Thursday, July 03, 2008

On the American Birthday

On this day before America’s birthday, I am reminded of a terrific recent essay in Inside Higher Education by Thomas Lindsay of the National Endowment for the Humanities on how college fails to cultivate introspection about our land:

What does it mean to be an American citizen?
From all the heat generated of late over immigration, one might have supposed that some light would have been cast on this crucial question. Given the need to elevate our national dialogue over this issue, it is disheartening that this has yet to happen. It appears that the idea that is American citizenship is all but lost on America’s citizens themselves. Here our universities can be of invaluable assistance, through introducing their students to the perennial questions and issues that define American democratic theory and practice.

Any attempt to perform this task ought to begin at the beginning, with the very justification for our existence as a country—the Declaration of Independence. Its claims are meant to be universal, addressed not only to King George III, but to a “candid world.” The Declaration argues that, in the new American order, blood, creed, and national origin—the constituents of citizenship throughout history—have been dethroned. Instead, U.S. citizenship entails adherence to moral and political principles the truth of which, says the Declaration, is “self-evident” to those who reason rightly. These principles, which form what can be called the “American theory of justice,” argue for human equality; for the inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; for government established by popular consent; and for the right of the people to rebel should government cease to fulfill the purposes for which it was instituted. On this basis, the United States is more than a mere address, more than its history, and more than its demographics. It is, in its essence, an idea.

Yet how many of us today, native-born no less than newly arrived immigrants, can recount the Declaration’s four self-evident truths? More crucial, how many of us have even a rudimentary grasp of the moral and intellectual foundations of the “American theory of justice”?

He goes on to recommend a core course for all undergraduates in which primary documents such as the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, the Seneca Falls declaration and others are read and given the attention they deserve.

Strikingly, I cannot detect much in the way of political ax-grinding in Mr. Lindsay’s proposal. (Unless one's politics requires one to detest America itself.) This is not the disguised big-government advocacy of the civic engagement fad, but a call to make young Americans aware of what they have inherited. I see a project that I, and I suspect many faculty with whom I disagree about the nature (but not the worth) of the American experiment, could get behind. Higher-ed rent-seeking being what it is, it will never happen at my university, or most. But even the non-academic may find the essay of use. Self-government is a tree constantly in need of nourishment, and increasingly our seedlings are left to die.



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