07/04/2012 09:25 am ET | Updated Sep 03, 2012

Learning and Independence: Examples for the Fourth

I've been so impressed by the consistent links between education and freedom that run through American intellectual history. As we celebrate America's birthday, let me share just two.

The first is from Frederick Douglass, the great orator, and activist. Douglass often described the epiphany he experienced as a young slave: the realization that the path from slavery to freedom was through education. His master's wife had been teaching him to read, and when the slaveholder discovered this, he was outraged. Nothing good will come of educating a slave, he exclaimed. The boy only needs to heed his master's commands! Douglass overheard this.

The direct pathway to freedom is education, and education is based in literacy because when you can read you have the independence to learn on your own. This "new and special revelation" was a turning point for Douglass, as he puts it, the "first anti-slavery speech" that made a difference to him.

"Very well," thought I. "Knowledge unfits a child to be a slave." I instinctively assented to the proposition, and from that moment I understood the direct pathway from slavery to freedom.

This is a Jeffersonian moment in Douglass's life, and in American history, even if Jefferson himself didn't believe that a black man like Douglass could experience such a moment. The fact that America paid tribute to liberty and equality while brutally enslaving millions outraged Douglass, and that kind of outrage helped fuel the abolitionist movement before the Civil War.

The second example comes from Ralph Waldo Emerson, who feared that colleges were places that encouraged too much conformity and not enough inspiration. One must, Emerson insists, be an inventor to study well. He readily admits that guidance to the best books is a great service, but this service can turn into corruption if they teach subservience to the material - if they teach dependence.

Colleges, in like manner, have their indispensable office, -- to teach elements. But they can only highly serve us, when they aim not to drill, but to create when they gather from far every ray of various genius to their hospitable halls, and, by the concentrated fires, set the hearts of their youth on flame.

Emerson here is radicalizing the notions of university education that Jefferson developed when founding the University of Virginia. The enemy for the founding father was rote learning; the plague was to be trained for a destiny that had already been chosen for you. Emerson builds on Jefferson in calling for institutions of advanced learning to inspire, to transform through creativity.

Education as the direct pathway from slavery to freedom... Education as the awakening of creativity ..... We might say learning leads to independence. Happy 4th!