New Perspectives

In reading John Murrin’s new book, Rethinking America: From Empire to Republic, I was struck by the deep divisions that separated the original thirteen colonies and made the uniting of those disparate entitles almost impossible. I have always thought it was simple: England abused the colonies; they united and threw off the weight of the Empire. As Murrin points out, however, deep divisions among the colonies existed before the revolution broke out and persisted long after the war was over — eventually leading to the Civil War.  At one point the New England states threatened to separate themselves from the rest and establish their own identity. And the South was never happy about joining the North where, they thought, abiding loyalties to the English king persisted and a determination to end slavery would cripple the economy of the South.  The adoption of the Constitution was not a matter of course; it was a struggle:

“[By 1787] the only alternative to the Constitution was disunion.”

This remained a real possibility during that turbulent period as the aforementioned interests of the New England states differed almost completely from those of the deep South. And the Middle States wavered back and forth between Federalism, following Alexander Hamilton, and Republicanism, following Thomas Jefferson. There were, throughout the period, many who remained loyal to England and, indeed, most Americans at the time regarded themselves as English citizens — even after the revolution. As Mullin presents his case, it is remarkable that the colonies were ever able to unite enough to carry off the war, much less adopt a Constitution that would unite such diverse entities. But the Stamp Act, together with the Boston Massacre, in addition to a series of political blinders on the part of the English parliament, persuaded enough people in this country that separation from England was the only way to go. And, after the revolution, strength lay in a united states of America, not separate colonies or states. But, almost without exception, the colonists did not want a strong central government. They wanted their independence and minimal interference with their lives. Murrin describes the struggles in detail, and they were immense.

What I found particularly interesting was the widespread distrust at the time of the people, the common clay, along with the difficulties connected with the ratification of the Constitution itself — regarded by many historians as an “elitist” document, full of compromises and exhibiting the aforementioned distrust — as in the case of the notion of representation restricted to

“one for every thirty thousand people (a figure about twice the size of contemporary Boston) . . . . . [This was a document] designed to secure government by ‘the wise, the rich, and the good.’ Only socially prominent men could expect to be visible enough over that large an area to win elections, and they might well get help from one another. . .”

It is fairly well known that a great many people, loyal to the English, fled this country and headed for Canada during the revolution. In fact, my wife’s ancestors were among them — while one of my ancestors fought alongside Washington and died at the battle of Princeton. (It has not caused problems in our marriage you’ll be happy to know!) What is not so generally known is that a great many people who remained behind during those years were loyal to the English and played a role in the revolution itself — spying for the English and making secrecy in Washington’s tactics nearly impossible. More than one-third of the population of New Jersey, for example, was fiercely loyalist during the revolution. One wonders how on earth the colonists pulled off the victory at Trenton after crossing the Delaware — given the presence of so many who would have gladly told of the movements of the militias.

Alexander Meiklejohn once said that people should read history after they know everything else. I know what he meant, but I disagree. History is fascinating and important. And in an age that is self and present-oriented and inclined to dismiss history as “yesterday’s news,” an age in which history has been jettisoned from college curricula across this land, it becomes even more important, especially for those who know nothing. We learn how to act today by reading about the mistakes we made in the past — just as the young learn from their parent’s mistakes. But, like the young, we think we know better. We think that ours is a unique experience and nothing the old folks have to say has any bearing on what is going on our life.

It may have been best said by the ancient historian  Diodorus of Agyrium in 85 B.C. (surely you have heard of him?) when he noted that

“History is able to instruct without inflicting pain by affording an insight into the failures and successes of others. . . History surpasses individual experience in value in proportion to its conspicuous superiority in scope and content.”

The kids are wrong: we can learn from others. We had better.




The Common Good

Some years ago I was teaching a course in 18th Century political philosophy and had an especially good class. One of my former students had become an attorney and was friends with our Congressman whom he brought to class one day. We had been discussing the Enlightenment notion of the “Common Good” which permeates the thinking of political philosophers at the time, including the founders of this  nation. One of my students asked the Congressman if our government was committed to the Common  Good and he was met with a smirk and a garbled response. I suspect the student was being a bit facetious, but the response of the professional politician was most interesting. I dare say he had never thought about the notion at all.

