Faculty Awards and Honors

Back to SBCC

Dr. John Kay Lecture


Back to Profile


Dr. John Kay 1983 - 1984

Lecture Dedication

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 others.


-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 of apprehension.

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 by Orwell?

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 governments.

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 Vanderbilt.

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 of Liberty."

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 poor."

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 Choices

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 ordered liberty.

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 and order.

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 that event.

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 in poverty.

The Paradox

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.



Back to top Back to top

721 Cliff Drive Santa Barbara, CA 93109-2394    Main Campus Phone: 805.965.0581    © 2018 Santa Barbara City College