Onward: Shaping the Moral Imagination of Each

COMMENTARY Civil Society

Onward: Shaping the Moral Imagination of Each

May 1st, 2011 18 min read
Jennifer A. Marshall

Vice President Institute for Family, Community & Opportunity

Jennifer A. Marshall oversees research into a variety of issues that determine the strength and character of American society.

“We shall nobly save or meanly lose this last best hope of earth,” wrote President Lincoln in a letter to Congress in 1862 in the midst of the CivilWar. You’d expect that urgent tone and engagement in America’s fate and such great confidence in her ideals from a great statesman embroiled in a great crisis. We would hope for such urgency and confidence from America’s statesmen and servicemen. But what about the rest of us? How should engagement and confidence in America’s purpose be expressed in the lives of the vast majority of us who will never take an oath of office nor be called upon to give the last full measure of devotion? How do we cultivate the patriotic character in all Americans, no matter what age, race, background, or station in life?

In the shadow of the heroic patriotism of fallen leaders or soldiers, everyday patriotism seems slightly musty and quaintly nostalgic, like Fourth of July bunting on city hall, or maybe a bit flippant and strident, like flagwaving, boot-stomping country music. Now, I fly a flag outside my home in Arlington, Virginia and own Toby Keith albums, so I have nothing against banners and boots as patriotic flair. But concentrating too much on the flair reminds me of a subplot in the movie. Jennifer Aniston plays a character who works at a Bennigan’s type and her manager is forever nagging her for not wearing enough “flair” (flair is the restaurant’s promotional pins, buttons, and so on to be proudly and displayed on employees’ uniform and hat). Model employees were with “flair.” Jennifer Aniston, on the other hand, is annoyed and soon thoroughly exasperated by the artificial enthusiasm that masked, for her, a deeper sense of meaninglessness about the job itself. Without making too much of a metaphor out of an Office Space anecdote, the point is that what the Founders had in mind and what we seek to rekindle is far more than patriotic flair.

Patriotism is an understanding that our own personal well-being and aspirations, the welfare of those we love, and even our hopes for mankind. Citizens and Statesmen: An Annual Review of Political Theory 22 and Public Life are tied up with the destiny of this great nation. It is about where this country has come from as much as it is about where it is going. And it is about each of us playing our part in steering that course today. Patriotism is not mere tradition, empty emotionalism, or jingoistic pride. It may be accompanied by the sentimental band concert or the thrill of fireworks. But true patriotism engages as well as the affections. It requires rational judgment and moral judgment, and both must be cultivated.

How we cultivate patriotic character, particularly among the rising generation, is the focus of this piece. Reflecting on this combination of rational and moral elements sent me back to Gertrude Himmelfarb’s work on the moral imagination. Himmelfarb writes a lot about the Victorian period, and specifically, the crisis of morals and culture at the brink of modernity —which has very interesting parallels to our own era. In a book calledPoverty and Compassion: The Moral Imagination of the Late Victorians, Himmelfarb discusses the prevailing view of compassion at that time. What she has to say about compassion engaging both head and heart has implications as we consider patriotism. So, quoting from Gertrude Himmelfarb: “[T]he moral imagination of the late Victorians, in public affairs as in private, was neither sentimental nor utopian. … Compassion had its reasons of the mind as well as of the heart.” Himmelfarb continues:

In its sentimental mode, compassion is an exercise in moral indignation, in feeling good rather than doing good; this mode recognizes no principle of proportion, because feeling, unlike reason, knows no proportion, no limit, no respect for the constraints of policy or prudence. In its unsentimental mode, compassion seeks above all to do good, and this requires a stern sense of proportion, of reason and self-control.

If patriotism is nothing more than sentiment then we have little to do other than play John Phillips Sousa marches more often and invest in longer firework displays on the Fourth of July.

Patriotism cannot be reduced to just emotion. Like Himmelfarb’s observation about compassion, patriotism has both a sentimental and unsentimental model. The unsentimental mode is characterized by action and action must be informed by reason and moral judgment. Patriotism is to know, to love, and to act. It is to know this country’s founding nature and purpose. It is to love these ideals. It is to act in the continued pursuit of these ends. Patriotism certainly does engage the sentiments — sentiments that should be informed by knowledge and moral reason, as well as expressed in action. It includes:

• A sense of gratitude and affection for what we’ve inherited;

• A sense of belonging and participation; responsibility and stewardship.

