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Finding the Law of One’s Own Freedom: Negative and Positive Freedom in the Fairhaven College Community

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Finding the Law of One’s Own Freedom: Negative and Positive Freedom in the Fairhaven College Community

FairhavenCollege-mainbuilding_webThis “manifesto” was written in 1970 (?) when I was just home from service in Germany with NATO and had enrolled in Fairhaven College which at the time was just a couple of years old.  Its curriculum, policies and procedures were still under construction.  For those of us who were students this was a chaotic circumstance under which to experience our first real freedom: we had to conduct independent research and design our own majors without any real models yet in place.  During the year, in meeting after meeting, the students, faculty and staff tried to hammer out rules for this emerging learning community. But we seemed to be spinning our wheels.


I typed this “manifesto” on mimeograph paper and wrote it under the pseudonym, Henry Burlingame (because I was currently reading John Barth’s The Sot Weed Factor and intended to become a philosopher and poet just like the protagonist of the novel, Henry Burlingame).  Late at night I slipped copies of the essay into everyone’s mailboxes up on the third floor of “the big house.”

I was provoked into thinking about our inexperience with freedom not only by all the unproductive meetings we had but also by personal far-ranging conversations about the value of the radical Fairhaven experiment, and other such inventions around the country, in this era of college reform . . . conversations with classmates Gary MacDonald and Frank James who were co-writing a book on this topic (Five Experimental Colleges). These frustrating meetings and intense arguments led me to a lifetime of thinking about the nature of a good education, one that prepares a whole person for a full life.

My argument for self-structuring one’s own freedom according to some sharable standard was taken from Immanuel Kant.  I had been studying Kant’s ethics with Tom Sherwood and Hugh Fleetwood.  Kant’s argument seemed to me to be a way of addressing our fear of radical freedom — freedom from pre-packaged and imposed expectations – a freedom we feared.  We did not, however, need to run away from this radical freedom, I believed; we simply needed to transform it — each one of us giving our own self a rule of policy and procedure that others could find reasonable if they thought about it carefully and honestly – by choosing for one’s own self a rule that every other person could endorse even if it had been suggested by someone else, and even though others might use the rule for their own educational purposes.  A set of self-chosen rules for optimizing one’s own freedoms in ways that also optimized the freedom of everyone else would make us as free as humanly possible.  It would turn absolute freedom into practical freedom.  Abstract freedom into concrete freedom.  It would turn chaotic freedom into ordered freedom. By means of imagining ourselves in each other’s circumstances, with their desires and fears, their identity and heritage, we could arrive more easily at consensus over proposals that would structure our learning, with joy and freedom instead of with fear and coercion.


“Fairhaven is in chaos,” we complain.  “People are running around like chickens with their heads cut off.  There are no rules, no policies, no procedures, no structures to guide our decisions,” we whine.  “You’re right, our project is new,” our teachers plead “so have a little patience, please.”  But we are as impatient as we are confused and afraid: “Where is the Independent Study Form?  How will our studies be assessed; what is an adequate narrative self-assessment of our work?  How does we form a Concentration Committee?  How do we invent a new course for next term and get into the catalogue? Will the rules change on me next term?  Will a degree from this weird college get me into graduate or professional school, or help me get a job?”  On and on, the questions get debated at our Town Hall meetings.  But we are getting nowhere fast; we don’t know how to get to consensus.   We are frustrated.


Arriving at Fairhaven fresh from the farm, high school, or army service, we guinea pigs are used to having pre-established rules to work with.  We need . . . Ok, we want . . . a basic structure to work with immediately that will help us negotiate our circumstances, one that will help us profit from the radical personal freedom that Fairhaven is offering us.  Some of us seem to be at the point of giving up our precious freedom.  We are lost but are afraid of too much “guidance”.  Some are asking, “How much guidance do we need?” But I say the better question is “What kind of freedom do we need?”  What each of us needs to do is to transform our anarchic freedom into an ordered freedom, an impossible freedom into a practical freedom.


