Two Aspects of True Liberty Lead to Thriving Society: ‘Freedom From’ vs. ‘Freedom To’

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Surge Summary: The true freedom endorsed by the Bible and pursued by America’s founders provides freedom “from” certain oppressions so that people will have freedom “to” pursue other positive goals. A healthy education equips an individual to walk in both aspects of this kind of freedom so that he/she and society can thrive.

by Dr. Peter Frank

Grove City College’s historic commitment to freedom is purposely conveyed to each generation of students through our unique core curriculum. We believe that a populace well versed in the classical liberal arts will be one that not only understands the value of freedom but also uses that freedom well.

There are two aspects of freedom, and one of them—often overlooked—can be powerfully impacted by a strong, Christ-centered liberal arts education. I think of these two sides of freedom as “freedom from” and “freedom to.” Both are necessary for a well-ordered civil society.

Freedom From vs. Freedom To

Staunch defenders of freedom tend to focus mainly on “freedom from.”  “Freedom from” emphasizes political freedoms as outlined in the U.S. Constitution or other freedom charters, and these freedoms are deemed the core of a liberal society. Freedom from governmental oppression and suppression of ideas and beliefs is key. That is, “freedom from” focuses on ensuring that no government, no group, and no person can infringe upon individual liberty.

Government of the people clearly plays an important role in this aspect of freedom. For example, emancipation from slavery required political and legal rules to secure freedom for slaves in the American South. However, political freedom—or “freedom from”—is not sufficient alone for a well-ordered flourishing society.

The second aspect of freedom can be broadly understood as “freedom to.”  “Freedom to” goes hand in hand with “freedom from;” whereas the latter protects the individual from any violation of his or her freedoms, the former is the freedom to act well. As Galatians 5:13 reminds us, this is the purpose of our striving for liberty: “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.”

This is one of the primary building blocks of a free society; that is, structuring the “rules of the game” in such a way where individual free actions benefit others more than if those actions were coerced.1   The catalyst for innovation and economic development during the past few hundred years began with entrepreneurial decision-making rooted in the incentives to produce what others desire to attain.

Freedom to act is essential to a free and fair society but it also creates an important tension. Freedom to act necessitates the need for boundaries, as an action by one person can hinder the freedoms of another. Additionally, it requires moral judgement shaped by both personal convictions and a worldview that grounds the individual in a proper understanding of human nature. This is where institutions like Grove City College play a role. Education must provide a foundation for helping individuals to develop this framework in order to act in ways that lead to a prosperous and flourishing society.

Educating for Morality

I previously wrote about the liberal arts at Grove City College, and the Christian classical liberal arts in particular, as a central building block for cultivating the moral virtues that lead to individual actions which benefit society. Freedom to act, and act in a way that maintains a strong civil society, is strengthened by the cultivation of virtue. Policy alone fails to lead individuals to act morally and wisely for the benefit of all, but Christian higher education can and does help shape these virtues.

The Christian liberal arts are central to cultivating virtue in three ways: by building social capital and trust, building an understanding of community, and enhancing the framework for moral choosing.

Education has long played an important role in building trust among individuals, especially those who do not know each other. A liberal arts education, in particular, provides students with a much more expansive view of the world, the historical context we live in today, and the vast cultural, social, and religious complexity within society. This expanding knowledge helps students to learn about new people, places, and ideas that collectively help shape a more holistic understanding of the world. All of this builds trust and growth in the social capital that helps establish a strong citizenry. Scholars have shown that social capital is critical for achieving development and for an efficiently functioning economy, but it is difficult to generate through public policy.2 Education is the driving force that leads to engagement in society, and a strong liberal arts education builds the framework for positive civil discourse and action.

Simply put, education provides arguably the most impactful means to generate trust and social capital in society. I would contend that the study of the classical liberal arts in a Christian framework is the most valuable type of education that builds a robust civil society. Students study not only learn the skills of data analysis in a mathematics course or radioactive activity in physics, but also the ethics behind human cloning and the moral choices faced by characters in a Dickens novel. By rooting education in the Christian liberal arts, students are further equipped to act in ways leading to the benefit of others.

In addition to building social capital and trust through a broader and richer education and knowledge of the world, a Christian liberal arts education helps to foster a healthy understanding of community. Learning in an environment where students eat and play with the same colleagues with whom they discuss Plato, Rembrandt, and the book of Job helps to continually reshape their perspective on self-versus-others. Developing that sense of community will help inform the choices they make, seeing beyond the narrow understanding of individualism so prevalent today.

As Carl Trueman has written about extensively, some of the defining troubles of this age stem from the rampant expressive individualism in the culture. A strong antidote to expressive individualism can be found in the community built at a Christian liberal arts college.

Finally, building a moral foundation via the Christian liberal arts will help students develop a sharper lens to view the world and guide their actions within it. Just as many students in college today may work in jobs that do not yet exist, they will also face ethical questions and dilemmas that are currently unimaginable. These students need to develop a more complete framework from which to operate when confronting these future decisions and actions. A Christian liberal arts program will help solidify this framework for all students, from the accountant to the engineer; students will need a grid to use in formulating their actions. Many of these dilemmas will surface unrelated to a specific job or vocation, and thus a strong educational core will help root students in the virtues that lead to appropriate moral choosing.

Freedom That Leads to a Thriving Society

Freedom to act is a necessary condition for a prosperous society, but it is not sufficient alone for a virtuous one. The cultivation of a moral framework, enhanced by a Christian liberal arts education, is what will lead to the actions that build a thriving society.

One need only look at the discourse so prevalent in our day, whether via social media or the 24-hour news cycle on television, to see that our freedom to act is clouded with ad hominem attacks and demagoguery. We need more educated citizens who can speak wisely and eloquently, who can parse through arguments with logic and can discern with good judgement.

“Freedom to” is both an essential aspect of our human agency and an important responsibility. A broad liberal arts education helps to capture the imagination of students with a more complete understanding of what is possible, while also helping to shape a vision for what is right and true. Using this God-given freedom is a responsibility we all have, and educating young people to utilize this responsibility toward virtuous ends is at the heart of a Christian liberal arts core. We, as Christians, are not here to primarily seek freedom from oppression so that we have liberty to do what we want and serve our own pleasure. We desire to use that liberty to love and serve our community well.

For society to thrive, for our neighbors to thrive, we seek to expand both “freedom from” and “freedom to.” A focus on policy and government institutions will help to protect the former, and educating our citizens in the classical liberal arts at a place like Grove City College will help to protect the latter. Building the foundation for how to live in a free society, choosing to act and engage responsibly, requires drawing on a deep well of understanding that is cultivated in a Christian liberal arts education.

1 See Adam Smith (1776), An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Prometheus Books (1991), note in particular Book 1, Chapter 2. Douglass C. North (1990), Institutions, Institutional Change and Economic Performance, Cambridge University Press.

2 Francis Fukuyama (2001), Social Capital, Civil Society and Development, Third World Quarterly, Vol. 22, No. 1, pp. 7-20.

The views here are those of the author and not necessarily Daily Surge.

Originally posted here.

Image: Adapted from: Solasly – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Dr. Peter Frank is the Provost & Vice President of Academic Affairs at Grove City College. Frank also teaches economics.

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