• A sense of purpose, a sense of hope, a confidence that the ideals on which our nation is founded are true to the nature of human beings and will endure from generation to generation.

Here are three things we can do to encourage all Americans, but especially students, to know, to love, and to act in the continued pursuit of this American Experiment in ordered liberty:

1. Convey that members of each new generation are guardians of ideals that are under attack.

America is a nation built on an idea, specifically, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” That idea had its enemies in 1776, and it has them today. The United States should expect to be endlessly engaged in cold wars of ideas. In other words, there’s a fight on, and it is ours to lose. In a war of ideas, your ideas had better be “in good fighting shape,” to paraphrase the late Adda Bozeman, who specialized in international relations at Sarah Lawrence College. Today, a number of the ideas central to the American order are not in prime fighting shape.

Self-government demands a high degree of social awareness regarding the ideas that sustain the order. The principles and institutions of a free society are inherently more susceptible to corruption of purpose and meaning than are those of more authoritarian states. Despite this imperative of self-government, Americans have not been consistently diligent in defending the ideas at the heart of the American order. Our disinclination to study our own history and founding principles has left us with what Bozeman calls an “unconvincing national self-image.” A vague, unconvincing national identity makes it difficult to pass on the sense of heritage or a stewardship for these founding ideals.

Obviously, guarding ideals requires familiarity with them. Students must know America’s founding purpose, and how well that purpose has been implemented over two and a quarter centuries if they are going to know how to do a better job of implementing it in the future. Former education secretary William J. Bennett often says that Americans cannot love what they do not know. And most of us don’t know much about history. To correct that, Bennett has written a two-volume history of America to tell this nation’s great story to Americans — in many cases, for the first time. Bennett’s history is titled, America: The Last Best Hope. Those words are more provocative today than they were when President Lincoln wrote them in a letter to Congress in 1862. But the message is still the same: we are still called to preserve America and its founding purposes, which continue to represent the best hopes of earth. Sadly, American students are ill-equipped for the task. The lack of knowledge is appalling: A 2009 report by Matthew Ladner of the Goldwater Institute exposed the deficits in Arizona students’ civics knowledge. The study tested students using ten questions from among those used by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services — the same material on which foreigners seeking U.S. citizenship would be tested. These questions include: Who was the first president of the United States? Who wrote the Declaration of Independence? What ocean is located on the East Coast of the United States? To pass the test, you need to answer six of ten questions correctly. In the Arizona high school sample, only 3.5% of public school students passed the citizenship test. On a note of only marginal comfort, the passing rate for students in charter schools was about twice as high, and among private school students, the passing rate was almost four times higher than public school students. But the fact that only about 12% of private school students could pass a basic citizenship test is cold comfort. Here’s why so few passed:

• Only 26.5% could name George Washington as the first president of the United States.

• Only 23% could name the two parts of the U.S. Congress.

• When asked, “What is the Supreme Law of the Land?” Only 29.5% could name the Constitution. Another 24% said the Declaration of Independence, and 46.5% simply had no idea.

Ladner’s report is appropriately titled “Freedom From Responsibility.”

Without facts or a framework of knowledge, Americans also often do not have a sense of perspective or proportion to judge America’s track record in the course of human history. They don’t know that the vast majority of people throughout the centuries existed in poverty until the rise of the free market began to improve the living standards of millions around the globe. They don't know that tens of millions of people died as a result of Mao Tse-Tung’s Cultural Revolution. They have not heard much, if anything, of the horrors of the Soviet gulag. Americans do not have a good grounding in the history of mankind to be able to judge America's record. And much of it is not their fault. Too often, they are not being well-equipped to know, love, and act in pursuit of America’s founding ideals.

