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On the Deplorable Lack of Freedom at Calvin College:
A Memo to President Byker

By Lee Hardy, Calvin College professor of Philosophy


A talk to the incoming scholarship students at Calvin College Lee Hardy Department of Philosophy This speech was given by philosophy professor Lee Hardy to a group of incoming students at Calvin. We found it appropriate for the thought section of Spark magazine. Ed.

Today I've been working on a letter to President Byker. As its subject matter bears upon the quality of student life at Calvin College, I thought I might run this draft before you, solicit your comments, and then compose the final draft tonight. This is how it reads at present:

Dear President Byker,

As I advance in age and hear, on a regular basis, the troubling reports about life at Calvin College from the sons and daughters of my friends and associates, I have become painfully aware of the many arbitrary constraints and senseless imperatives that afflict our students. Given the striking lack of freedom they suffer, it is a wonder that a good number of them are nonetheless able to apply themselves to good effect in their studies; and that some of them even become the responsible agents of cultural transformation the college claims it is endeavoring to produce.

As members of the faculty and administration, it is our duty to remove as many obstacles to freedom as possible, so that our students, as citizens of a great democracy and of the Christian church universal, may experience, prize and promote true liberty in their own lives and the lives of others. To that end, I propose the following:

1. That all manner of video cassette recorders, laser disc players, televisions, stereo systems, video game machines and cartridges, computer game software, personal cassette recorders, compact disc players, MP3 players and radios be banned from Calvin dorms.

2. That chapel attendance be made compulsory, and, furthermore, that chapel be held seven times a day: at 6 a.m., 9 a.m., noon, 3 p.m., 6 p.m., midnight and 3 a.m. (Students slow to rise from bed for the early morning services will be assisted by their RAs.)

3. That students be allowed no time for idleness; when their academic work for the day is completed, they are to be employed in various useful tasks about the campus: e.g. the vacuuming of carpets, the dusting of shelves, the washing of windows, the emptying of trash, the trimming of trees, the weeding of gardens and, weather permitting, the shoveling of snow. If there are no useful tasks to be performed, then the college will promptly assign them to various useless tasks: say, the weaving of baskets followed by the unweaving of baskets; or, the digging of holes, followed by the filling up of holes-the area directly east of the transportation building might be reserved for the latter activity. (If you are worried about the budget implications of this recommendation, Mr. President, I should point out that students will not be paid for these activities, since such activities are, quite obviously, for their own benefit, and only accidentally for the benefit of the college.)

4. That all meals will be eaten together in the cafeteria-which shall henceforth be referred to as the "Refectory." Each meal will be proceeded by a general prayer of thanksgiving delivered by the dean of the chapel, and then accompanied by complete silence for the duration. Once a month the students will fast for three consecutive days.

5. That all students will be issued school uniforms when they enter Calvin College, leaving their personal wardrobes behind. (Some members of the Calvin community may want to use the school colors-maroon and gold-for the uniforms; I myself would prefer unisex robes of the dull brown sort. But these particulars can be left to the discretion of Ms. Hoogstra, vice president for student life, who has always demonstrated good taste in matters of fashion.)

6. That these new rules for campus life shall be featured in all future promotional and recruiting literature produced by the admissions department; and that students attracted to Calvin College by this glorious surfeit of freedom shall be accepted only after making a third application for admission-that is, all students applying to Calvin shall be twice informed of their rejection; only those who absolutely insist on attending Calvin and apply for a third time will be considered sufficiently motivated for membership in this our community of scholars.

Thank you, President Byker, for considering these recommendations. I am sure they address an issue about which you too are deeply troubled and concerned. I have no doubt that they will sail through the relevant college committees, the faculty senate and the Board of Trustees, and thus be approved and ready for implementation in the next academic year.

In the meantime, I am available for further consultation. You can contact me at extension 6417.

Lee Hardy
Department of Philosophy

I must confess that I have some secret doubts about the level of popularity my proposal will enjoy. In fact, I'm beginning to think that it will be embraced with something less than wild enthusiasm.

The history buffs among you will recognize my list of recommendations as an attempt to model Calvin College on the monastic community, where the liberal arts were preserved and pursued during the Middle Ages. So, however outlandish or impossible my recommendations may strike us today, there were real people who willingly lived in communities that ordered their lives along these lines--taking the vow of poverty, chastity and obedience, fasting, wearing the cowl, observing the daily office, meditating on the Word of God, commenting on the books of the philosophers, avoiding idleness by work, whether useful or not.

Moreover, they entered upon this way of life in order to increase their measure of freedom, not to restrict it. If this sounds wildly implausible to us, it's probably because we operate with a different concept of freedom. We take it that we are free when we can do whatever we want, when there are no external constraints on our behavior. We enjoy religious freedom, for instance, when there are no laws telling us which church we have to attend, or whether we have to attend church at all. This is the political definition of freedom, and it comes naturally to us as members of a liberal society that seeks to maximize individual liberty.

But, the monastics would tell us that the absence of external constraints is only part of what true freedom is about. For once we're in a position to do exactly what we desire to do, we will still have the problem of internal constraints. For we have not just one desire, but many. And those desires teeming within us often get in the way of each other. I desire to lower my cholesterol level, and I desire to eat ice cream-real ice cream, Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream. I desire to get good grades, and I desire to watch all of my fourteen favorite TV programs. So what shall I do? If I try to fulfill all of my desires, just as they present themselves, my life will surely collapse into a heap of impossible confusion.

