With election season upon us we approach the proverbial fork in the road. Regardless of what November 2016 delivers, it is hard to have an optimistic outlook regarding the future of our nation. Many people that I talk to seem to agree- left and right alike. So just how exactly do we aim to make America great again. I am not entirely convinced that certain people who throw that phrase around have a convincing game plan. I mean sure, there is talk of lowering taxes. But there is also talk of raising them. There is talk of building walls. And yes, every sovereign nation must secure and control its borders. But some of our biggest threats to liberty aren’t “out there.” Rather, many of our largest problems have arisen from within America herself. These, like many others, are certainly issues that need to be addressed- but they will not set America aright again. What will?
According to current data America currently ranks 13th worldwide in percentage of its population that is college educated and millennials are on track to be the first generation in American history who are less well educated than their parents. Therein, I would argue, lies the problem. Though as a Christian my own desire would be to see the restoration that only repentance can bring us as a nation- we must start by finding common ground with our neighbor. I am convinced no progress can truly be made without a return to the classics- the very books and ideas that made the west great to begin with. And yet, it seems some of our greatest institutions of higher learning seem to be letting the inmates run the asylum. I always had the impression that the reason one sought a college education was to receive knowledge where one previously possessed ignorance. No longer so, at Yale, it seems. The students claim to know better what they need to learn and not learn. Brush up on said controversy here.
This, of course, is nonsense. I still remember when I took a course called Western Masterworks at Coe College (which, at the time, was mandatory). Starting with many of the great Greek Tragedians such as Sophocles and Aeschylus we were exposed to the very roots of Western Democracy. From there we made our way through Plato, Virgil and Dante. And what was readily apparent as we made our way through these authors in chronological order was that each successive work dealt in some manner with the ideas in the previous. These men reached across time to be in conversation with one another. A rich dialogue had occurred. From my perspective, western history was suddenly seen under a new light, and it was indeed this very conversation that helped conceive and give birth to our own great democracy. But the candle hardly seems to flicker anymore and the conversation is in danger of being extinguished entirely.
If we want to get serious about Making America Great Again– we must get serious about great books again. The endless stream of shock and awe you tube current events, tweets and arrogant political memes just won’t cut it.
Robert Hutchins, former president of the University of Chicago (1929-1945), discussed the need for such a project nearly 100 years ago in more stark terms:
“If leisure and political power require this education, everybody in America now requires it, and everybody where democracy and industrialization penetrate will ultimately require it. If people are not capable of acquiring this education, they should be deprived of political power and probably of leisure. Their uneducated political power is dangerous, and their uneducated leisure is degrading and will be dangerous. If the people are incapable of achieving the education that responsible democratic citizenship demands, then democracy is doomed, Aristotle rightly condemned the mass of mankind to natural slavery, and the sooner we set about reversing the trend toward democracy the better it will be for the world.”
The Greeks believed that their statesmen ought to attend the theater before exercising political judgement as tragedy, it was argued, purged the soul of fear, pity and other emotions that tend to cloud sound judgement leaving one in a sober state of mind.
Likewise, I’ve decided to thumb back through Alexis De Tocqueville’s perennial classic Democracy in America, November draws closer. It is most fitting for an election season. Over the next few weeks I hope, as often as possible, to post some thought provoking quotes from his masterpiece. It is a work of non-fiction, yet still a classic in every sense of the word. Though written over 150 years ago, his insight is still keen and applicable. This timelessness is indeed one of the marks of a true classic.
“One cannot say it too often: There is nothing more prolific in marvels than the art of being free; but there is nothing harder than the apprenticeship of freedom. It is not the same with despotism. Despotism often presents itself as the mender of all ills suffered; it is the support of good law, the sustainer of the oppressed, and the founder of order. People fall asleep in the bosom of the temporary prosperity to which it gives birth; and when they awaken, the are miserable.” Alexis De Tocqueville