In the 1990s, the federal government invested in a set of educational standards for teaching United States history. The standards dredged the lowpoints of U.S. history, cataloguing the failures and injustices of America in a way that gave a very distorted view of our history. They mentioned the Ku Klux Klan 17 times and Senator Joe McCarthy 19 times, for example. But the national history standards left out George Washington’s presidency. Perhaps we can forgive the Arizona students for knowing nothing about it. They also left out Paul Revere, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Dr. Jonas Salk, and Thurgood Marshall — among others. But, the standards make room for Madonna and Roseanne — that timeless and enduring historic figure, Roseanne Barr.

The history standards emphasized Soviet gains in space in the 1960s, and the Challenger shuttle disaster of 1986, but they forgot to mention that the United States landed a man on the moon, one of the greatest American achievements — one of the greatest human achievements — an extraordinary offensive in the Space Race with the Soviet Union against the backdrop of the Cold War, a giant leap for mankind in terms of the technological breakthroughs that have advanced many related scientific fields for incredible human benefits. The standards were so obviously biased against America that the U.S. Senate voted 98-1 to reject them. Regrettably, that didn’t stop the ideas from being picked up by textbook publishers. A few years after the fact, a colleague and I reviewed the major U.S. history texts in circulation at Citizens and Statesmen: An Annual Review of Political Theory 26 and Public Life the time and found that the texts tracked largely along the lines of the national standards. There was one happy exception, a text called, America: The Glorious Republic, a telltale title if ever there was one. And that’s just it: We shouldn’t be afraid to tell American history using adjectives like glorious.

2. Teach Americans to prize American successes.

This is a great nation, and for far deeper reasons than the invention of the light bulb or the polio vaccine. Students need to know about Thomas Edison and Jonas Salk, but they also need to know the successes of American ideals — ideals that make advances in human existence possible. One such ideal is religious liberty. The American model of religious liberty and our thriving religious culture are defining attributes of the United States. These features characterize the American order as much as our democratic political system and market economy. American religious freedom has truly been freedom for religion, and American society has benefited from its widespread practice. Religion has been a dominant theme from the earliest settlements to the great social justice causes led by religious congregations in the late 19th century and again in the 20th century.

Today, almost 90% of Americans say that religion is at least “somewhat important” in their lives. About 60% are members of a local religious congregation. Faith-based organizations are extremely active in providing for social needs at home and in sending aid abroad. Why has it worked? The American constitutional order produced a constructive tension between religion and state. One of the major reasons for the success of the American experiment is that it balanced citizens’ dual allegiances to God and earthly authorities without forcing believers to abandon or water down their primary loyalty to God. This habit of reconciling civil and religious authorities as well as the process of harmonizing the interests of competing religious groups helped to fortify the discipline of self-government. Meanwhile, the moral authority exercised by religious congregations, family, and other private associations helps to maintain limited government and civic engagement. The American Founders frequently stated that virtue and religion are essential to maintaining a free society because they preserve what one writer has called “the moral conditions of freedom.”

Religious liberty is an American success story, but today, the religious roots of the American order and the role of religion in its continued success are poorly understood. The constructive tension between religion and state is often portrayed as a radical separation. That idea, however, is more French than American. The American Revolution had a much different character than the French revolution, and French laïcité has created a much different climate than what we know in America. This lack of understanding of the nature and success of America’s religious liberty is just one example of why it is so important to teach actively and clearly about the American record.

Patriotism is in part, a connection with the past, and as such, it must be passed down. This generational passage undoubtedly has become more difficult since the rise of youth culture, which by definition rebels against the status quo and challenges prevailing norms. Dissident narratives tend to focus on America’s shortcomings in ways that make ideals seem out of reach. The result is cynicism, which can quickly incapacitate civic spirit. The poison of cynicism is that it causes us to question the ideals more than we question our shortcomings. Cynicism needs to be countered with hope — and teaching about American successes is one aspect of conveying that hope. But we need to paint America with her warts and all. Clearly, we have fallen short of our ideals, we continue to fall short of them, and we will fall short of our ideals on future occasions. But realism insists that despite these imperfections, we uphold the ideals. It demands that renewal is possible. Each new generation, as guardians of our founding principles, must take part in calling America to live up to those ideals.

