Suzanne Fields / July 8, 2011

Shaping Citizens, Saving Souls

A neighbor of mine, age 15, left the picnic on the Fourth of July expecting to set off fireworks in the family. He had a declaration of his own: “I’m off to play one of those violent video games the Supreme Court says are protected by my First Amendment rights.”

He got a groan or two (probably less than he had hoped for), but one of the grown-ups expressed the hopeful view: “Well, at least the Bill of Rights has got his attention.” Between the parades and the pyrotechnics that light up night skies above purple mountain majesties and fruited plain, we usually pay scant attention to the truths and values that bind us together as a nation.

A neighbor of mine, age 15, left the picnic on the Fourth of July expecting to set off fireworks in the family. He had a declaration of his own: “I’m off to play one of those violent video games the Supreme Court says are protected by my First Amendment rights.”

He got a groan or two (probably less than he had hoped for), but one of the grown-ups expressed the hopeful view: “Well, at least the Bill of Rights has got his attention.” Between the parades and the pyrotechnics that light up night skies above purple mountain majesties and fruited plain, we usually pay scant attention to the truths and values that bind us together as a nation.

When I wrote of the lack of learning of the nation’s history by most of our schoolchildren, someone sent me a book titled, “What So Proudly We Hail: the American Soul in Story, Speech and Song.” It contains documents that were once our common heritage but have been all but lost along the way.

Amy and Leon Kass and Diane Schaub have high hopes for their book: “Its ultimate goal, stated without apology, is to produce better patriots and better citizens, men and women knowingly and thoughtfully attached to our country, devoted to its ideals and eager to live an active civic life.” They worry about the effect of cynicism and apathy of Americans watching politicians strut across the public stage. Many of us no longer thrive in the robust civic engagement flowing from a sense of who we are and how we got that way.

We’ve always had to endure endless backbiting and mudslinging of seekers of office, but our sense of the American character, our national identity, was once secure in the schools, expressed in ways as simple as requiring one and all to memorize Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address.” (Do any teachers do that anymore?)

With the omniscient technology of the social media, which emphasizes spontaneity, fragmentation and the flaws of public officials, we’re losing sight of the “specialness” of a nation dedicated to “a government of the people, by the people, for the people.”

President Calvin Coolidge succinctly summed up the American experience on the occasion of the nation’s sesquicentennial in 1926: “Governments don’t make ideals, but ideals make governments.”

For one short moment, immediately following the election of President Obama, the nation enjoyed a widespread unifying elation, a sense of pride and purpose that a nation born with slavery had sent a black man to the White House to represent us all. Even the many who didn’t agree with his politics appreciated the remarkable milestone. Now we’re suffering from an economic crisis that creates new animosities to challenge American solidarity.

It’s no coincidence that the tea party movement took its name from rebellious colonists to encourage the nation back to unifying ideals. But life in this country is more complex than ever before – the recession and a world economy weaken ties to pride of place. Appeals to “global humanity” are abstractions without content. Economic failures – as well as individual successes – divide and challenge the political system in new ways.

The natural divisions of competing local, county, state and national interests are increasingly riven with conflict over economic and social issues as well as foreign policy. We observe this at work when Republican presidential candidates try to appeal to different constituencies with competing interests. This makes it harder but no less crucial to unify the nation.

The editors of “What So Proudly We Hail” have gathered documents that run the table of political persuasions, addressing conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats, North and South, East and West. This might not tell readers who to put in office next year, but it will help them decide what they want the chosen to do.

“Developing robust and committed American citizens is a matter of both heart and the head,” write the editors. The stories they chose to tell are meant to be inspirational and intellectual, as they examine the profound truths as well as the flaws and vulnerabilities that unite us. These include works of poets and philosophers, soldiers and politicians that appeal to our “moral imaginations,” from Mark Twain’s folksy insights to Gen. George S. Patton’s “eloquent obscenities” in a speech to his soldiers on the eve of battle in World War II.

Here are the soul-shaping words that remind us that appeals to patriotism – love of country – can’t be limited to special occasions. They lead us to ask ourselves anew how a nation “so conceived and so dedicated can long endure.”

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