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    CiRCE Talks: Andrew Kern’s A Contemplation of Liberty

    September 17, 2010 by Brandy Vencel

    I have now listened to this talk twice, and I think I have about five more times before I am able to wrap my mind entirely around it. Kern’s talks tend to be like a good book–jam packed with good ideas, not just on every page, but in every sentence. Goodness, I could probably write for pages on the first quarter of his speech.

    The challenge is narrowing it all down into something that is fitting for this space and time. I had hoped that I’d be able to summarize it for those of you who haven’t yet heard it, but I find myself at a loss. To attempt to do so would be to cut something vital to the whole. So all I can say is: go listen for yourself.

    As for me, I’m forcing myself to pick three things I appreciated, and stick to them. This is no easy task, considering my just-over-six pages of notes.

    The River of Life v. The River of Death
    Kern uses some beautiful imagery to enflesh his ideas. On the one hand, he offers us the River of Death. The River of Death brings about slavery. It has existed throughout human history (since the Fall of Man), and it tells us that the world is unknowable and scary, that we need someone to protect us from it. We become slaves to the man who tames the river. As slaves, we are unable to rule ourselves, and we are only animals who follow our own appetites.

    In today’s world, the River of Death is embodied in naturalistic materialism–which many of us refer to as Darwinism.

    On the other hand, he offers us the River of Life–the stream of God’s work in human history. The River of Life offers us full humanity–which means that we are not just our appetites and desires, but also given a will and the capacity to reason. We are not beasts, but glorious divine image bearers. The River of Life brings freedom–the freedom to govern ourselves. Because we can govern ourselves, we do not need someone else to govern us.

    There is more, of course, but these are some of the distinctions of the two.

    In the River of Death, then, we educate children by appealing to their appetites. Near the end, Kern challenges us to think about the content of our curriculum, our modes of teaching and motivating, our method of assessing. Do they honor and cultivate the reason and will of the student? Or do they appeal to the sensual appetites? If the latter, they belong to the River of Death.

    He admits that the vast majority of American education (in both public and private schools), exists within the River of Death. I found myself wondering how many of us (and I speak as one who as entertained just such a temptation) have taken the curriculum or teaching modes of the River of Death and figured that if we could just run it through a brand new Brita water filter, then everything would be fine. Even add in some flavoring–a sprinkling of Bible time, if you will–to top it off?

    How many of our Christian schools–our homeschools–are unwittingly drinking from the wrong river?

    The Consequences
    Mr. Kern explains to us the consequences of living and raising and educating our children in the River of Death early on, but I want to go back, because it helps me realize the gravity of what we are attempting to do, and to avoid. He says that we–we who say we believe otherwise–are continually putting into practice the pedagogy, the curriculum, the marketing approaches, the anthropology, the philosophy–even the theology–that arises from naturalistic materialism.

    And the consequences are dire (this is almost a direct quote):

    The graduates of our schools go to college, where they become unbelieving fornicators, driven by the love of money, combined with an obsession with practicality, which is merely a code word for power and money. And all this mitigates their love for and pursuit of the truth that would have set them free.

    We are not fulfilling our responsibilities as educators and we are complicit in the stumbling of children.

    Near the end, he paints for us a frightening picture. He explains that Dante didn’t actually have a place in his Inferno for teachers, but if he had, we would have had to go to the bottom of the sea to see it. And there, we would see the teachers, with mill stones around their necks, head-down in the muck, bearing in their bodies the consequences of what they had done to their students.

    This is a warning for us when we are tempted to buy curriculum in a box and follow it unthinkingly, regardless of its content or what this unhuman behavior on our part does to our children.

    Fear is the Danger
    I noticed that so many of the descriptions of slavery given involved fear. For instance, in ancient Egypt, the people were afraid of the Nile River, and of the wild animals around it. Their fear drove them to worship their leader–in other words, they craved protection. We see this over and over in history. The people get scared, and so they crave a strong leader. Mr. Kern tells us that fear demands centralization.

    I’ve noticed this in our study of British history. The people are fearful of something, they put a man on the throne, only to find him a tyrant. Sometimes they even depose a tyrant, only to find that their replacement…is also a tyrant.

    Hence the Magna Carta, I suppose.

    A good question to ask ourselves, then, is, are we afraid?

    Early in our determination to home educate, I would say that there was a tinge of fear involved in the decision. What evil thing might the school and its secular curriculum do to our precious child?

