It’s Independence Day and I’m feeling more than usually patriotic. This and other inducements have prompted me to revisit one of my old themes–the American idea. Another inducement was David Broder’s article this week in which he poses the question, “is this fragile idea called America headed for trouble?”. He wrote the article in response to the recent release of a report by the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation entitled “E Pluribus Unum”, the 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 have read the Bradley report and recommend it.
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 a previous issue, I made reference to my former political philosophy discussion group which was 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 the founding document the execution of which we celebrate today 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, who serves as an advisor to our Texas Institute for Education Reform, has this to say in the introduction of his new 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 characterizes the Bradley report as controversial, primarily because of some of its recommendations, and he writes that the threat outlined there strikes him as a bit exaggerated. Part of his reasoning and his optimism he attributes to the fact that young people have found their way to the polling places this year in record numbers and have 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.