3. Patriotism is problem-solving, overcoming America’s failures.

If cynicism about unresolved problems is the siren song that draws people — particularly young people — toward apathy, patriotic realism is a force that can offer more compelling and relevant answers to troubling problems — whether it’s the plight of poverty or residual racism, or the longing to belong, the deep desire for rootedness in an ever-changing world. Patriotism is much more about problem-solving than playing Pollyanna. It is a personal affirmation that the American order does have the power to address the toughest questions of the day. It is an expression of confidence that our system of government is capable of resolving the problems not only of our own time and but also of those to come. The patriotic spirit is an expression of will and of responsibility to take part in that resolution.

America is perhaps the most self-critical society in the history of the world — ever worrying that we are not living up to our ideals. Self-criticism is a commendable characteristic when it is based on sober judgment. Sober judgment calls for an inventory of the good as well as the bad, and for the exercise of reason that gives a sense of proportion and perspective on America’s failures. American citizens cannot afford to think that patriotism is for someone else. It addresses the concerns of us and the people we care about. This is why statism and paternalistic policy are so emasculating to true patriotism. They undermine engagement and sap the citizen of a sense of responsibility, whether for self or for society. In so doing, they relegate patriotism to its emotional mode. The challenge before us today is to shape patriotism into its active mode.

Who’s Responsible for That Shaping?

The state does have a kind of power to shape, but it is the power of command conformity. By contrast, the institutions of civil society shape through nurture. Family, congregation, and neighborhood form the moral imagination through relationship. They have the power to express love, and to elicit love in response. Forming the moral imagination, whether for patriotism or any other of the civic virtues, requires that the shaping institutions, specifically, family and religious congregations, be free to the maximum extent. Belonging to the “little platoons,” as Edmund Burke called them, is prerequisite to the sort of national belonging appropriate in a free society. The primary shaping institution is the family, and as such, its nurturing role must be respected and protected. The family is foundational to human flourishing. It focuses attention and commitment on a small number of people. It nurtures the sense of belonging and security in its members, and it fosters a hopeful vision for their future.

The benefits of strong marriages and families extend beyond their own members to society at large. It’s in the family that the roots of civic virtue are formed. It is where we learn to look out for the good of others, to share, and to accept the fact that we can’t always have things our way. That’s where we learn a good work ethic, trustworthiness, and honesty — the habits that make a healthy and prosperous society possible. On the other hand, broken family relationships can damage children’s sense of security, belonging, and hope. The breakdown of marriage and the family is one of the most significant predictors of hardship in the life of a child, neighborhood, or community. Children raised by a single parent are more likely to experience poverty, crime, unwed birth, domestic violence, and drug and alcohol abuse.

Today, 40% of children are born outside of marriage. That is five times greater than the rate in 1965. Among blacks, the proportion has nearly reached a staggering seven out of ten. Many of our little platoons have fallen apart. And when the platoon can’t provide protection and security, individual survival can easily take precedence over a sense of participation in a larger undertaking for the greater good. This dramatic reality must inform how we think about the application of political philosophy today. This does not mean, as some have concluded, that we should turn toward a statist response that presumes the breakdown of the family and treats the state as a set of compensatory programs to make up the deficit. This strategy has already been in place since the mid-1960s and, far from halting the erosion of family, it has exacerbated it. Instead, we need to take account of the sad facts of life for many children today and to change policies that are undermining the family.

When it comes to shaping the moral imagination and the patriotic formation of children today, we need to reckon with the reality that nearly half of children today are not born into intact families, and that the inter-generational nurture of these sensibilities is not necessarily going to happen in the same way it has in the past. These children are also likely to have much different interactions with the surrounding community and with the state, since many single parent households end up depending on welfare. These are sobering realities for a self-governing society, but they are the challenges of our time, the ones we are called to address. Civil institutions have effectively galvanized response to major changes in centuries past. One example is the response of religious institutions to the social welfare changes that resulted from urbanization and the Industrial Revolution. We need similar ingenuity in the aftermath of the sexual revolution.

