This lecture presentation is respectfully dedicated to the memory of . . .
Jack R. Halloran
We'll remember Jack as a fine person . . . a quality teacher . . . an active and committed
faculty member . . and a productive participant in the life of his community.
We'll miss him for his delightful wit . . . his competence . . . his laughter . .
. his sense of grace . . . and for a manner not easily awed by the pretensions of
-John Kay December 1983
Positive Liberty and Civic Learning
John Kay, Ph.D. Professor Political Science
LAST YEAR, Dr. Harold Dunn began his faculty lecture by commenting that he had received
a call from a friend on the morning of his talk, asking him how he felt. As I recall,
he said he felt as if he were about to attend his own wedding. I suspect he meant
by that comment a kind of hesitation-perhaps a mixture of anticipation and a touch
I've frequently thought about Professor Dunn's comment. It's an appropriate analogy.
But there were moments, at least during the initial preparation of this talk, when
I felt more like the colonial fellow who was set up to engage in a duel at dawn. Only
his opponent showed up at the appointed hour, just in time to receive a note by messenger.
It read: "I'm running a little late this morning. So please go ahead without me."
I see that you have waited for me. Thank you.
I am here today to discuss what I consider to be two important and relevant subjects-first,
the need to recognize and to preserve that delicate balance between liberty and order
in our political lives; and, second, the need to strike a better balance between career
learning and civic learning in our educational lives.
One balance should complement the other. It is my contention, however, that both areas
are out of balance today-and that our college, our community and our nation suffer
as a result.
Everybody has a few favorite authors. For me, the pages of Milton Mayer's Man v. The
State and Isaiah Berlin's sparkling essay, "Two Concepts of Liberty," have been worn
thin. I've read those pages too many times to remember. Mayer's thesis is that there
is always and at every turn in the modern world an unavoidable collision between the
conflicting claims of the individual and the claims of society, between individual
freedom on the one hand and government control on the other.
No matter how you slice it, he believes, whether it's in terms of liberty versus authority,
private property versus public control, rights versus duties, democracy versus dictatorship
. . . "Man versus The State is what all the boiling issues all boil down (or up) to
. . ."
Mayer thinks the collision is inevitable . . . it's almost like that ill-fated event
back in 1895 when there were only two automobiles in the entire state of Ohio . .
. and they collided!
The Weighing of Rights
How far, for example, should you be allowed to think as you like and then speak and
act as you think regarding changes needed in our government before you're told by
the state to shut up or face arrest? How secure should you be from tax review of your
private affairs, including your own bank account? Should the press have been denied
coverage of the initial invasion activities in Grenada, thereby making the public
almost entirely dependent on the government for its information? Should a public college
be permitted to offer a conspicuously Christian prayer at its graduation ceremonies?
How much control should a woman have over her own body before the state says, in the
name of public welfare or morality, that it is going to regulate the use of her body?
And who should have the final word in determining the fate of an infant born with
birth defects-the parents-or the government? Even the fundamental questions . . .
such as the very right to live and the right to die are inevitably caught up in the
tension between individual liberties and state power. One just can't escape from it
in our society.
When I deal with some of these questions in my political science classes, there are
always students who, on a scale of 1 to 10, would restrict individual rights at mid-point
. . . at a 5 . . . as if on political and social issues where you are trying to balance
rights and obligations a mathematical mid-point would do the job. I think they miss
the point. The middle of the road does not necessarily represent balance when it comes
to rights and responsibilities. In fact, Robert Frost's comment about center lines
comes to mind on such occasions. "The middle of the road," he said, "is where the
white line is. And that's one hell of a place to drive!" This is also often the case
when trying to balance rights and duties.
What should be clear is that only by weighing individual and group rights against
the claims of the state . . . and finding some delicate equilibrium between them .
. . can a civil society function successfully.
When the pendulum swings too far toward a selfish and reckless individualism, or even
more to small group domination over the public will, the results can be devastating
for a nation. This can lead to disunity, fragmentation-even to anarchy. "Things fall
apart," as William Butler Yeats prophesied, "the center cannot hold."
In this regard, Mayer's thesis had special meaning for me during my 1982 summer study
in the Republic of India. India has been called a "functioning anarchy"-splintered
into regional, linguistic, religious and caste groupings-not to mention the enormous
gap between the rich and the poor. Over time, these differences were supposed to blend
together but, as we can also tragically see today in Lebanon, the ancient legacy of
local and regional ties has proven too strong. These strains are literally tearing
these lovely lands apart. In the case of Gandhi's India, sometimes it seems that all
that is holding the world's largest democracy together are the remarkable political
and personal skills of one woman.
