I believe freedom means being able to make informed choices and act on them. “Informed choices” come from studying in a classroom, traveling to new places, reflecting on a book, talking with a thoughtful friend, or remembering the wisdom imparted by Mom and Dad. I could be well educated but still not free if I were restricted from using what I know, but if I were not well educated, I believe I could not be free.
Growing up in a family that paid little attention to organized religion, I learned I could believe in one – or none at all – as I wished. I teach at a community college. One of my students, a recent immigrant from eastern Europe, exclaimed, “Americans have this strange notion that a person can CHOOSE their religion,” a freedom she had not imagined before.
“Ignorance” means a lack of awareness of choices. Just as a fish doesn’t know its environment is wet, I didn’t know that my hometown of Rochester, New York, was unusually humid in summer, snowy in winter, and overcast all year long. When I discovered there were more inviting alternatives, I took advantage of my freedom to move to the paradise of northern California.
As a free, educated person, I can usually identify information I want, figure out where to find it, and then assess its validity. I encourage my students to ask questions, not to memorize information that is likely to change with time.
Years ago, one of my Vietnamese students reminded me not to take my freedom for granted. He described his escape after the Communists took over in 1975. He and a friend decided to pool their money, buy a boat, and head out to sea with their two families together. My student gave his money to his friend to get the boat, but he never saw the friend again. Not about to give up, he got ahold of a book on boat-building. He followed the directions, built the boat, pulled it into the water, and loaded his family onto it. He said he thought they would have a 50/50 chance: they might be murdered by pirates, washed overboard in a storm, starve from too many days adrift at sea — or they might be rescued.
I asked, “With odds like that, how could you risk not only your own life, but your whole family?”
He said, “When there is no freedom, there is no reason to live.”
I believe that I am incredibly fortunate in the United States to have freedom, and thanks to my education, I think I have used it well. I hope to inspire my students to do so, too, learning how to learn for the rest of their lives. If I have succeeded in this mission in my thirty years at San Jose City College, then I believe my free choice to become an educator has not been in vain.
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