I was struck several weeks ago by Mark Bauerlein’s essay on SeeThruEdu entitled “A Conflict of Interest”, in which he makes the case that a conflict truly does exist among college faculty and administrators when they consistently invest resources in curriculum and degree tracks without regard for outcomes for students in terms of their economic viability. This and other inducements have prompted me to revisit one of my old themes–the American idea. Another one was a question posed by a friend who forwarded to me an essay questioning the purpose of education as presently practiced in America at every level.
The issue is central to the ongoing debate over outcomes for college students that can be measured and that make economic sense, but it is about more than that. So I revisited an essay I had written in 2008 entitled “America the Fragile Idea”, which was in turn sparked by yet another inducement at the time, an article by David Broder in which he posed the question, “is this fragile idea called America headed for trouble?”. He wrote the article in response to the release of a report by the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation entitled “E Pluribus Unum”, the still very current product of a two-year study involving a number of the nation’s leading intellectuals, educators, and opinion leaders on the current status of the America identity.
The Bradley study found that our young people are increasingly unaware of our founding principles and the history and meaning of our founding and, as a result, are less likely than their parents to be proud of our country and conversely, to be more susceptible to the emphasis they often receive on the more negative aspects of our history. A further consequence is that they feel less likely to be committed to our founding principles or to believe that they have provided America with a unique identity within which they consider themselves an integral part. I highly recommend this report, which remains as fresh and relevant as when it was originally published, probably more so.
On several occasions, I have commented on the question, “is America a culture or an idea?” This question is as old as the republic itself and has occupied many of our leading intellectuals since the founding. And it’s a valid question, because Americans don’t typically think of themselves as, for example, the Germans or French do, with their deep cultural roots that date from the often mythological mists of pre-history. It is our ideas that are said to be binding and that generate our cultural homogeneity, while our resulting creed always makes room for a plurality of subcultures.
In my former Great Books discussion group, we spent several years exploring the nature of man as it relates to political philosophy, which seeks to answer, among others, the questions, “how should we order our lives together?” and “what is the best regime?” It can safely be said that every important political philosophy is also a theory of human nature. If we accept this premise, it follows that it presupposes consideration of basic and timeless questions about man’s nature, such as the following:
* Is man a purposeful creation and does he differ from other animals by type or simply by degree?
* Is man possessed of original sin or is man essentially good?
* To what extent is man capable of free will?
* Does man have the innate intellectual capacity to comprehend universals, as opposed to only particular objects identified by the senses?
* Is man’s loyalty and commitment to a family unit a natural or conventional phenomenon?
* If there are inalienable human rights, what is their source?
When thinking through these, it becomes pretty clear that the American founding was based on a consensus as to the answers to these questions, so much so that they were “givens” in the thought of the Founders. In fact, one cannot imagine our founding document, the Declaration of Independence, without its invocations of divine providence, transcendental law, and the universal truths of human nature. True, the actuality of the ideals are still being worked out, but the underlying principles are basic to our creed and our identity as a people.
When asked to define education, G. K. Chesterton said, “Properly speaking, there is no such thing as education. Education is simply the soul of a society as it passes from one generation to another”. I share the concerns expressed in the Bradley report that we are not sufficiently discharging this responsibility to pass along to our younger generations the soul of America, properly understood.
Rick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, has this to say in the introduction of his book, Still at Risk: What Students Don’t Know, Even Now:
“The first mission of public schooling in a democratic nation is to equip every young person for the responsibilities and privileges of citizenship. This requires that students have the knowledge they need to be prepared for civic responsibilities, further education, or the workforce, in addition to mastering basic skills such as reading and mathematics. To do this well, it is vital that schools familiarize students with the history and culture that form the shared bonds of their national community.”
Broder characterized the Bradley report as controversial, primarily because of some of its recommendations, and he wrote that the threat outlined there struck him as a bit exaggerated. Part of his reasoning and his optimism he attributed to the fact that young people found their way to the polling places in 2008 in record numbers and enthusiastically joined many election campaigns. Encouraging, yes; however, simply going to the polls is a necessary but insufficient indicator of the quality of civic education and inculcation of the American idea in our youth, because it matters very much what principles actually inform the vote.
And as for the debate on the proper outcome of a college education, I like Mark Bauerlein’s closing comment: “It is crucial that students be aware of the job prospects beyond college, but if they pass through their undergraduate years without filling their time with the best contents of the humanities, the Great Books and High Art and Big Ideas, they will have missed a precious opportunity”.