The Road to Tyranny
Yet on the other extreme, when the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of
unlimited power in the hands of government . . . and Milton Mayer thinks it has in
America . . . the future can also seem mighty grim. Too much authority in the hands
of government and you're on the road to tyranny where, as Mayer cleverly puts it,
"the State's power waxes and the individual's wanes."
These observations about state power are particularly appropriate as 1984 closes in
on us. You may recall that George Orwell painted a chilling picture in a book he wrote
34 years ago called 1984. Control is a major theme of that widely read novel. It's
about a society where whole populations are manipulated and programmed to think alike
. . . the very opposite of values we honor in this nation and on this campus.
The word "Orwellian" has even entered our vocabulary, standing for a world where Big
Brother is always watching you, a world where government invades your privacies and
a world of brainwashing and the debasement of language . . . where lies are designed
to sound truthful and murder to be respectable. It includes such twisted phrases as
"War is Peace" and "Freedom is Slavery." The coming year itself has become a kind
of synonym for oppression.
Please keep in mind here that George Orwell saw the danger of tyranny arising under
any form of badly functioning government, including democracies, especially as society
becomes more densely populated, more threatened by thermonuclear war and more technologically
advanced. Could it really happen here? In the United States? Could all of the power
and paraphemalia available to our government-to investigate, to propagandize, to snoop,
to reward and to punish-could these also be turned against us in the way described
Of course they could, although surely things don't look that bleak for the United
States as we approach 1984. But 1984's Big Brother is nightmarishly alive in some
countries where the face of oppression stares at you daily. And a lot of behavior
control fantasies mentioned in Orwell's book have been available for some time now,
or are certainly possible.
Consider this item described recently in the Los Angeles Times and the subtle capacity
for mischief it contains. "Imagine getting into your car, driving around town and
being tracked all the way by government computers that bill you at the end of the
month for 'road use.' " The technology for such an Orwellian scheme already exists.
In fact, the government of Hong Kong will be trying it out on an experimental basis
in . . . you guessed it . . . 1984 . . . in an effort to reduce traffic congestion.
You can imagine to what use vehicle tracking could be put -husbands checking up on
wives, wives on husbands, parents on children and clever children with home computers
rearranging all sorts of records . . . . not to mention the uses available to suspicious
Or how about tomorrow's crime fighting technology? Some possibilities are under current
discussion at Forum 2000 sponsored by the Los Angeles Police Department. They include
satellite pictures taken of cities every few minutes which, when greatly enlarged,
could reveal who was on any intersection at any given period, and tiny radio transmitters
inserted beneath the skin of parolees in order to track their activities. If vehicle
tracking and Forum 2000 have control implications, consider what's waiting in the
wings-genetic engineering-intervening in the very process of evolution itself by isolating,
rearranging and recombining DNA molecules-life orchestrated in the laboratory, if
you will, which could allow a totalitarian regime to create the sort of custom ordered
society of passive citizens required for its purposes. "Designer genes," as the saying
goes, are here and we're not talking about the kind you get from Calvin Klein or Gloria
Orwell wasn't, of course, the first to observe that the modern world concentrates
power at the expense of individual liberties or that there just seems to be something
about modern civilization that's out of control. Karl Marx, the revolutionary unmaker
of bourgeois liberalism . . . who, incidentally, died 100 years ago this year . .
. had also observed that modern societies don't seem to be able to assimilate the
power and scope of technology. Both Orwell and Marx seemed to be saying, with different
goals in mind, that the moral maturity of westem societies simply does not grow at
the same pace as its technological know-how, or what Marx called "the forces of production."
Both saw that it was the use or control of that technology that provided the power
to oppress and alienate people everywhere.
Two Concepts of Liberty
I have a suspicion, however, that, today, things often go wrong in America-that much
of our life is "out of balance"-not so much due to the effects of technology as George
Orwell and Karl Marx thought, but because most Americans have certain wrong ideas
about liberty or freedom. They have wrong conceptions about one of the sides in that
precarious balance between the individual and the state. And here is where I would
like to turn to my other favorite author, Isaiah Berlin, and his essay, "Two Concepts
To Professor Berlin liberty has two dimensions: negative and positive. Negative liberty
he defines as being left alone, being free from govemment rules. To me, negative liberty
also means the right to an unlimited enjoyment of private appetites and the absence
of self-restraint. It is this side of freedom that seems to occupy the psyches of
too many Americans today-where freedom is identified with self-interest, "doing your
own thing," "looking out for number one," and a self-serving "live and let live" philosophy
which often means others will be left alone to cope with the ancient enemies of disease,
illiteracy and poverty. Well . . . after all . . . as the French revolutionary Marat
said with obvious irony almost 200 years ago . . . "God has always been hard on the
Just read the 1983 Cox Report on the American Corporation. You can pay $22 for that
book to learn that very few of today's top executives see their companies improving
the quality of life for society in general. Cox found that many of these men and women
exhibit a narrow sense of self, limiting their attention almost exclusively to economic
self-interest. Or read the important new book, Decision Making At The Top, by Gordon
Donaldson and Jay Lorsch, two professors from that citadel of capitalism, Harvard
Business School. What they found after four years of research is that the prime focus
of decisions made by America's corporate management today is not on benefiting society,
consumers, shareholders, or even employees. Management's prime focus is on the survival
of the corporate organization.
