Freedom, Self-Control, and the Nanny University

Back in the late 1960s, the eminent American foreign relations scholar and diplomat George Kennan initiated a famous debate with student activists regarding the pros and cons of unbridled freedom. The debate began with a speech at Swarthmore and culminated in a book entitled Democracy and the Student Left in which Kennan presented the speech and then engaged in to and fro commentary with some leading student activists. A centerpiece of the speech was Kennan’s critique of activists’ claims that freedom should have no limits unless one’s actions directly and substantially harmed non-consenting others.

The core of Kennan’s critique was that freedom alone is insufficient for living a meaningful life. He stressed how significant achievement and the creation of a viable social order require discipline, self-control, and the choice to pursue a particular path at the exclusion of others. Limits matter.

Kennan stressed how significant achievement and the creation of a viable social order require discipline, self-control, and the choice to pursue a particular path at the exclusion of others. Limits matter.

He cited such great writers as Dostoyevsky who praised the significance of discipline and sacrifice in order to produce great work. Kennan wrote that the meaning of freedom and liberty “begins…with the humble acceptance of membership in, and subordination to, a natural order of things, and it grows only with struggle, and self-discipline, and faith.” (Democracy and the Student Left, p. 11)

It is interesting to compare this observation with two other observations by noteworthy defenders of liberal democracy over time. In Democracy in America, Tocqueville wrote, “Despotism, therefore, appears to me peculiarly to be dreaded in democratic times. I should have loved freedom, I believe, at all times, but in the time in which we live I am ready to worship it . . . the question is . . . how to make liberty proceed out of that democratic state of society in which God has placed us.” And in Free Speech and Its Relationship to Self-Government (1948), the influential educator and free speech champion Alexander Meiklejohn responded to those who claimed that freedom is incompatible with self-control by asserting that “Political freedom is not the absence of self-control. It is self-control.”

Freedom is worthy of worship when it is threatened, but it also requires certain virtues in order to stand its ground. One of these virtues is self-control, which is nourished by families and proper institutions.

Solving the Paradox of Freedom

Now, what are we to make of the observations and what is happening on college campuses today? Let me offer some tentative thoughts in this regard. First, the thoughts of these thinkers address a kind of paradox of freedom. Freedom is our most cherished principle. In the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln said our nation was “conceived in liberty.”

We cannot all be existential heroes. We need a viable social order and community that prepares us for the opportunities and demands that freedom brings. This means that we must dedicate ourselves to freedom and demonstrate that we possess the capacity to be free. Discipline, self-control, and maturity are necessary.

But, as Democracy in America teaches us, individual freedom must also be supported by such things as commitment, institutions, and cultural norms that make us capable of sustaining freedom and living in it. We cannot all be existential heroes. We need a viable social order and community that prepares us for the opportunities and demands that freedom brings. This means that we must dedicate ourselves to freedom and demonstrate that we possess the capacity to be free. Discipline, self-control, and maturity are necessary. (Recall that John Stuart Mill maintained that the principles of liberty are not as applicable to minors and to adults.)

If we prove incapable of governing and thinking for ourselves, we surrender control to authorities beyond ourselves, such as the central state. That is why Tocqueville was so concerned about touting the importance of a strong civil society in inculcating the virtues needed to sustain freedom and to ward off the larger state. As he wrote, the principle of authority is a given. The question is where it is located: in self-controlling individuals and their communities, or in the central state?

Preparing Our Youth for Freedom

Two civil society institutions are essential in preparing us for freedom: education and the family. Today, both appear to be letting us down in their duty of preparing the young for freedom. As is well known, so-called “helicopter parenting” now pervades the middle and upper classes. Such parenting smothers the experiences with freedom, trial and error, and self-control that set the stage for knowing and exercising freedom.

So-called “helicopter parenting”… smothers the experiences with freedom, trial and error, and self-control that set the stage for knowing and exercising freedom. Then young adults come to college and what do they find? Entrenched bureaucratic offices that … dictate to students what to think, not how to think for themselves

Then young adults come to college and what do they find? Entrenched bureaucratic offices that represent the return of in loco parentis on many levels, and numerous policies—today often initiated by students themselves—that dictate to students what to think, not how to think for themselves: e.g., trigger warning policies, micro-aggression language inhibitions, safe-space thinking, and hostility to controversial or dissenting speakers, etc.

In addition, as a study from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni has shown, many colleges and universities have stopped requiring or even offering courses that teach the fundamental principles and institutions of the American experience (No U.S. History? How College History Departments Leave the United States Out of the Major). On the curricular front, we witness the marginalization of such courses as American History and Constitutional History, while on the speech and discourse front, many schools consider such statements as “It’s a free country” or even the word “America” to be unacceptable “trigger warnings.” Call it a “double whammy.”

Self-reliance, Self-control, and Rigorous Discourse

These and other factors have contributed to two problems. First, we confront the growing ignorance of the principles of freedom that comprise the heart of what it is to be an American. Such ignorance matters, because as Allan Bloom once wrote, “Freedom of the mind requires not only, or not even especially, the absence of legal constraints but the presence of alternate thoughts. The most successful tyranny is not the one that uses force to assure uniformity, but the one that removes awareness of other possibilities.”

More and more students appear incapable of handling the rigors of constitutional discourse and citizenship… turning to the protections of the administrative nanny state to handle their problems… Self-reliance and self-control are being surrendered to administrative apron strings.

Second, we behold what the French philosopher Frank Furedi has recently dubbed the “infantilization” of college students today in his new and stunningly disturbing book, What Happened to the University? More and more students appear incapable of handling the rigors of constitutional discourse and citizenship. We are also witnessing more examples of students turning to the protections of the administrative nanny state to handle their problems with overly-challenging and controversial speakers. Self-reliance and self-control are being surrendered to administrative apron strings.

The big question today is how to reverse this trend that Tocqueville foresaw as a darker trend of democracy in America?

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