*   *   *

The pathological desire that others structure our freedom for us – to give it a law — is a moral problem.  Why would we voluntarily give up our freedom?  Freedom is the point of the Fairhaven experiment, the Fairhaven Experience.  Each of us needs to find our own way to pinch our freedom into useful paths.  We have a choice: either we find an internal discipline for our freedom, or we flop back into pre-packaged “parental” discipline.  If we each design our freedom it must be compatible with a similar freedom for each other member of our learning community.


*   *   *

The freedom we must discipline has both negative and positive dimensions.   Imagine this: suppose that you’re a political dissident (a good Fairhaven calling) who has been locked away for thirty years because you have been pursuing justice in an assertive way. You are shackled in a prison cell.  After thirty years you’re finally let go — released by a judge.  You’re free to leave!  Nothing  (you swear) will hold you back; you have the negative freedom that comes from an absence of restraints. You have no external obstacles to your will: the warden unlocks your cell door; the guards undo the shackles on your wrists and ankles.  And now you’re ready to rock and roll.


But nothing happens; you’re paralyzed.  Without exercise your muscles (your positive power) have atrophied.  You can’t even crawl out the cage door.  But you’re free?  Fairhaven offers us this absence of restraints; but what powers . . . what capacities . . . have we constructed within ourselves for dealing with this radical freedom?   We need internal skills of freedom in order to personally discipline our radical external freedom into a practical freedom?  We need to be able to avoid coercion but also to initiate self-discipline.


Some of the skills we need might come from useful distinctions concerning the freedom we seek – like that between negative and positive freedom.  Negative freedom is the absence of restraints, the lack of interference in your life by others.  Positive freedom, on the other hand, is the power to go on the offensive, to accomplish what you want or need to do (including willing yourself to choose sharable rules of procedure and achievement that, rather than maximize our personal freedom, optimizes the personal freedom of everyone).  But an even more significant skill would be employing a test for acceptable proposals for our engagement with each other (in our process of trying to learn from each other about how the world works).  What is a minimal framework of action for transforming the curse of circumstances void of rules and free of interference into a blessing, into a capacity for accomplishment, into the achievement, of our individual goals?


What are the resources that can maximize positive personal freedom of action in a minimalist institution like Fairhaven College?  What personal resources help transform our shared negative freedoms into shared positive freedoms?  The most important resource would be a personally endorsed but also shared test of mutually acceptable structures and procedures.


Personal values and goals, collaborative relationships, hard work and self-discipline, along with a learning tool kit of methods of discovering, understanding, and inventing things, can make virile our capacities for turning radical freedom into practical freedom.  In the face of minimal requirements and pre-requisites, a minimal core curriculum, and (at best) some informal procedures, and minimal mentoring guidance . . . under such conditions, we must collaborate and quickly design shareable rules of the road.  But we must avoid creating a law of our own freedom that violates the reasonable law of freedom others might give to their freedom.


To discover such a law . . . a law that is personally chosen but socially acceptable . . . we will each need to engage in self-development: learning to take reasonable risks.  Learning to negotiate plans.  Learning how to independently do research and to collaborate in producing conclusions.  Learning how to build community.  Learning how to respect others for the same reasons we respect ourselves.  Learning how to avoid using others as mere means to our own projects.  Learning how to use others as resources while at the same time treating them as objects of respect (having an intrinsic value equal to our own).


Reminding my self that the law of my freedom must meet the same standard that yours does seems to me to be the most likely way for us to create the institutional policies and procedures we want.  Let’s put on each other’s shoes; take up each other’s perspectives on how to meet compatible goals.  This is our mission; the point of our experiment together.  We need to not only be patient with each other in our conversations and deliberations, we need a standard for our choices that each can rationally and impartially give to him or her and at the same expect that each other person will chose the same rule.  That rule is: chose policies and procedures that avoid treating others in our community as merely means to your own project; and chose rules that allows each member of the community to regard the rules as means to their projects as if they were of equal value to yours. Following this rule will turn our abstract, logically-possible-but-practically-impossible freedom into something we can each enjoy.  What other law could we possibly give ourselves that would help us all get what each of us wants?


Henry Burlingame


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