    It’s a good question, I suppose, but a very bad starting point, and I’m very thankful to the Lord that He matured us out of this before we actually began this endeavor.

    If fear leads to slavery, we cannot think that homeschooling out of fear will make us free.

    We homeschool because we are aiming for something, not because we are running from something.

    Another good question to ask ourselves is why are we afraid? Where is it that our trust in God has dropped off and failed? Where do we require repentance?

    Liberty, Before it is too Late
    Many months ago now, I sat in a conference with some city officials in support of a friend. The men in this room were leaders (read: bureaucrats), and my friend and I were there upon an errand of liberty. Her rights had been, in my (correct) opinion, violated by the City. But these men. They were normal, upstanding men. They seemed respectable.

    But they proved to me to be ridiculous.

    The discussion in the room at one point turned to the problem our city has with feral cats. It was a problem, they all agreed. Some of them told a few stories to illustrate.

    And then I was aghast when they all agreed that they were willing to give up a portion of their liberty in order to solve the problem.

    Perhaps, they thought aloud, we should require the registration of cats? Mandatory spay and neuter? Tags and license? Yes, yes, yes! They all agreed. If we would all only give up our liberty in this area, the cat problem would be solved.

    Which means: if they could only take liberty from the citizens in our town, they were sure they could solve a problem.

    The problem is not that the people have liberty! I wanted to scream.

    It is a small matter in the scheme of things, but I am frightened for our city, that these men run it and make decisions for it. They hold their liberties out for the taking, and mine along with it.

    This is the world we live in. The sooner we begin raising free men, the better.

    But the problem comes back to fear. Free men are scary. They do dangerous things. My husband recently expressed his freedom out loud and in public, and I admit it: I was nervous inside.

    But start somewhere we must.

    Why not start where we are?

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  • Reply Brandy Afterthoughts September 20, 2010 at 5:25 am


    Yes! It really is a wonderful talk. I wish I could have been there, live, at the conferencet this year!

    Interesting story about your community’s history. It sounded so familiar!

    I have read that Benjamin Franklin quote before, but I think I am only beginning to understand it. I think I even quoted it once, but sort of in the spirit of what a cool thing he said, and without understanding. The more I understand what Kern is saying about liberty and its roots, the more I understand that our Founding Fathers knew something I am only beginning to learn.

  • Reply Rebekah September 18, 2010 at 6:28 am

    This sounds like a must listen to talk! Your story about the cats reminded me about how our local borough was formed, due to a desire for animal control to manage wild dogs in the community. Rather then the people taking care of the issue themselves they gave up some of their liberty and that of future citizens because of fear of feral dogs!

    I recently read a letter in which a message of a “crisis of culture” was expressed. I know it to be true. Many of our society do not lead moral lives and because of that irresponsibility, dependency, and entitlement are socially accepted norms that are contributing to our strained government sponsored/taxpayer financed programs and infringing on our ability to be free. As Benjamin Franklin said, “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom.”

  • Reply Brandy Afterthoughts September 18, 2010 at 5:16 am

    Yes, I truly think that surrendering our liberties for the sake of not just safety, but comfort, is a huge issue these days.

    I searched around my Webster’s 1828 to see what the old definition of liberty and freedom were. The basic definition of liberty is “freedom from restraint.” Freedom is “exemption from the control of another.” These two coupled together help me understand why Andrew kept saying that our self-restraint and the ordering of our affections are key to liberty–we really can only be free from restraint when we are able to restrain ourselves; we really can only be free when we are mature enough to use our freedom for the good of those around us.

    We were talking with friends tonight about various economic issues (government pensions, etc.)–even in this conversation, we couldn’t escape that, at the end of the day, what we have is a massive people problem–a culture with overwhelming character defects. It is hard to have a free country in such an environment.

    • Reply Herbwifemama December 30, 2015 at 5:36 am

      I just listened to this talk a couple days ago, and then I found your blog on it. When he was talking about self restraint, I went right to CM’s motto- I am, I can, I ought, I will. It’s the “I will” part that leads to freedom.

  • Reply Mystie September 17, 2010 at 5:06 pm

    This idea of what liberty truly is and what it looks like is helpful. I wish it had been fleshed out a bit more in particular, but maybe it is in another talk.

    Voluntarily giving up freedom & liberty in exchange for perceived safety and security nails us in America, now, doesn’t it?

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