To return briefly to my summer experience in India. Frankly, my observation is that,
if there is one thing India does not need today, it is a westem version of self-serving
negative liberty. I met some Americans there in 1982 who were literally telling their
counterparts just to "do their own thing" since the problems of that poor and crowded
country seem to be unmanageable. But, as one Calcutta university professor told me
with contempt, for those westerners giving that sort of "you can't do much about it"
advice, there is always the comfort of a check waiting at the local American Express
office or a plane ticket home if things deteriorate too far.
Forgotten Side: Positive Liberty
There is, however, another side of liberty-the commonly forgotten side. Isaiah Berlin
calls it "positive liberty." To me it is within the context of positive liberty that
a person becomes most free and closest to realizing his or her full human potential
. . . and I believe that positive liberty should play an important role in the educational
experience. The paradox of positive liberty, however, is that, in order truly to be
free, a person may have to be compelled to undergo certain experiences. I want my
students to understand that there are social dimensions of freedom, and that developing
human potential means commitment to something beyond themselves. To me, that is what
positive liberty is all about. Who is to cultivate the intellectual, moral and communal
side of citizens if a society which professes to love liberty defines it almost exclusively
in the negative sense?
The love of liberty, then, must involve the love of others. The individual who understands
positive liberty doesn't develop in isolation. He/she emerges in community. But, within
the context of looking a the tensions between the individual and the state, don't
get confused; don't confuse commitment to community with commitment to the state.
There is a vast difference between community and government.
Communities arise when there exists a personal sense of responsibility for others,
where positive liberty is being practiced. The collective and coercive power of the
state simply brings people together. In a community, individuals willingly draw toward
each other, preserving each other's uniqueness. It is the notion of community derived
through a commitment to positive liberty which needs nourishment, not a commitment
to state power.
Political rhetoric (and President Reagan) would have us believe today that the really
big political choices are between good and evil . . . and we know what side we're
on! I think this is misleading. I've always felt that the big choices in American
politics arise precisely because our society cannot fully attain all of its goals
of fully satisfying the wants of all its members. Just as the demented Roman Emperor
Caligula discovered in one of Albert Camus' most memorable plays, that however much
he wanted the moon, he couldn't get it, perfect balance between individual rights
and community claims is clearly unattainable. As one German philosopher pointed out
more than 25 years ago, "humans either grow in freedom and maintain the tension of
that growth . . . or they will destroy themselves."
But how do you retain that freedom and maintain that tension? This is a problem which
has concerned numerous thinkers. President James Madison, rightly called the "father"
of the U.S. Constitution, argued that we need to balance institutions and levels of
government in order to reconcile liberty and order in a large society. Old James Madison
married an idea to a moment . . . the idea of institutions like the Congress and the
Presidency checking each other, and the Supreme Court, acting as "democracy's attempt
to cover its bet," checking them both . . . and groups checking each other too . .
. and he incorporated these notions into our Constitution. In that way, he thought,
Americans could enjoy the best and escape the worst of two worlds; the enjoyment of
liberty without fear of anarchy, and the enjoyment of authority without fear of tyranny.
Madison's famous insight of 1787, found in Federalist #51, still applies today:
In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty
lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in
the next place, oblige it to control itself. But how can we be assured that our government will control itself? Even a government
such as ours, with an independent court system where judges are sworn to uphold the
liberties found in the Constitution? Would it be a mistake to rely too heavily on
a Supreme Court to maintain the quality of our freedoms? Learned Hand, an olympian
among judges, thought so. He called for moderation and toleration within the public
itself, and argued:
In a society where the spirit of moderation is lost, no court can save it. In a society
where that spirit flourishes, no court need save it. In a society which thrusts upon
its courts the sole responsibility for nurturing that spirit of moderation, that society
will in the long run perish. So, it is a dependence upon the people themselves and the quality of values they cherish
which must in the end prove to be the true guardian of liberty. I don't want my students
ever to forget that. That's why it's essential that students in my classes, as well
as in all subjects, be exposed to different viewpoints and be taught to appreciate
diversity. The knowledge most worth having is not the mere possession of a satchel
full of facts, figures and statistics. Knowledge can often be fogged by statistics.