To illustrate this point, let me invite you into my philosophy classroom for just a minute. In Plato's Republic, Socrates gives us a sad description of what he calls the "democratic man." (Here the "democratic man" is not a person who lives in a democracy, or believes in democratic government; but rather one who has declared all of his or her desires to be equal, thus establishing a democratic regime within the soul.) "And so he lives on, yielding day by day to the desire at hand. Sometime he drinks heavily while listening to the flute; at other times, he drinks only water and is on a diet; sometimes he goes in for physical training; at other times, he's idle and neglects everything; and sometimes he even occupies himself with what he takes to be philosophy. He often engages in politics, leaping up from his seat and saying and doing whatever comes into his mind. If he happens to admire soldiers, he's carried in that direction, if money-makers, in that one. There is neither order nor necessity in his life, but he calls it pleasant, free and blessedly happy, and he follows it for as long as he lives."

In the political sense, the democratic man is free-there are no external constraints on his behavior; but in a deeper sense, he is not free: he's driven about by his desires; they pop up from who knows where, and he finds them, one and all, irresistible; he is enslaved by them.

What he needs to do, Plato would counsel, is to exercise some judgment, to sort through his desires, decide which ones are worthy of pursuit, which are to be resisted-only then will his life take on a coherent plan and pattern; only then will he be free to accomplish something of worth.

If we follow Plato's advice-and most of us have, to one degree or another-then we will find our freedom not only in the absence of external constraints, but more importantly in the absence of those desires that present themselves as internal constraints. But that makes freedom a lot harder than just doing what we want to do. My niece desires to live a long and healthy life, she also desires to smoke about three cigarettes per hour-and she does. Presumably she wouldn't smoke a cigarette unless she wanted to; and no one is keeping her from doing what she wants to do. So she smokes.

But is she free? Well, she doesn't think so. Although she took up smoking of her own free will, she now speaks of it as a compulsion, as an obsession, or an addiction. She has thought about the matter, and decided that it is better to live a long and healthy life than a life cut short by lung cancer or afflicted by emphysema. She has identified, in this judgment, with her desire to live a long and healthy life. So the desire to smoke feels coercive; it feels like a constraint on her behavior, a constraint from which she would like to be free-even though, in some sense, she always does exactly what she wants to do. There are very few external constraints on her behavior; but there is a sizable internal constraint. So she is not free. Freedom will take more work-and perhaps God's grace.

Or take another example. This one from my colleague's office: there sits a young male student, who speaks with a great deal of remorse about his early involvement in pornography. At the time, when he was younger, he did exactly what he wanted to do; there were no effective constraints on his behavior in this regard. He was free to indulge in pornography to his heart's content. Now he finds that he is wholly incapable of relating to women as whole persons and with the kind of respect that he believes persons are due; he often feels assailed from without by lurid thoughts and images when he is trying to study or simply enjoy a moment of repose. What felt like freedom now feels like a fetter, a chain, a constraint on his ability to feel and to act in ways that he now judges to be best. If he had denied himself the opportunities or pornographic pleasure earlier, he would probably be free to relate to women as he now judges good and right. But he is no longer free to do so. With St. Paul in Romans 7, he almost despairs: "I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do: no, the evil I do not want to do-this I keep doing." There are very few external constraints on his behavior; but there is a sizable internal constraint. So he is not yet free. Freedom will take more work-and ultimately God's grace.

The monastics realized that true freedom is not something we attain instantly upon the simply absence of external constraints. It is a rare condition of the spirit, and hard to achieve; it requires a great deal of discipline and inner work.

Skip over, if you will to Prof. Ericson's Russian novel course, and listen to Father Zossima of the Brothers Karamazov: "The world has proclaimed the reign of freedom, especially of late, but what do we see in this freedom of theirs? Nothing but slavery and self-destruction! For the world says: 'You have desires and, so, satisfy them.Don't be afraid of satisfying them, and even multiply your desires'..The monastic way is very different. Obedience, fasting, and prayer are laughed at, yet only through them lies the way to real, true freedom. I cut off my superfluous and unnecessarily desires; I subdue my proud and wanton will and chastise it with obedience, and, with God's help, I attain freedom of spirit and, with it, spiritual joy." Because of their understanding of what it means to be truly free, the monastics agreed to impose upon themselves a rule of life that severely limited their freedom of opportunity in order to maximize their freedom of ability--in this case, their ability to love God.

I'm afraid my attempts to impose such a rule at Calvin will fail miserably-much to the relief of the student body, the student life division and especially the admissions office. We live in a culture that values political freedom, but not spiritual freedom; in such a culture, the rule I proposed looks curiously anachronistic, if not fascist. Besides, Calvin operates in a highly competitive market environment, and would soon go out of existence if it were to adopt such an unfashionable code.

So it's up to you. As you leave your home and enter a new dimension of freedom on Calvin's campus, consider well which desires to honor, which to resist, and how best to order your life, so that the habits and attitudes you form will not fetter you, but free you to do what you judge-upon reflection, and in your better moments-to be best.

Another work by Lee Hardy: The Fabric of This World: Inquiries into Calling, Career Choice, and the Design of Human Work (Available from the Calvin College Bookstore for $14 + $4 shipping and handling. Call 1-800-748-0122)

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