The Character of Freedom

By Isabelle Deschamps. Isabelle lives in Montreal, Canada. She is a qualified lawyer currently reading her LL.M. and D.C.L. at the McGill Institute of Comparative Law. She is also the co-founder of Health and Education Now!, an NGO working on community development projects in Benin. Please read and leave your thoughts and comments below. *Shortlisted for the NUHA Blogging Prize 2011*


Ségou, Mali – 24 July 2009

This morning, I was jogging through the dry millet fields of the Niger River region of Ségou in Mali when a young man riding a slightly rusty blue bicycle loaded with a freezer caught up with me and started a chat. He enquired about my suffering from the harsh morning heat of yet another cloudless day. (I actually don’t really mind the heat). Then came the second predictable question: “D’où venez-vous?”

“Canada”, I said.

His eyes glittered. “You have everything there”.

I tried to convince him of the contrary. Vain enterprise.

He told me about his dismay toward life in Mali, toward his own limited prospects for the future.  Perhaps attempting to take on the role of the liberator, I called upon education as key to development.

“Education?”, he answered cynically, “Education hasn’t helped me. I finished primary and high school and look at what I do today: I wake up at dawn every morning and cycle more than 25 km to neighbouring villages looking for clients to sell my juices to. Some days, I don’t even sell everything.”

I listened, feeling both annoyed at my helplessness and foolish for having thought, worst still suggest, that the magic word “education” could solve his fatality.


Cotonou, Bénin – 23 May 2011

Today, Dr Eliphoeth took me to visit the primary school his NGO runs in Édifnolmïa, a Tofin indigenous community village built on Lake Nokwe, just on the outskirts of Cotonou. The school is the only one in the community and it is in a decrepit state. At one point, I thought that the patched wood planked floor would crack open underneath my feet.

Eliphoeth explained that when he suggested opening the school over a decade ago, the chief and other villagers opposed the idea for they wanted to preserve their modes. They ultimately agreed but the struggles to get support for the school continue.

When Eliphoeth advised the community against drinking and throwing waste in the water, they said: “We’ve been living like this for decades and we’ve survived, so why should we change our practices?”

Why should they indeed? To increase their life expectancy? Somehow I doubt that they would revere this objective as much as we do in industrialised countries.

As we rode back from the school to the dry land, I was amazed at the strength of the young boy stirring our pirogue, at the agility of the children climbing up the ladders leading to their shackle homes and throwing nets for fishing, at the endurance of the people in the community who bathe, wash their dishes, drink and eliminate waste in what I could guess to be body, animal and food waste filled water. Many of the children, I was told, learn to swim before they even learn to walk.


London, Uk – 2 August 2011

I went for a pint with Ekim today. I told him about my NGO’s project to help rebuild the school in Édifnolmïa and about the villagers’ initial opposition to having a school in their community.

“Maybe they were right”, he said. “Maybe they don’t need Western-type formal education. We certainly do not have the proof that spending twelve years or more on school benches listening to a teacher and reading textbooks is the best method for learning let alone for fulfilling oneself or becoming useful for society. We tend to think that the value and benefits of the liberal arts curriculum are universal. But what do these people value most? What are their needs?”

He has a point. Yet in Édifnolmïa’s particular case, it appears that the community’s priorities changed since the time when the school was initially built: last year, three representatives of village (again all men) arranged to speak to me to ask for help in renovating the school. Also, when Eliphoeth was about to close it for lack of funds to pay the teachers, the parents got together and contributed the amount necessary to cover the meagre salaries. As for the students, they themselves asked that I teach them English and I am always astonished at how keenly they learn it.


Montreal, Canada – 11 September 2011

Prof. Dor sent me a link about a blogging contest on the role of education in developing countries. It’s organised by the Nuha Foundation. I think I will participate.


Montreal, Canada – 26 September 2011

“Only the educated are free.”

This quote from Epictetus posted on the Nuha website got me thinking about the people of Édifnolmïa and about my Malian encounter in the fields of Ségou a couple of years ago. Can such a claim be salvaged from its apparent aristocratic arrogance? It has after all been attributed to one who experienced slavery, and liberation from it.

To determine the relevance of Epictetus’ assertion, one first needs to take stance on what education and freedom are.

Take freedom, or rather liberty, a larger encompassing concept that more appropriately fits with development goals. Liberty involves both having choices, as Prof. Sen suggests, and having the capability (qualities, intellectual tools, knowledge, information) of making choices.

Having choices entails being free from constraints – material, political, physical, social. My Malian friend, I am sure, had many more constraints than the obvious material and physical ones I can think of now. Yet I am equally sure that he, as well as the women and men of Édifnolmïa, have developed much more grit, resilience and self-control than I have during my relatively unconstrained life, spent mostly in primary and high school, college and university.


I believe that the extent to which grit and similar character traits determine people’s ability to choose is underestimated in Western conceptions of liberty. (Note to self: on this, finish reading “The Character Test” article by Paul Tough in the 18 September 2011 edition of The New York Times Magazine)

Equally underestimated in the West is the importance of grit and character in becoming educated.

(A good) education, according to me, accomplishes two things. It leads people to develop the skills and qualities necessary 1) for overcoming constraints and 2) for exercising choice in the face of freedom. Only in such circumstance might I agree with Epictetus. Formal education (and conceptions of freedom) in industrialised nations have put so much emphasis on overcoming constraints that this has led to the violation of other nations’ freedoms (increased their constraints). At the same time, western education has disregarded people’s need to learn how to choose. Psychologist Barry Schwartz gave a really interesting TED talk in 2005 on the unhappiness caused by the incapacity of people in industrialised countries to choose. The multiplicity of choices paralyses and becomes yet another constraint.

How then to educate for achieving liberty? I would start by striving to identify and weigh the needs of individuals, their community and society against each other. From there, I would attempt to use and design methods that most adequately respond to the needs, whether these methods are formal or informal, common or rare, new or old.

The “Great Books” may help to achieve liberty, but singing, swimming or learning to sow a fishnet might even more.

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