The knowledge most worth having deals with things like the ability to discriminate
critically, to interpret objectively and to understand fully the importance of diversity.
All of the studies I know about show that an awareness and an understanding of differences
promotes tolerance-and tolerance itself is, I believe, one of the preconditions of
What makes all this exciting to me as a teacher of politics is that the whole issue
of how to balance rights and duties is itself inherently political. At the heart of
politics is the problem of resolving conflict. Politics also, at least in part, involves
assessing and shaping uncertainty. And in the United States many of our uncertainties
stem, it seems to me, from an environment whose balance between the rights of individuals
and the power of the state is never entirely fixed, never solely pointed in one direction.
It takes long and laborious training to develop an attitude among millions of people
which succeeds in connecting an individual's rightful claim to independence to society's
rightful claim to that individual's support.
In an insightful comment, Isaac Stern, the internationally acclaimed violinist, once
talked about connections. When asked to explain why-in light of the fact that all
professional musicians played the right notes in the right order-some were masters
and some were not, he replied, "The important thing is not the notes, it's the intervals
between the notes." This isn't only a wise statement about music, it's a piece of
fundamental wisdom about political life as well. What is important aren't the isolated
parts; what makes the components dynamic are the connections between and among them.
. . and in the context of this lecture, therefore, the connections between liberty
If it is exciting for a teacher of politics to encourage students to wrestle with
some of the enduring questions of political life, it is, I confess, equally disappointing
to observe that so many Americans appear to take such little interest in the topic.
It often seems, to paraphrase mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell, that
more people would sooner die than think. In fact they do so.
Lack of Public Awareness
If people can't or won't analyze the issues of the day, they cannot be expected to
contribute constructively to local or state or national government. And, in our nation's
schools, civic illiteracy seems to go in hand with declines in student performances
and even student commitment to the principles of a free society. In one nationwide
survey two years ago, fully one-third of American high school seniors didn't believe
that a newspaper should even be allowed to publish articles critical of government
officials. Don't criticize, they seemed to be saying, accept what is being said. And
as adults what happens? Recently, a nationwide NBC News poll surveyed American opinion
on the situation in Central America. Fifty-five per cent of the people questioned
said they supported U.S. involvement in Central America-even though only 10 per cent
knew which side we are on! Another poll commissioned by the Hearst Corporation found
that half of all Americans, including half of those who have served on juries, incorrectly
believe that a criminal suspect must prove his/her own innocence.
Sadly, we even forget our history. Millions of Americans who suffer from acute historical
amnesia have long forgotten what happened on December 7, 1941-42 years ago today-an
event which triggered American entry into World War II and which guaranteed that a
whole generation of people would have to learn their international relations the hard
way. More than 110,000 innocent Japanese-Americans, most of them American citizens,
were stripped of their liberties and imprisoned, without a hearing, as a result of
Pearl Harbor drove home the need for national security. In 1941, a nation hungry for
power struck a major blow at a nation complacent in its security. But today . . .
42 years later . . . the price of maintaining that security has reached mind-boggling
proportions. Nations that regard themselves as the most advanced in the world have
stockpiled enough nuclear weaponry to knock humanity out of the 20th century. Today,
the world spends close to $2 billion a day on arms . . . day in and day out . . .
when so much else is left undone. This is estimated to equal the entire annual income
of the poorest half of the world's nations. The cost of a single nuclear submarine
equals the annual education budget of 23 developing countries with 160 million school-age
children. Meanwhile, two billion of the world's four and one-half billion people live
Many of us accept these observations without emotion or reflection-and we ignore the
paradox. There is a paradox. Sincere and even intelligent men and women often don't
act upon and often don't even think about the information they have-not because they
are indifferent or callous-but because they are void of feeling for the information
they have . . . or if they are not . . . they feel themselves helpless to do anything
about it anyway.
Essayist and journalist Archibald MacLeish wrote about this paradox nearly a half-century
ago in a piece called "Poetry and Journalism." The source of the problem, he felt,
was in the divorce between knowing and feeling what you know. "We do not feel our
knowledge," he said. "Nothing could better illustrate the flaw at the heart of our
civilization. . . Knowledge without feeling is not knowledge and can lead only to
public irresponsibility and indifference, and conceivably to ruin. When the fact is
disassociated from the feel of the fact in the minds of an entire people . . . in
the common mind of a civilization . . . that people, that civilization is in danger."