Each New Generation

Everyone longs for a sense of identity and belonging. We need to tell the story of America in a way that relates to those deep desires of human nature. We need to present ideas about who we are and what we ought to be in a way that engages more than emotions. It must engage reason and moral judgment. In one sense, we are blaming the victim when we bemoan young people’s lack of knowledge of American history and patriotic spirit. How effectively do we tell the story? How effectively do we model the patriotic character? When Americans experience a new birth of freedom, they become champions of its expansion. As just one example, to watch parents and children in our nation’s capital get a taste of educational opportunity and a new vision of the promise of America is extraordinary.

Young people like Ronald, Carlos, Jordan, and Tiffany should give us great encouragement. Up until a few years ago, these minority students were trapped in the violent, ineffective public schools of Washington, D.C. The sad fact is that our nation’s capital is home to one of the worst public school systems in America. It spends about $15,000 per student and comes in nearly last in tests of academic achievement. As for missing a sense of belonging, almost half of students drop out. Violence cuts down too many others. Nearly one in eight D.C. students have been threatened with a weapon. Five years ago, the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program was enacted to give students a chance to escape the dead-end system and attend a safe and effective school of their choice. But opponents in Congress limited the program so that only 1,700 students can take advantage of the opportunity for a better education.

Tiffany was one of those students. Before she got the scholarship, Tiffany had a cousin who was headed to college, the hope of the family, until he was murdered at age 17. That event made her resolve that she would be the one to pick up the mantle of hope for her family. She got a major boost with one of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarships to attend a private school, where she thrived. Tiffany graduated valedictorian from Archbishop Carroll High School in Washington. Now she has become the first one in her family to go to university. Carlos’ mother was petrified every time she sent her two boys off to school in southeast D.C. in notoriously dangerous neighborhoods. Like Tiffany, Carlos and his brother Calvin both got scholarships to attend private school. Now Carlos is making plans for college and has written a poem about how he’s “changing what it means to be a black teen:”

Surrender me from the typical stereotype of a black young man

one who slings rocks, smokes weed, and keeps a gun at hand

I’m a whole different guy

One who reads books and wears a tie.

And so is Ronald, another scholarship recipient, who has become a deputy mayor for youth in D.C. Scholarship recipient Jorden White is going to college to be a forensic scientist.

Left on their previous path, Tiffany, Carlos, Ronald and Jorden might have been victims of the violence and failure of the D.C. public schools. Almost certainly they would have faded into the background, keeping their heads down just to survive. But they’ve been freed from a dead end school system. Their lives have been absolutely transformed. They are flourishing and full of hope. Now these four are speaking at rallies and press conferences, testifying before Congress, interacting with elected officials. They are well-spoken and passionate. They have become the leading spokespersons for this small and successful experiment in educational freedom against powerful forces defending the failing status quo. It is a David and Goliath fight. And like David, they’re not just fighting to hold on to what they’ve got. These young Americans seem to have an understanding beyond their years that they are blazing a trail. They have tasted hope and opportunity, and they carry the intangible burden of the hopes and dreams of thousands, and hopefully one day, millions of others.

Observe what the students have to say in their own words. Ronald testified before a Senate committee on May 13, 2009:

Just as I have evolved and changed so much as a person, other Opportunity Scholarship Program recipients are doing so as well. My little brother, Richard, is also a recipient of the OSP. He is in 3rd grade at Preparatory School of DC and is doing really well. It is not only about me and Richard and the 1,700 current recipients. I want other children to have the same opportunity of school choice as we have had. I want them to evolve and succeed and have a brighter future.

Tiffany stated in the same hearing:

My cousin was going to be the first college graduate in my family, but he died before he was given that opportunity. Now I’m trying to step in his shoes and finish what he started. I am always thinking of what he could have done. To my family and to myself, I am a representation of what he could have done for my family and community. Through the DC OSP, I was afforded the opportunity to do just that. With the help of the scholarship my dream was realized. I had a say, a choice, in my education. While I was able to come a long way, I see the challenges that kids in DC still face. I am determined to be a part of this fight to continue this scholarship for other students. I have been very blessed and would like others to have this same opportunity. I am determined to build a better life for myself and through this Opportunity Scholarship I am on that path. I want others in my community to have that chance as well.

This is representative citizenship: acting on behalf of ideal not just for selfinterest, but for all those who come after as well. To know, love, and act for America’s founding ideals. This is true Patriotism.

First appeared in Citizens and Statesmen