Sep 4, 2011

September 4, 2011: Dumb and Dumber, A More Perfect Citizen, The Death of Liberal Man.

The preceding column was written well over 30 years ago when I was a young man.  Unfortunately, the ensuing decades have not brought improvement..  In fact, it can be argued, America has become “dumb and dumber”.

It is often surprising what men, especially great men, would choose to be best remembered.  While visiting the “Hermitage”, Andrew Jackson’s plantation just northeast of Nashville, Tennessee some years back one walks out in the garden and there one encounters the tomb of the seventh President of the United States.  Inscribed upon the marble is not “President” Andrew Jackson but “General” Andrew Jackson.  Similarly, when asked what he did in his life that he wanted to be best remembered, Thomas Jefferson also did not cite his Presidency.  Nor, surprisingly, did he point to the “Declaration of Independence”.  Nor did he refer to the religious freedom laws of Virginia.  Instead he cited his role in founding the University of Virginia as his single most important contribution to the greater society.

One can make too much of the presumed intelligence and wisdom of any class of people, the eighteenth and nineteenth century yeoman farmer among them.  After all, our ancestors saw them as mere “clodhoppers”.  Jefferson and the emerging “Democracy” (as the Democratic Party was then widely known) did much to raise the standing of the middling farmer in frontier days, but the suspicion grew that perhaps more was needed.  The founders, mostly men well educated in the classics, knew that for the republic to survive required not only the dominance of men of middling means, but an “enlightened” dominance of men of middling means.  For this purpose the concept of a “public” education, first propounded by the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 and elaborated upon by Jefferson with the creation of the University of Virginia, was instituted in order to ensure that to a greater degree questions of public policy and the debates that would follow would be governed by not only by reason, but by “enlightened” self-interest..  These men were, after all, children of the “enlightenment”.

The “Enlightenment” is a term adopted by the Philosophes to describe the eighteenth century movement in Europe, centered in France, that sought to bring western civilization forward into the modern age.  The term “enlightenment” was adopted as counterpose  in stark contrast to the “Dark Ages” from which these philosophers would have us emerge.  Accordingly, they proclaimed the dawn of a new “age of reason” upon which the betterment, if not the perfectibility, of mankind would be achieved.  And so it was that many of disciples of Locke and Voltaire  gathered at Philadelphia in 1787 to draft a document in the name of the “We the people” in “order to form a more perfect union.”

In a certain sense, though, this document served merely to ratify what had already preceded. The concept of “popular sovereignty” given such breathless expression in the “Declaration of Independence” was reaffirmed here inasmuch as political legitimacy was once again declared to have originated with “the people”, not with Kings and princes, nor with gods.  “We, the People of the United ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America” reads the preamble.  The “people” here declared with a capital “p”.  Again, as Ben Franklin was emerging from Constitution Hall a woman stopped him on the street and asked “what form of government have we, Mr. Frankin?”  “A republic”, answered the sage diplomat and philosopher, “if you can keep it”. 

If we can keep it.  What sort of Republic would depend upon what sort of people.  For a reading on this issue one has recourse to Federalist No. 10 written by James Madison of Virginia  (later President of the United States), and several other writings in the “Federalist Papers”.  What Madison foresaw was a “balancing act” between the various interests such that no single interest or combination of interests would be strong enough to “corner the market” or seize control of the republic.  A sort of “Interest Group Democracy” to rephrase a bit of contemporary terminology. (1)

As in the creation of the three “separate” “branches” of government, which was designed to balance, if not neutralize, one another, the intellectual forces that laid the foundations of the republic also sought to “balance interests” against each other.  They also sought to “balance” the forces of faction and, by extension, class.

They tried to minimize the damage of “faction” by first creating a stronger and, therefore, larger political entity in which these forces would have to contend.  It was much more difficult for strong economic or political interests to dominate a federation than a more localized state, they reasoned.  Accordingly, the emerging “federal” system with its multi-layered structure of governance would fragment political control as well as create overlapping areas of jurisdiction so as to make dominance more difficult.  As a crowning achievement they further complicated matters by dividing authority, as had the states, between judicial, executive and legislative functions. 

But even this, they sensed was not enough.  Accordingly, one of the last acts under the government established by the  “Articles of Confederation” and pre-dating by a couple years the establishment of the new order, was the passage of the Northwest Ordinance of l787.  In it, the ruling elite in this country enshrined not only religious toleration (effectively neutralizing a prime source of “faction” and “discord”) but also laid down the foundation for the beginnings of a public school system that would, over the next century, become a model for the world.  Putting aside a section of land in each county of each emerging state for the purpose of funding public schools, the generation that founded this republic understood as Jefferson did with his work to found the University of Virginia that for a true republic to function it must be an “enlightened” republic.  If we must be governed by “self-interest”, as Madison so readily admits, then to insure that the public interest is served it must be a truly “enlightened” self-interest; otherwise it quickly degenerates to mere greed.

