A colleague of mine recently asked his pupils if they considered themselves free. Their reply was unhesitating: “Of course I am! I can do whatever I want!”
But does freedom consist of the untrammeled pursuit of personal desires?
When I wake up in the morning to the sound of the alarm, I am free, in theory, to turn it off and go back to sleep. I often want to do that. But I don’t, because I need to catch an early train into London. If I did what I wanted, I would not be able to keep my job. I would lose the freedom to practise the profession I love.
When I drive to the station to catch my train, I am free in theory to drive on the right hand side of the road. There is no wall to stop me, and little traffic on the country roads to remind me of the peculiar British convention. But if I exercise my freedom to drive on the right, I will quickly lose my freedom to drive a car on British roads.
Freedom does not mean doing just what I want. Rather, freedom means having an understanding of what I should do, and having the self-discipline to do it. This is the freedom that enables me to be a faithful husband and a loving father, and to strive to be a better teacher.
Freedom comes from discipline. The absence of restraint means slavery to whims and emotions. It means an inability to follow through, to stick to tasks even when they are difficult or unpleasant.
The debased Romanticism of popular culture declares over and over again that freedom means following your feelings, doing whatever feels good, seeking thrills, chasing after self-gratification. These lies are crippling our children, and causing chaos in our classrooms, not to mention our families.
Advertisements tell us to indulge ourselves. They tell us we deserve it, that we’re worth it, that the point of life is to consume ever greater quantities of treats and to flee from reality. It’s not in the interests of advertisers that we should have any self-control. A person with a well-developed sense of restraint and responsibility is impervious to their manipulations. But weak people addicted to self-gratification make rather good consumers. They’ll buy the chocolate bar and the slimming pill.
Weak people addicted to self-gratification also make good clients for the ever-growing army of well-paid bureaucrats and professionals dedicated to medicating and manipulating them to maintain some kind of illusion of normality.
Teachers are at the sharp end of the consequences of these lies about freedom, because they must deal with large numbers of young people who have swallowed them. They must find a way of establishing order and promoting hard work and self-discipline, an island of sanity and sobriety in a culture which has taken the drug of Romantic individualism and is tearing itself to pieces.
Because they are at the sharp end, because the damage done by Romantic lies is so obvious to them, more and more teachers are turning to traditional wisdom, and stopping their ears to the siren call of thrill seeking self-gratification. They are refusing to perpetuate and promote the lies in their classrooms by providing mere entertainment and empty doses of self-esteem. They are turning instead to the ancient principles that dominated rational human thinking until our modern aberration took us down the path of self-destruction. They are turning to thinkers such as Plato, who said that ‘The first and best victory is to conquer self. To be conquered by self is, of all things, the most shameful and vile.’