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The flowering of the science of geology is one of the triumphs of the human intellect. Geologists understand not only the history of the earth but also its processes of change such as fractures and fissures. Rifts run through our society as well as the earth. To understand and to control them democratic spirited and self-directing citizens must bring the same objective mind to social ruptures that geologists bring to their discipline.
Our society is split in a jillion different directions. Fissures run through our economy. Our political system is divided. Conservatives berate the liberals; the liberals vilify the conservatives. And rarely do either pause to define the words they are using. Religion is splintered nationally and internationally. Denominational ruptures not only weaken Christianity, they also present an absurd picture to thoughtful people, especially to those outside the faith. We have as many educational theories as we have pedagogues. And we squabble endlessly. A hundred and fifty years after Darwin we are still bickering over evolution. And a century and a half after the Civil War we continue to wrangle over race. Nearly 400 years after Hugo Grotius started us thinking about international law, we minimize the philosophy of law and define international law in practice as that which we can enforce with guns.
How did we get into this disordered condition? There are probably as many reasons as there are social critics. Certainly one major reason is historical drift. We just let things coast and postpone resolute attacks on serious social problems until crises force us to do so. This does not have to be, for there is great intellectual talent in the human race. Not only is it present in the Einsteins of the world but also that talent in moderate degrees is present in the mass of human beings. The trouble is we are comfort-seeking creatures, and once having achieved an easy niche in life are disposed to fantasize our station and the future. The only way to throw off these delusions is through insight -- to perceive danger readily, to understand our creative possibilities, to give keen attention to consequences and to cultivate an energized will sufficient to reason and to act as reason tells us.
Other explanations in addition to heedlessness and indifference help explain our cultural fractures and fissures. Selfishness seems an omnipresent demon. Economic instability, failure to resolve the problem of poverty, price and stock market manipulation, finessing the truth in advertising, and "small print" in contracts all illustrate the point. The shenanigans of politics are equally dangerous for a just and stable society. Party platitudes repeated ad nauseam, the incessant hammering of false charges against the opposition and reliance on Hitler's successful tactic of citing falsehood until it is transposed into "truth" all contribute to enlarging fractures in the American political-legal system. The blatant use of money to misrepresent candidates, parties and programs is a readily visible cause of cynicism. And cynicism contributes to the widening of a deadly crack in democracy. The illusion or self-justifying pretense that we can promote democracy abroad, among people whose social and theological values are antidemocratic, while corrupting the American political system at home is not only a contradiction, it widens the cleavage in the foundation of American democracy. And it can undermine the entire system. Doubts are a politically corrosive agent. That a massive number of people do not participate in our elections should be taken as a danger signal, a grave sign of widespread cynicism; millions simply do not believe their votes make any difference. This is a cultural cleavage of ominous proportions -- provided, of course, one values democracy.
Another segment of American culture suffering fracture, fragmentation in some cases and even chaos in some others, is education. Our purposes are unsettled and how to finance the process is snarled in confusion. We are uncertain whether our schools and universities exist for entertainment, baby sitting, training money managers, nurturing scientists, indoctrinating religious dogma or cultivating rational-democratic minded citizens. The transition from ancient times to the present has carried us through numerous reforms and institutional changes. For some thousand years education was largely based on the seven liberal arts and theology. The growth of science and the flowering of nationalism broke that dominance. As monarchy yielded to self-government, state-controlled public education understandably evolved. The churning of history -- the ossification and erosion of ideas and institutions, replaced by new ideas and institutions -- has left society in a state of confusion and democracy in jeopardy.
Watching the American public deceive itself over school finances is both discouraging and amusing. Locally we have in recent decades gone through a series of fantasies. We thought the repeal of prohibition would assure an abundance of money for the schools; then the illusion evaporated. Next was liquor by the drink; bars filled with drinking tourists would solve our school finance problem. That daydream faded so we decided horse racing was a solution; when that whim vanished we embraced "off track betting." All this is caprice designed to flatter the illusions of the educational fraternity. Now the self-deceiving vision is state-sponsored lottery. We tried it in colonial times, and our overseas cousins have tried the same thing. The futility of this endeavor is well expressed in the doleful spirit of a recent anti-war lament, "when will they ever learn?" Gambling and honesty are not compatible. If we want good education we must decide who is to be educated, for what purposes are they to be educated, how they are to be educated, who is to do the educating and how the entire process is to be controlled. And then we must levy the taxes necessary to pay for it. Our indecision, fear and shortsightedness enlarge this and other cultural fissures. There is no easy solution to healing them.
Perhaps the best remedy for our social fractures is to trust our intelligence while guiding it with inherited philosophical wisdom. We cannot all agree on socio-economic theories or metaphysics, but we can all agree on the Bill of Rights. This is not a perfect document, but our founding fathers passed remarkable political wisdom to us for which we should be everlastingly grateful. Every American citizen has the right to speak and to publish, the right to free religious choice, the right to hold property securely, and the right to equal protection before the law.
The exercise of these rights sometimes puts society under stress, but they are the surest shield we have from irrational individuals, predatory parties, manipulative institutions and authoritarian government.
Lloyd Williams is a retired educator. His column runs in The Transcript every other Saturday.
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