A particularly striking passage in Santayana’s brilliant The Life of Reason gives us a perspective on this topic that will help us understand better why the notion of the Common Good is almost certainly not being considered in the hallowed halls of our Congress:

“Where parties and governments are bad, as they are in most ages and countries. . . . the private citizen continues to pay a maximum of taxes and to suffer, in all his private interests, a maximum of vexation and neglect. Nevertheless, because he has some son at the front, some cousin in the government, or some historical sentiment for the flag and the nominal essence of his country, the oppressed subject will glow like the rest with patriotic ardour, and will decry as dead to duty and honor anyone who points out how perverse is this helpless allegiance to a government representing no public interest.”

Now, Santayana is using the phrase “public interest,” but the concept is the same. He is speaking about an interest that is common to all, a good that governments that are not “bad” strive to realize. Needless to say, our present government has long since lost sight of such a concept — as evidenced by the reaction of the Congressman in response to my student’s question. But Santayana also points out the “patriotic ardor” of the “oppressed subject” who shouts “foul” whenever he hears any criticism of the country he “loves” — in the form of the flag and the national anthem sung at sporting events by a pretty child, the simple sort of patriotism that so many mistake for the real thing. As Santayana also notes,

“To love one’s country, unless that love is quite blind and lazy, must involve a distinction between the country’s actual condition and its inherent ideal; and this distinction in turn involves a demand for changes and for effort.”

Thus, what he points out in these brief passages is the failure of bad governments to focus on what is most important and the small-mindedness of citizens who are ignorant of what their country truly is and are therefore perfectly willing to go along with the actions of their government — and are critical of those who would point out the shortcomings of their government when it fails to realize the “inherent ideal.”

No man is an island, as the saying goes, and we are all in this together. It therefore behooves us to know what is going on, speak out against violations of the public trust, vote out those who couldn’t care less what the common good happens to be, and acknowledge that ours is a “bad” government to the extent that it fails to respond to the real needs of the majority of its citizens. The notion of the Common Good may have been central concept in the thinking of the founders of this nation, but it assuredly is no more — though it should be. Some concepts are timeless and this one is central to the ideal of good government.

The Life of Reason

The American philosopher, George Santayana, wrote a book with the title of this post. In that book he famously said, among many other things, that those who don’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it. But it is mainly an attempt to trace the development of reason in the human mind from birth to old age. The book is complex and somewhat technical, but it draws on the fact that reasoning in humans is developmental and natural, though certain prompts are required at certain points along the way. This notion was later fostered by the French psychologist Jean Piaget who started the school of “developmental psychology” that stresses the various stages of mental development in children and adults.

In any case, the conclusion of these two men is clearly stated: reason is not something that just “happens,” it develops in stages and requires the right kind of encouragement along the way. And in an alarming number of cases, as is evident in the current race for the presidency, reason remains undeveloped altogether. This thesis has been verified by recent tests that show the development of the left hemisphere of the human brain, which is the “analytical” side, requires that parents read to their very young children and tell them stories — and keep them away from television and electronic games. Now, while analysis is only a part of our reasoning capacity, which also includes synthesis (the ability to make connections) it is critical for the ability to think one’s way through complex issues. Reason must be developed and nurtured along the way and it begins with reading and telling stories, but it goes well beyond that.

Santayana gives us a hint at what might be required in developing reason in young people:

“The child, like the animal, is a colossal egoist, not from want of sensibility, but through a deep transcendental isolation. The mind is naturally its own world and solipsism needs to be broken down by social influence. The child must learn to sympathize intelligently, to be considerate rather than instinctively to love and hate; his imagination must become cognitive and dramatically just, instead of remaining, as it naturally is, sensitively, selfishly fanciful.”

This is an example of the close, compact — and somewhat technical — way Santayana writes. But his point is worth unpacking and taking to heart. He suggests that children are, at the outset, much like other animals. The development not only of reason but also of sensitivity and human sympathy come with socialization. It is the job of the family, the church, and the schools — not to mention the many people whom the child will encounter outside those specialized institutions — who help him or her to develop into a mature human being. Interesting in this regard, is the role that sports might play in the development of the whole person. As Santayana outs it,

“Priceless in this regard is athletic exercise; for here the test of ability is visible, the comparison [with others] is not odious, the need for cooperation clear, and the consciousness of power genuine and therefore ennobling. Socratic dialectic is not a better means of learning to know oneself.”

