Monday, 2 January 2017

Stoicism: Only the educated are free

"What is the fruit of these teachings? Only the most beautiful and proper harvest of the truly educated - tranquility, fearlessness, and freedom. We should not trust the masses who say only the free can be educated, but rather the lovers of wisdom who say only the educated are free."
Epictetus: Discourses, 2.1.21-23a

About two millennia ago Epictetus was born a slave and received education only because his master allowed it for him. Only because of the education he received was Epictetus enabled to gain appreciation and eventually his freedom, and to become a teacher who's words would still be heard after two thousand years after his death.

Modern Western world has no slaves (at least, not in the traditional sense of the word), but one only needs to change the words "the free" to "the wealthy" and suddenly the words of Epictetus address a very real and concrete issue in most parts of the world: whereas education should be viewed as human right it is too often regarded as something only the wealthy are entitled to. In too many countries those born to poverty (if not to slavery) will never have an opportunity to receive education needed to become free - I mean, to rise above poverty.

Out of over six billion people living in this world I received a rare privilege to be raised in a small nation where education is free: my elementary school was free, my second degree education was (mostly) free, and my studies in Polytechnic University were also free. Because of this I was enabled to rise above the social status of my working class parents - and I say this not only with gratitude, but also with appreciation of the life my single parent mother was able to provide to me and my sister.

However, most of the people in the world do not have these kinds of opportunities for education. Instead they are forced to start the race of life with severe and debilitating handicaps. Even here in Finland many neoliberal politicians, who believe education should not be free but individuals should earn their right for it by paying for it, have managed to find their way into power by feeding on common feelings of resentment and envy followed by a decade of difficult economics. To this end education budgets and student support mechanisms have been severely crippled by the current and previous governments. The commonly used justification for these actions is that "our society cannot afford these kinds of social benefits", and "we must get the young people into working life sooner instead of having them spend years in schools", but these people are terribly and undeniably wrong.

No country can afford not to empower its citizens from utilising their full potential by limiting their opportunities for education and personal development. Least of all small countries such as Finland, where our only true national resource is the mental ability for innovations, and research and development. Politicians and businesses are calling for new goods and services to be exported, but without educated and motivated people working on research and development that cannot happen.

Additionally the national economy will never be improved by forcing the young people to begin their adult lives with huge debts that they are forced to pay for a decade if not longer instead of using their earnings to consume goods and services, and starting families. The only ones that will benefit from forcing students to take large loans are the banks and loan shark lenders, and there are business people who believe that their personal ability to make profit would be improved by creating a class of low income people with limited education and who are vulnerable for exploitation.

Again, they are all horribly wrong. While some individuals and private parties may benefit from a society that is crippled in this way, the nations must not be allowed to follow the will of these people as the only thing that is good for all the people and the society as whole is to enable all people to have the education they need and want to have, and to support cross-scientific research instead of limiting the educational options to those determined by the short-term corporate needs.

Remember Epictetus' words: only the educated are free!