass, public outcry follows. Protests that turn into looting and destruction of property increase government intrusion in the form of police presence and oversight. Shootings result in more gun control legislation. The limitations on government contained in the Bill of Rights outline a citizenry capable of exercising those rights within the context of a moral, upstanding society. Benjamin Franklin described it this way: “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become more corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters. ”

Without a moral compass, a mediator must stand in the void. We have seen this mediation in the form of increased legislation impacting all our Constitutional freedoms. While the Bill of Rights and more specifically the 1st Amendment prevents the establishment of religion (aka entanglement) , the entirety of the Declaration of Independence, Constitution and other founding documents explicitly connects freedom to faith. This reliance of freedom on faith is a fundamental precept to our country; it is not up for debate and it is what draws people to our country. Alexis de Tocqueville, a french diplomat, political scientist and historian, traveled the US during 1830s and noted of this aspect of our government and culture in his book “Democracy in America” (1835).

Liberty cannot be established without morality, nor morality without faith.” Alexis de Tocqueville

Alexis de tocqueville.jpg
Alexis de Tocqueville

Upon the completion of our Constitution, Mrs. Powell of Philadelphia asked Benjamin Franklin, “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” Without hesitation, Franklin responded, “A republic, if you can keep it.” The point is this: with freedom comes a moral response and moral responsibility of its citizens to freedom. The response in this case was the formation of a Constitutional Republic containing the apex of freedom from government, which is the Bill of Rights. The responsibility is to maintain a virtuous society if we want to keep it [freedom].

As a nation, we must acknowledge the consequential importance of a moral compass to freedom while simultaneously releasing our dependence to the pen of legislation. Only then will we liberate freedom from the clenched fist of government.

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Education and Freedom

I was a middle school math and science teacher for 15 years. During that time, I experienced the “new math” phenomenon. For years, I answered phone calls from frustrated parents who were trying to help their child learn a mathematical concept. I reassured parents and students that there are multiple ways of getting you from point A to point B. There are direct routes and ‘scenic routes.’ More importantly, students and parents must understand that the larger goal in math, as with any other subject, is to become critical consumers of diverse processes and circumstances so that the student can independently develop reliable, accurate, and efficient pathways to get to point B. In essence, a quality education develops knowledge, skills, and wisdom to discern: better from the lessor, good from the bad, or right from wrong. Education is entirely about developing a higher understanding and practice of freedom within a universal moral framework.

The Oxford Dictionary defines freedom as “The power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants; the power of self-determination attributed to the will; the quality of being independent of fate or necessity.” In short, freedom contains two distinct parts: 1) an individual’s willful act to 2) choose between at least two options. Freedom requires an independent will and choice. Freedom’s biggest role and challenge exists within diverse people, ideas, and things. To independently navigate through diverse options is the mission of education and why education is imminently critical in promoting and also maintaining freedom.

Counter to this idea of freedom is the mindless or lazy approach of telling someone what they ‘need to know’ thereby removing critical thought, debate, and censoring information. To counterbalance the extreme assumption of ‘anything goes’ approach, freedom requires a universal moral compass (see my prior editorial on this subject).

Therefore, public education’s role in establishing and maintaining freedom is to provide the setting and culture within which students critically process information to make informed choices (aka freedom). Informed choices are absolutely dependent on the fact that at least two sides of an issue are present. As an educator, I would go so far as to say we have an obligation to showcase bad ideas and answer ridiculous questions alongside good ideas even though we know the futility of bad ideas. The freedom to willfully choose within a universal moral compass requires us to compare and contrast ideas. Therefore, debate is necessary and in fact a healthy process for promoting and protecting freedom. Today more than ever, bad ideas are more often than not defended and elevated by emotionally hollow defenses best summed up as being offended. The ‘I’m offended defense’ is simply not a defense but rather an emotional reaction.

Education and certainly public education, is in the freedom business. As educators (private, public, parents, coaches, mentors), we are ethically obligated to engage and enlighten our youth to be thoughtful, independent agents who respond to diverse ideas (freedom). To this end, education is founded and should never waiver no matter the sentiment or opinion.