Columns

Shin ’17: Escape from freedom

By
Opinions Columnist
Wednesday, November 5, 2014

In this brisk autumn weather, with just the right amount of sunlight, I often recall Diogenes the Cynic, who loved leisurely sun-basking. When Alexander the Great, undeniably the most powerful figure of the time, approached this bohemian lying under the sun and asked if he wanted anything, he simply replied, “Yes, please. Stand out of my sunlight.”

A cosmopolitan who knew how to fully enjoy and bask in the privileges of a free man, Diogenes defied all authorities, institutions and conventions that tried to shackle him down.

“My good Diogenes, if you knew how to pay court to kings, you wouldn’t have to wash those vegetables,” lamented Plato.

“And,” replied Diogenes, knee-deep in the river, “if you knew how to wash vegetables, you wouldn’t have to enslave yourself to kings.”

It was around this time of my freshman year in one classics course that I came across this anecdote. At that time, I was footloose, wandering undecidedly from the world of Plato to the world of neurons and atoms. And I was accompanied by a number of fellow troubadours and romantics harboring the same fantasy of freedom and exploring the boundless possibilities of the open curriculum. As for me, I was prepared, having desperately escaped from the prisons of Korean education, to indulge in the newfound freedom at Brown, a stronghold of liberal education.

With freedom, however, ensued an overwhelming uncertainty and anxiety. While some continued to enjoy the perks of the open curriculum, the Diogeneses of Brown slowly vanished, one by one, and retreated to the mundane world of stability and certainty where things move in a more defined orbit. Now, we appreciate freedom in a narrower sense: We feel “free” and liberated from work when the professor unexpectedly cancels a class or gives a week off of homework. Those intermittent surprises and “free time” granted to us are about all the freedom we can truly take pleasure in. When the professor burdens us with the freedom to write an essay on the topic of our choice, we get anxious. When we are bestowed the right to become the architects of our own “liberal” education, we become overwhelmed.

Erich Fromm, a renowned social and political psychologist of the 19th century, analyzes a similar phenomenon in his seminal work, “Escape from Freedom.” He watched as millions of German citizens grew as “eager to surrender their freedom as their fathers were to fight for it.” Before their liberation, individuals identified themselves with respect to their position in and relationship with the world around them. But then came “real” freedom, cutting off their roots and leaving them face to face with the bare self, stranded in the vast universe, alone.

In the minds of these naturally threat-sensitive animals, individualism was equated with the progressive crumbling of unity, severance of ties and eventual isolation as separate entities, rather than an opportunity for constructive self-realization and shaping of individual identities. The fear of psychological isolation inevitably triggered anxiety and compelled people to seek new sources of social bondage and interpersonal dependencies, including fascist ideologies and dictators. To those in power, such “abdicants” of freedom were easy to control and manipulate, as opposed to strong-minded and independent Diogeneses.

All this talk of fascism and mass hysteria is not far-fetched. In Brunonia, the land of freedom and the forefront of liberal education, the Diogeneses adapt to the open curriculum and internalize the liberal philosophy of Brown, but those bewildered herds of lost sheep have trouble coping with the overwhelming and unprecedented privilege granted to them and agonize over what to do. Of course, there are also those racehorses who choose to ignore the issue altogether — to whom it does not matter that they are at Brown. Many undecided newcomers fidget with the curriculum in their first semesters but soon thereafter grow anxious, returning to their “decided” lives and reassuring themselves that they are on the right track. Still others, claiming to be true bohemians, pretend to be enjoying the freedom but still feel anxious internally.

Even if Brown is dubbed the “happiest” college, its “happiest” students cannot be immune to depression, anxiety and other mental instabilities. As a matter of fact, about 16 to 17 percent of students visit Counseling and Psychological Services annually. Twenty percent of the 50 to 65 people who took a medical leave last semester were suffering from anxiety. Many causes underlie these symptoms, but uncertainty and insecurity about academic and career paths are certainly primary factors.

It is apparent that aside from merely giving students liberty, the University should help them better understand the meaning of that freedom and what to make of the open curriculum. In order for students to grow into independent individuals, a strong sense of individual identity and maturity must be achieved, for knowing oneself is the fastest way to inner freedom. The fact that many Brown students postpone their graduation in fear of venturing into the unknown — hence the lowest four-year graduation rate in the Ivy League, at 84 percent — leads me to suspect the effectiveness of Brown’s liberal education in nurturing truly liberal and autonomous individuals.

We are just too young to be frustrated with life now.

 

 

Julie HyeBin Shin ’17 can be reached at hye_bin_shin@brown.edu.

3 Comments

  1. TheRationale says:

    Wow, this is a really well-written, interesting article. An unusual occurrence for the BDH.

  2. who is this kid and why is she making up diogenes quotes

  3. existentialism says:

    We are condemned to be free..

    Now, the economy might not have anything to do with the 4 year graduation rate would it? Maybe an extra year in academia might be a nice way to avoid the dismal real world?

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