Thus, in this man’s carefully developed opinion, we seem to be on the wrong track today in rewarding children for little effort and handing out such things as participation trophies. The young need to learn from failure and we must all, in turn, acknowledge the growth that such failure can prosper. The things that young people need to learn, to come out of themselves (“egoists” as we all are as very young people) come with age but especially with nurturing and education. Age comes naturally; development of the mature person comes with guidance and support from family, friends, and institutions such as schools and churches. The tendency to turn on the TV, hand the kids an iPhone or a video game, emphasizes their instinctive, strong sense of living in a fantasy world, fosters further “isolation,” keeps them within themselves and prolongs childhood well into the later years. This is a serious problem not only for the survival of our democratic system (if that horse hasn’t already left the barn) but also for the survival of the planet. We desperately need people who have a sense of duty to the community, a strong sensitivity to the needs of others, and the ability to reason if we are to survive. Santayana was a wise man and his words are well worth careful consideration.


History Lessons

The American philosopher/novelist George Santayana famously said that those who refuse to read history are doomed to repeat its mistakes. In one of his recent blogs my friend BTG expanded on Santayana’s comment by noting the exemplary behavior of Paul O’Neill, C.E.O. of Alcoa who apparently was one of the few who listened to Santayana: he insisted that his employees at Alcoa own up to and learn from their mistakes so they would not repeat them. In doing so, he improved communication within the company and managed to turn around a struggling company and make of it a success.

My comment in response to BTG was that we seem to be like young kids who prefer to make our own mistakes. I had referred in my blog to the fact that during the turbulent 60s of the last century when the college kids were asking about the “relevance” of such courses as history, those in charge of higher education had no answer and ended up throwing out the baby with the bath water [they didn’t ask me!]. What the kids were asking, in their own inarticulate way, was why they should have to take college courses that didn’t translate into immediate cash value in the marketplace. I used history as an example, but it could apply to most of the courses in the liberal arts which at that time formed the core of most college curricula. In any event, the result of the inability of college professors to respond to their critics at the time was that the colleges and universities started throwing out liberal arts courses that had for generations been regarded as essential to the makeup of an educated person and shifting the focus to the “useful” arts. In other words, we traded job training for education. It didn’t happen overnight, but it has happened gradually and as a society we are the worse for it.

As I say, we are like kids and we want to make our own mistakes. We don’t think the things that happen to other people will happen to us because we are different. Statistics show that seat belts save lives, but we won’t wear ours because we don’t think we could possibly have an accident. We lack that historical, literary, and psychological perspective that deepens and broadens our awareness of what is going on around us. The colleges and universities that have eliminated core requirements have simply exacerbated a cultural situation that breeds widespread ignorance posing as insight and perception. We think because there is an unlimited amount of information out there accessible to anyone with a computer we are wiser than those who went before us. But we are really not all that bright and we habitually refuse to learn from the mistakes our predecessors made.  This is the best possible answer to those militant students who 50 years ago challenged the college faculties to explain why they needed an education: wisdom has been lost in the information glut.

There is a movement which I have alluded to in previous blogs that seeks to right the ship. It is fostered by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, which is housed in Washington, D.C. In a nationwide project they call “What Will They Learn?” this group has scrutinized the core requirements of every college and university in this country under a microscope and found virtually all of them wanting. Colleges really don’t require much of anything outside the major requirement; they seem perfectly content to have narrow, ignorant adults going forth with degrees they can hang on their walls that aren’t worth the paper they are printed on. I don’t blame the students. They don’t know any better. But college professors who do in fact live in ivory towers should realize that their job is not to protect their territory and turn out replicas of themselves. Rather, their job is to help young people come to a deeper, more critical perspective of their world that makes life worth living — learn to use their minds, acquire good communication skills, understand history, have at least a nodding acquaintance with poetry and literature, learn to calculate and become scientifically literate. Such people make better citizens and more valuable employees. In the end the liberal arts are the most useful because they liberate the minds of those who come into contact with them.