We are living in a paradox. Billions are going for nuclear weapons which are as dangerous
to the senders as to the victims. As the saying goes, "the cost of living is going
up while the chance of living is going down." Our challenge today is to explore, as
James Madison was able to explore 200 years ago, the essential principles that make
civic order and liberty possible among large collective units.
These, then, are the things I want students to realize: that the precarious balance
between the individual and the state needs constant attention; that our civic illiteracy
and inattention to matters of public life may well stem from a misinterpretation of
the meaning of liberty; that the pursuit of, and abiding commitment to, positive liberty
leads to a sense of community and to public responsibility; that knowledge without
feeling can only lead to public irresponsibility and indifference, even to ruin. And,
finally, I want my students to recognize that there is yet another precarious balance-the
balance between education for jobs and education for civic responsibility and that
there is indeed a connection between positive liberty and civic learning.
The Role of Education
It seems to me that what is missing in the current debate about our nation's schools
is a vision of what education really should be about. Many of the arguments say that
better schools will move us forward in the high-tech race. Raising science requirements
will help us compete more effectively with the Russians and thereby enhance our security.
Better schools prepare people for better jobs and better income. All true.
We speak of the need for longer school days, more computers, higher salaries, and
on and on. But what about education for civic responsibilities? What about the recognition
that education must not only focus inward on the nation-but also outward on the world?
While we may not be a global village, global education nevertheless is essential in
our classrooms. As an eminent computer scientist recently remarked in response to
the question, "What is an educated person?":
The greatest need (today) is still for breadth of education, and it is much greater
today than it was 10 or 20 years ago. In particular, we desperately need individuals
who can pull together knowledge from a wide variety of fields and integrate it in
one mind. We're in an age where we are facing problems that no one discipline can
solve. If this sounds like a plug for the humanities from a computer scientist, so be it.
More emphasis must therefore be placed on foreign languages and global studies to
make students aware that you can't just separate America from the rest of the world.
There are said to be more teachers of English in the Soviet Union than there are students
of Russian in the United States. We may well be the only country in the world where
you can graduate from high school without learning a second language. Among the industrialized
nations of the world, the United States stands alone in its neglect of foreign languages.
Sometimes this linguistic ignorance can be embarrassing and even amusing. Sales of
General Motors' Chevrolet Nova were lagging in Latin America until the name was changed
to Caribe. "Nova" or "no va," when spoken as two words in Spanish, means, "it doesn't
go." The Pepsi-Cola slogan, "Come Alive," almost appeared in an ad in the Chinese
edition of the Reader's Digest as "Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the grave."
The Soviets have their share of bloopers, too. During the Vienna Summit, Soviet Foreign
Minister Andrei Gromyko, trying to propose a toast, refused the help of a translator
and said to the wife of the U.S. Secretary of State Dean Rusk as he lifted his glass,
"I offer a toast to this gracious lady. Up your bottom!"
And what about the study of logic? Much more needs to be done in our classrooms, according
to the Education Commission of the States, to develop in students the ability to "engage
critically and constructively in the exchange of ideas." For it is this failure of
logic that plagues much debate on public issues. It's the investigation of things
and the extension of knowledge that should be of key importance.
In the Confucian classic, The Great Learning, the teacher seeks first of all to establish
the value of self-cultivation in terms of social ends, or what I have called in this
lecture the connection between positive liberty and civic learning. There is a passage
from the book which has, for centuries, been read aloud and committed to memory by
students in the Orient. In closing, I would like to share with you the wisdom inherent
in this selection:
The ancients who wished clearly to exemplify illustrious virtue throughout the world
would first set up good government in their states. Wishing to govern well their states,
they would first regulate their families. Wishing to regulate their families, they
would first cultivate their persons. Wishing to cultivate their persons, they would
first rectify their minds. Wishing to rectify their minds, they would first seek sincerity
in their thoughts. Wishing for sincerity in their thoughts, they would first extend
their knowledge. The extension of knowledge lay in the investigation of things. For
only when things are investigated is knowledge extended; only when knowledge is extended
are thoughts sincere; only when thoughts are sincere are minds rectifed; only when
minds are rectifed are our persons cultivated; only when our persons are cultivated
are our families regulated, only when families are regulated are states well governed;
and only when states are well governed is there peace in the world. May such peace be achieved in our time. Thank you.