It's not easy to find unifying causes or creeds in our bitterly divided nation today. In an age when we are repeatedly told that "good" is relative and that physical differences like race, gender, ethnicity, or sexual orientation are what define us, it's time for us to rediscover and celebrate the heritage all Americans share.
The official national calendar designates this week as Constitution Week, but we are fools if we expect to see much real excitement about it. According to a recent survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, a scant quarter of respondents were able to name all three branches of government established by our Constitution. Nearly a third could not name a single branch.
This is nothing new. Over 30 years ago, in his scathing book, "The Closing of the American Mind," the late professor Allan Bloom observed that "Students now arrive at the university ignorant and cynical about our political heritage, lacking the wherewithal to be either inspired by it or seriously critical of it."
According to Bloom, this phenomenon results from a clear educational shift. He posited that today the overriding purpose of modern education "is not to make [students] scholars but to provide them with a moral virtue – openness. … It pays no attention to natural rights or the historical origins of our regime, which are now thought to have been essentially flawed and regressive. … It is open to all kinds of men, all kinds of lifestyles, all ideologies. There is no enemy other than the man who is not open to everything."
But to achieve such extreme "openness," pupils must be trained (for it is certainly not natural) to be virtually indifferent to the content of various ideologies. All, or nearly all, must be accepted as equally good or valid. Otherwise, students risk committing the ultimate sin: "discrimination" against ideas that are illogical, morally deficient, or just plain bad.
In short, our culture today is fully engaged in the exercise C.S. Lewis described as making "men without chests."
Such men (and women) will undoubtedly excel at being "open" and "tolerant." But unless a parent or mentor intervenes, we will find them unable to develop a deep, unabashed appreciation for the moral and intellectual brilliance of America's founding documents or those who conceived them. Indeed, we will find them unable to identify or appreciate anything as ingenious, noble, or fine.
So it is simply unreasonable for us to expect any real excitement for "Constitution Week." We have withheld from students both the factual knowledge and the moral encouragement required for that. What we've gotten in return is a nation of students who are "open-minded" to their detriment, unable to muster enthusiasm for their own country, the world's beacon of liberty.
The implications of this are far-reaching. Without historical knowledge and a shared vision of the public good, how can we ever be anything more than a hodgepodge of racial, ethnic, religious, political, gender and lifestyle factions, moving in the direction of whichever is the loudest or most powerful?
Diversity is not a strength in itself, but it is a beautiful thing when diverse people unite behind a set of shared values that are inherently good and tend toward human flourishing. This is the spirit of "E pluribus unum," or "out of many, one." If "diversity" becomes our highest or only value, we will always be merely "many," but never arrive at the beautiful "one."
An appropriate set of unifying values is waiting to be rediscovered in our founding documents, the Declaration of Independence and Constitution. Five of them, in particular, are the hallmark of the American civic creed:
- Commitment to the preservation of natural rights, which are bestowed upon us not by government, but by our Creator;
- Insistence that all people are equal under the law, and none is entitled to favoritism or special status;
- A commitment to governing ourselves, by selecting our own leaders, holding them accountable, and participating in the various processes of our political and government institutions;
- The conviction that government power must be limited in order to protect individual liberty; and
- The realization that the purpose of liberty is to enable individuals to pursue Truth and Virtue.
These values are noble and good no matter who you are. They are worthy not only of being taught as historical information, but of being held up as good and proper ideals for all Americans to unite behind and strive toward.