Last month I wrote about RD Laing and how his conception of freedom has had a lasting and negative impact on education as well as wider society. In this post I want to consider the role of Isiah Berlin in shaping how we have come to think about freedom. Berlin was a Russian born, British educated philosopher and political theorist. At the heart of his thinking was a concern with how to protect individual freedom. He wanted human beings to be free to make their own mistakes without well-meaning, paternalistic institutions making decisions about what is best for us. He saw this nannying attitude in the way the Britain had treated the native populations of its Empire, and the way schoolmasters treated school boys, and felt that eventually and inevitably, it would lead to negative consequences.

Berlin saw communism and the Soviet Union as the greatest threat to individual freedom in the world. The brutal crushing of the Hungarian revolution of 1956 shocked the world and for Berlin presented a terrible paradox: How could a system which had been conceived to liberate the people form tyranny end up tyrannising the very people it had sought to liberate? In 1958, Berlin suggested what he believed was a better and safer alternative. In his essay, Two Concepts of Liberty he set out these alternatives: positive and negative liberty. Both, he argued, were born in the crucible of the French revolution. ‘Positive liberty’ takes the view that in order to be free, people have to be transformed and become better and more rational. Revolutionary leaders determined both what this transformation should look like and how to bring it about. The inherent danger in this thinking is that if you don’t understand what true freedom really is, then it should be thrust open you, regardless of what you might think to be in your best interests. This lead to Robespierre justifying The Terror as “the despotism of liberty against tyranny.” This is the same sort of logic that leads to crusades and jihads; the beauty of the end justifies the barbarism of the means. Positive liberty would always fail, Berlin argued, because it rested on a belief that “more than any other, is responsible for the slaughter of individuals on the altars of the great historical ideals”:

This is the belief that somewhere, in the past or in the future, in divine revelation or in the mind of an individual thinker, in the pronouncements of history or science, or in the simple heart of an uncorrupted good man, there is a final solution. (p. 29)

It is because “the belief that some single formula can in principle be found whereby all the diverse ends of men can be harmoniously realised is demonstrably false,” Berlin argued, that choice is so important. ‘Negative liberty’ – or freedom from interference – is the freedom of everybody to do whatever they want and nothing more. He wasn’t arguing for a nihilistic, Hobbesian dystopia in which all are at war with all and was at pains to say that individual freedom should not be the only or even the most important principle at work in society:
We compel children to be educated, and we forbid public executions. These are certainly curbs to freedom. We justify them on the ground that ignorance, or a barbarian upbringing, or cruel pleasures and excitements are worse for us than the amount of restraint needed to repress them. (p. 30)

But other than these minimums, power should be restrained. Society would be better and safer without the ideals of positive liberty. To set itself against the tyranny of the Soviet Empire, the West should idealise only individual desires and the freedom to indulge them. All attempts at revolution, no matter how seductive they might seem, will always lead to brutality, horror and a loss of individual freedoms and charismatic individuals wanting to lead us to something better are potential tyrants and, “the liberty of the strong, whether their strength is physical or economic, must be restrained.”

Berlin was a strong believer that there was ‘no best way’ and urged for pluralism:
Pluralism, with the measure of ‘negative’ liberty that it entails, seems to me a truer and more humane ideal than the goals of those who seek in the great disciplined, authoritarian structures the ideal of ‘positive’ self-mastery by classes, or peoples, or the whole of mankind. (p. 31)

Berlin was wise enough to recognise the dangers inherent in negative liberty and warned against those who espoused it coming to believe in it as an absolute ideal arguing that “to allow [any ideal] to determine one’s practice is a symptom of an equally deep, and more dangerous, moral and political immaturity.” It wasn’t long before this warning would come to seem prophetic.

These two conceptions of liberty continue to dominate our thinking today. Revolutionaries the world over use freedom as their rallying cry, and the most conservative of politicians promise freedom in their bids for reelection. Everyone wants freedom, but maybe this just means we’re talking past each other; some of us want the freedom to transform the world, whereas as others just want the freedom to choose how to spend their weekends. In education, some people want to transform the lives of children so they can be more fully themselves and others want the freedom to determine whether they teach a concept using guided instruction or peer discussion.

Negative liberty has come to be enshrined in schools though the neo-liberal philosophy of the market forces; the idea that if we are all free to choose wha we want, the market can supply our desires better than any external source of authority. By the same logic, if children are free to do what they want, when they want, then this will somehow be better than adult authority restraining their impulses and whims. The problem is, the freedom to choose with little or no knowledge of what choices exist is a very shallow conception of freedom. Choice is only meaningful when you know enough to have an informed opinion on the options available.

The desire for children to have autonomy is no doubt well-intentioned, but when the narratives negative liberty – choice and freedom – are played out in schools, there’s an inevitable asymmetry in its effects. Those children from advantaged backgrounds with informed, knowledgeable parents are much better equipped to choose than students from less advantaged backgrounds.  The belief that all children will, if left to their own devices, choose well is naive.

In A History of the World, Andrew Marr suggests we need balance between new ideas and ‘the wisdom of the tribe’:

What is the right balance between state authority and individual liberty? No successful state is a steady state. All successful states experience a relentless tug-of-war between conservatism, the wisdom of the tribe, and radicalism, or new thinking. The wisdom of the tribe really matters: it is the accumulated lessons of history, the mistakes as well as the answers, that a polity has gathered up so far. But if this wisdom is not challenged, it ossifies. The political revolutions of the British and then the Americans encouraged individuals to alter the balance of powers, without destroying their states. In France, where a conservative monarchy collapsed, revolutionaries tried to wipe out the past entirely and create a new present based only on radical questioning, or ‘reason’; it was bold but bloody failure, copied again and again.

Maybe it’s equally true that no successful school system is a steady school system? Maybe we require the tug of war between the desire to give children choice and to guide them to make wise choices. We want neither an ossified idea of what children must do nor a ‘bold and bloody failure, copied again and again.’ We need to find a way to give children meaningful freedoms that allow them “to alter the balance of powers, without destroying their states.” To that end, maybe we should start asking what freedom is for?

The positive liberty which Isiah Berlin so dreaded has been thoroughly discredited but the alternative of negative liberty consists of little more than consumerism, void of meaning which only adds to inequality. Is this the freedom we want for our children, or would we prefer that their freedom meant something? Maybe Berlin was wrong and we can attempt to improve the world – or at least our small part of it – without becoming tyrants.