Finding Purpose: Freedom of Expression and the Pursuit of Excellence


“First, know yourself. Next, Choose a Career Path” offers sound advice that parents and reformers would do well to heed. In this brief response, I make connections between his essay and two questions that I consider to be of central importance when thinking about how to setting young people on the path to a meaningful life.

First, the finality of thought offers another angle to view the controversies surrounding freedom of expression. Although justifications for freedom of expression are often naturally and correctly linked to the pursuit of truthI consider freedom of expression important because it also helps individuals know their own minds and find out what they believe in.

Many students censor themselves because they don’t want to offend or because they fear being canceled. This can be extremely damaging because one of the main ways we learn what we believe is by talking about our beliefs with people who share those beliefs and with people who don’t. When we censor ourselves unnecessarily, we cut ourselves off from a primary source of self-knowledge.

To be clear, just because free speech allows you to say something doesn’t mean you should. And some forms of self-censorship are simply good manners; few of us would want to live in a society where everyone immediately blurts out every thought that comes to mind. But I fear that we are raising a generation of students who are afraid to speak up unless they are convinced that everyone around them will already agree with what they say.

Socrates did not come to self-knowledge in solitude or by remaining silent. Rather the opposite. His example teaches that self-knowledge is directly related to the quality of conversations – and disagreements – people have. Schools will never help students discover their purpose if they encourage excessive self-censorship.

Second, helping students find purpose is related to the quality of work that teachers assign. Although self-censorship can be a problem in schools, students are more likely not to develop purpose (or self-knowledge) because they are not asked to. meaningful work at schooland they are not challenged to produce work that meets the standards of excellence.

Despite the struggles a student may have had in the past, a good teacher can always keep open a vision of excellence and create assignments that allow a student to strive for that excellence.

The trick here is threefold. First, we must believe that every child deserves to do demanding work. Second, we cannot err or attempt to enlighten students by calling poor work excellent. Third, we need teachers who feel called to teach because they are in touch with the excellence made available by their fields and want to invite their students to experience this excellence.

In our current highly polarized landscape, excellence is often overlooked. Diversity is not an end in itself. Rather, we need diversity because without it we cut ourselves off from the varieties of excellence available in our world. The same can be said of the choice of school. Simply giving people choices can become pure consumerism. The point should be excellence, not mere choice.

In conclusion, if we hope to create schools where students learn to be useful, then we must appreciate the damage of self-censorship and the importance of promoting excellence. Schools where students go through the motions, saying the “right” things even if they don’t believe or understand what they’re saying; getting high marks for the slightest effort – makes it much more likely that students will sleepwalk through life and never find a greater purpose than conformity to the thought bubble they find themselves in.

We can do much better, and it starts with teachers challenging students to speak their minds on matters that reasonable people disagree on and spending their entire lives committing to good do things. If school reform efforts stall in these highly partisan times, I see this as a way to relaunch our thinking and find common ground.

Jeff Frank is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Education at St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York.


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