“Enlightened” self-interest, is a concept that makes it’s way well into the twentieth century.  So firm was the grasp of the idea held by our forefathers that writers in the late nineteenth century could proclaim the concept and carry the day when debating the issues of the time.  People like Lincoln Steffens, Gustavus Myers, Ida Tarbell, David Phillips understood the concept.  So too did men like Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.  Broadly speaking “Enlightened” self-interest differs from it’s more base form in that the economic actor sees in a proposed course of action where his “true”, as opposed to his “apparent”,  self-interest lies.  To take a modern example, for instance, corporate heads by declaring war on the economic well being of their work force may perceive themselves to simply be acting in their own interests.  In the short term they are.  But by destroying the purchasing power of the very market that they hope to service they are in fact working against their own interests.  An “enlightened” view of the corporate interest, for example taken by Corporate America in the immediate postwar era (and prodded by government to do so) produced a more equitable distribution of the wealth and also record (for the time) corporate profits.  This “social contract” between capital and labor has been nearly destroyed in the last 40 years with results that are everywhere apparent. 

But how are the “people” to be brought to consistently perceive their own true self-interest from it’s more base form?  In a word how are we to be taught how to tell true gold from fool’s gold?  The answer, said our founders, lies in universal public education. 

It was in the education of the masses that our forefathers placed their hope.  What followed with the McGuffey reader, and Noah Webster’s new “dictionary” was the erstwhile attempt to “standardize’ education.  Not only were there efforts to “standardize” (still going on today with universal testing), but to establish norms of content called “liberal”.

A good “liberal” education, meaning a universal education meant to create the well-rounded man and, later, woman.  To that end, a “universal” set of core curriculum was established to produce a citizen who could, if need be, not only rush to the defense of his country, but could stand before a town-hall meeting, should the occasion arise, to advocate and defend his point of view.  To accomplish this not only would our citizen need to be “armed” with skills of “advocacy” and “reason” with which to make his argument, but he would have to be addressing an assembly who, having received a similar regimen of understanding, would be able to evaluate the relative merits of our republican exercise in expression.    For this not only would a general commonality of economic interests be needed, but also a general understanding of what our individual as well as the greater social interests truly are; true benchmarks upon which the greater community could judge the relative merits of the ongoing debates.  

Accordingly, our ancestors set about creating not only “a more perfect union”, but also a more perfect citizen.  Obligatory classes in ancient, European and modern western History were required.  Obligatory classes in government, if not governance, were also required.  These were augmented by the classical “liberal” education in our colleges and universities requiring courses in logic, ethics and reasoning, rhetoric, history and the social sciences, as well as at least taking the so-called “foundation” courses in the hard sciences with the hope that the emerging citizen would at least have enough understanding of math and science to know where his limitations lay.  In any case, education was seen as an avenue not only to produce the critical faculties of the citizen to judge right from wrong but also to be able discern fool’s gold from the genuine article.

All of this, of course, was undone by the very forces engendered by modern liberalism.
Fostering an overweening culture of toleration, the forces that gathered in the late 60's and early 70's roundly criticized academia as being too sexist, too Eurocentric, and too culturally biased.  What emerged was a movement for “ethnic diversity” on campus which served to destroy the common cultural understandings, or misunderstandings as the case may be.  In any case the common currency for social and political discourse came under attack.

There were other movements afoot.  Criticizing the universities for being hopelessly irrelevant, the boomers began agitation to transform higher education into what became a glorified job training program in effect opting out of the requirements of citizenship for the exigencies of the marketplace.  The result was that instead of becoming an ameliorative force for correcting the threat caused by the specializations of labor and knowledge (see previous post), the colleges and universities became yet another expression of our social fragmentation and alienation.   The wholesale discarding of broad curriculum requirements as well as the emerging on-line schools in which billions of federal dollars were spent in teaching what are, in effect, mere high school shop classes only resulted in moving students to “specialize” much earlier and in the process further exasperating the industrial and economic trends.

The result is that we now have a class of politicians earnestly holding forth on subjects about which they know little or nothing speaking to groups of people who are in no critical position to stand in judgement.  Instead of a robust citizenry standing before the assembled town-halls using empirical facts and reason, we have the denizens of woeful ignorance using brown-shirt tactics to shout down and end political discussion altogether.  Once again, we have come to a dead end: the politics of silence.


1.  See Berry, Jeffrey M. “The Interest Group Society”, Little, Brown and Company,
             Boston, Toronto 1984. 220 pp.  Here the Professor at Tufts University declaims at
            length about the emergence of interest groups as the dominant unit of political
            organization such that such groups now control society.  Reading Federalist No.10
            written over 200 years earlier, one would not be surprised.  In fact, one would
            quite quickly come to the conclusion that it was designed that way.   

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