Monday, October 29, 2018

Freedom Of Thought

I've always been interested in maps, especially maps with lots of roads on them. I came by it honestly as my father, a transportation engineer, would bring home scrolls of old maps from work for my brother and me to play with. We would sometimes draw on them with colored pencils, but I often just traced the roadways and waterways with my fingers, imagining where they were taking me. I could lose myself for hours at a time lying on the floor with those maps. As I got older, my interest turned to our family's globe. Sometimes I would just spin it, but I also spent afternoons memorizing the names of places in Africa or South America, imagining what it would be like to live there. Sometimes those lazy day studies would lead me to our set of World Book encyclopedia's where I would read up on the climate, economy, and history of these distant places.

I took a particular interest in the islands of the South Pacific, a fascination that carried well into my teenage years when I would formulate plans to run away to a tropical paradise and live simply under some palm branches on a white sand beach. As a young adult, I wrote a novel length coming of age story called "Apeman" about a guy who sheds the modern world to go live in a jungle paradise. To this day I'm a fan of castaway literature and movies, always hoping that the protagonists figure out a way to create a utopia, even as I've lost my own interest in idling my life away in Margaritaville.

I sometimes tried my hand at making my own maps, either of a real place, like my neighborhood, or, more fun, a place of my own invention. Maps, for me, were a spur to imagination. As I got older, I found myself interested in a different sort of map, the kind we call floor plans, an interest that lead me to take four years of drafting classes in high school. I even considered studying architecture for a time. I especially enjoyed using straight-edges and t-squares to draw lines of varying widths and I took great pride in my lettering. Neither skill is any longer of vocational importance seeing that most of that work is now done on computers, but I still rotate my pencil when drawing along a ruler so that I create lines of consistent width, and I still very much enjoy printing in all caps. Whenever my wife and I set up a new household, something we've done a dozen times in our 32 years together, I'm in charge of arranging the furniture, a skill that comes directly from my dilettante studies.

Maps of cities, of course, gave my tracing fingers the most to do, following those grids and tangles of roads of various sizes and lengths. Those earliest maps were all about urban growth, traffic flow, and the human beings that spur it. Today I prefer to live in a city, right in the center, in fact. I find it beautiful that thousands upon thousands of us from all walks of life, from all over the world are opting to live here together, committed to making it work. These days I'm more interested in mass transit, bicycling, and walking, than in motor vehicle roadways, but it all still stems from that early fascination with maps.

To this day, I can happily wile away hours flipping through an atlas. No one every told me to be interested in maps. I never approached them as a course of study designed to lead me to a pot of gold, but rather merely out of curiosity, opportunity, and even boredom. My interest in maps has, in part, taken me all over the world, both metaphorically and physically. It has lead me to acquire skills, habits, and philosophies that I would not have otherwise acquired. It has enriched my life in every way, making me a more complete human being. This lifelong study of maps has, in a very real sense, made me free.

A person's freedom of learning is part of his freedom of thought even more basic than his freedom of speech. If we take away from someone his right to decide what he will be curious about, we destroy his freedom of thought. We say, in effect, you must think not about what interests and concerns you, but about what interests and concerns us.  ~John Holt

This should be our goal in education: freedom of thought. And every time we tell our students what to do, what to care about, what to study, we are destroyers of that most important of freedoms. It is only through being permitted to pursue our own interests that we will ever be free.

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