For The Transcript
The vision of the American Founding Fathers was extraordinary. They understood the evils of the old order; they saw the possibilities of a new order. Out of that vision and the following years of struggle and sacrifice came a self-governing nation guided by a written constitution and replete with the possibilities of freedom.
All governments and social systems, and ours is no exception -- if they have an enduring quality -- rest on an identifiable economic foundation. Those of the American system are easy to distinguish. Whether an act of God or the result of geographical history, Americans rested their system on hundreds of millions of acres of fertile land, vast lakes, fresh rivers, broad forests and wildlife in abundance. Additionally and indispensably that foundation contained large deposits of iron, coal, petroleum, gas, lead and zinc along with other minerals indispensable for a productive industrial system. These resources were not the product of free enterprise, laissez-faire or economic individualism; they were a free gift of nature. Fortunately the frontier was open for some two and a half centuries before being officially "closed" by the government. Expansion beyond that frontier functioned as a population safety valve as well as encouraging enormous agricultural and manufacturing growth.
In addition to this fortuitous economic foundation, Young America was blessed with equally significant, although less evident, intellectual and social conditions. Perhaps the most important were vigorous minds such as Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Madison, Franklin, Hamilton and a host of others. They especially understood the potential evils of government, the wickedness of coercive religion, and the harmfulness of power enshrouded in ambition. And their grasp of history showed them that intellectual freedom is a necessary condition of just government. We know of no nation initially guided by so many perceptive and enlightened leaders.
Equally important in the founding of a strong America has been the slow evolution of a public-state system of education. In the colonial decades education was principally private or clerical, although many towns, especially in New England, established schools. In the founding of the national government the constitution does not mention education, although the new states tended to show deference toward Unfortunately their references to education were often fine-drawn and insufficiently specific. For example, John Adams, who wrote the section on education in the Massachusetts Constitution, shows appreciation for the discipline, but is not particularly imaginative or specifically directive. Education has nevertheless facilitated commerce and industrial growth. Examination of the influence of the Morrill Act is an illuminating case study.
For many years the output of American business and industry has been astonishing. Goods and services have been prolific, the standard of living high. And our profusion of industrial material tipped the balance in two dreadfully brutal world wars. But the price of these successes is higher than we are inclined to admit. Those who speak for the social and industrial sciences are frequently acute, but it is philosophers, theologians and poets who are likely to see most deeply into life. The English Victorian poet Arthur O'Shaughnessy cut to the heart of humankind's tragic pilgrimage when he depicted the ill-understood destiny of our industrial culture. Observed that young Irish spirit: "Each age is a dream that is dying...."
Americans do not seem to understand how steadily their dream is eroding -- economically, socially and politically. Resources have diminished; business and government seem incapable of advocating and practicing conservation. We are assured by spokesmen for classical economics that laissez-faire is self-correcting, yet the system cannot eliminate the inflation-deflation cycle, nor assure a stable economy or solve the problems of unemployment and poverty. Nor can it assure housing for the poor. And in spite of the brilliance and technological skill of the medical community failure to provide assured care for the poor is a disgrace for a rich and powerful nation. As sociologists and other scholars have noted, the "pure market economy" is flawed; it focuses on the narrow interests of a few rather than on the collective interests of society and the nation. Democracy does not rest on the few; it rests on the many.
Rationality often fades so slowly we scarcely notice it. Control of our national borders not only slips away but also becomes a problem we cannot face with reason and resolution. Crime racks the nation; prisons are overcrowded; drugs and alcohol flourish; the gun lobby paralyzes Congress; and higher education surrenders to plutocracy. Underlying much of this is the replacement of religion with religiosity. The former is a normal and understandable effort to grasp the meaning of life; the latter is a form of fanaticism rooted in dogma and undisciplined emotions that seems to be destructively encroaching on the religious community. Sometimes there is a profound irony in the fading of old systems and values. And that irony can be drenched with amusing tragedy as, for example, the Indians' rise to wealth by exploiting the "white man's" immaturity and ignorance of the odds inherent in gambling. In moments of fantasy it almost seems as if the Fates play with humankind for their own amusement.
Perhaps the point is debatable, but America seemed to reach its pinnacle with World War II. Among other things that pinnacle was achieved with the aid of European science, vast oceans protecting the nation and the accidents of history as well as courage. But the parochialism of Harry Truman, the undisciplined egoism of LBJ, the guile of Richard Nixon, the trusting Christian naivete of Jimmy Carter and the ineptitude of Bush Jr., all failed to see that the only path leading from the pinnacle is down.
Why they did not see it is an interesting question. Some reasons are vague, some complex. And a few are transparent. Probably the absence of a critical habit of mind is a major explanation. Defective education plays its role. All schools -- public and private -- should habitually train free, independent and self-directing minds. They do not necessarily do so. Public schools are restricted by public apprehension; private schools are limited by the obligation to protect privilege; and parochial schools are limited by dogma. Religion itself does not necessarily have to be a negative influence. Reinhold Niebuhr (a Protestant), Jacques Maritain (a Catholic) and Martin Buber (a Jew) all write with keen social insight. Undoubtedly there are Moslems of equal talent. Failure to cite them is evidence of the inadequately informed Western mind. That we pay so little attention to such problems and to these perceptive minds shows how easily we let the
foundations of understanding slip away.
Part of our difficulty is that our dreams rarely match reality. The American Dream of freedom, justice and equality has been clouded by acquisitiveness. This means the system works only part of the time. The periodic faltering of government is acute. Unfortunately, the executive branch is too often bought; the judicial is too often a tool of economic privilege; and the legislative too often filled with factotums. The foundation of the American Dream is a citizenry that cannot be bought, that ranks principle over profit. Failure on this score is probably the greatest weakness of the American Dream.
All nature seems to evolve. All human institutions also seem to evolve, succumb and ultimately disappear. Our failure to see this cycle of growth, evolution and devolution accounts for much of our naivete. This is a major cause of our presumptions of superiority -- racially, politically, economically, culturally and religiously. But when we see life "sub specie aeternitatis" -- through the perspective of eternity -- then our presumptions diminish, our hostilities wane, our aggressions subside, and we can live at peace with our world, our neighbors and especially with ourselves.
Lloyd Williams is a retired educator.
For The Transcript