written by H. Michael Hartoonian

America is an exceptional place. It is exceptional not because of its landscape, the people, or its wealth, but simply because it is an idea. It is an idea sustained through engaged debate by citizens who understand reciprocal duty and who judge others by their morals and manners. It is exceptional because America (can) show the world that it is possible for a people to live as citizens rather than as isolated subjects, and as civil and civic stewards of that idea. Mostly, it is exceptional because the idea demands a deep respect for learning, hard work, thoroughness, patience, honesty, and justice.

America must have little to do with domestic and foreign policies that diminish its moral authority. Hubris, unethical private and public behavior, and distain for learning all destroy the idea – an idea to which so many have given full measure of devotion. This democratic republic needs champions who understand these things. Democracy, indeed, depends on elites to keep the debate dynamic and true. Cultures create elites or professions to protect the culture. The four classical professions are medicine, law, theology, and education. Let us here address the educator as protector or steward of the idea we call the United States of America.

school kidsThe charge to professional educators and the citizen policy makers that guide them is to be clear about first purpose. The first goal of education is to sustain and enhance the idea of America…defined in our founding documents and in the political, judicial, and economic debate throughout our history – debates that strike a dynamic balance among our eight democratic values: law vs. ethics; unity vs. diversity; freedom vs. equality; and common wealth vs. private wealth. The debate, however, demands policies that will put purpose before students, parents, educators, and certainly business people and politicians. The schools are not here to “meet the needs” of children; nor to make little consumers or workers. Indeed, to the degree that we SAY we put children first, to that same degree we will corrupt them. Children know they are not put first – they make-up the poorest, least cared for, and most abused among us. What we need to instill in them is the truth that they will become scholars and citizens only when they understand what John Kennedy said; “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” Students need desperately to learn and know what they can do for their families, school, place of worship, place of employment, as well as country. It is only the citizen-scholar who can create wealth – wealthy families, schools, firms, and nation. All others become a drag on the economy, on the culture, and on themselves. Without personal responsibility, there are only victims and victims can never govern themselves. This is what schools must teach and children learn. In this light, schools are community wealth creators, not wealth consumers. Those who do not understand this have little business in the profession of education, for they don’t know what to protect, sustain, and improve.

nwrcc12Most of the reform efforts pushed on educators today work at cross purposes to the development of the educated citizen. These reforms seem to miss the point that the citizen, as opposed to the oppressed subject, must understand the cultural heritage, be able to argue with civility and reason, conceivably communicate in several languages, and debate, influence, evaluate, and implement policies that bring all of us closer to the values delineated in the Declaration of Independence. Above all, education in a democratic republic creates loving critics of our communities and nation. All institutions must help educate, but in this republic the roles and responsibilities must be clear. Families bring children into nurture and nature, communities bring children into culture, and schools bring students to love and critically evaluate their culture and take their civic responsibility seriously. This ability is fundamental because citizens must know what of their cultural heritage to keep, what to discard when no longer functioning, and what to create anew as life and situations demand. None of these tasks are presently being adequately performed in our schools. On the contrary, with our fetish for tests, we seem to be moving away from our democratic responsibility – unable to comprehend that democracy is not encoded in our national DNA.  With each new generation, it must be recreated in the minds of citizens through educational processes and ongoing experiences afforded by such efforts.  Indeed, that’s what makes us citizens.  So much depends on the cultivation of attitudes, and the accretion of general knowledge toward achieving the civic process in a democracy.  The task of schools is to bring into being a worthy occupant of the “Office of Citizen.”  It is a cooperative effort by family and schools, but the latter must provide children with the will, the knowledge, and the tools by which they may perform that supreme task.

liberal_arts_webpage_photoThe ubiquitous understanding in school programs must be both the tacit and more explicit recognition, even in the face of contemporary cries for commercial relevance, that deep learning is an on-going argument about the search for truth in an ever expanding universe of ideas, processes and human/global conditions.  And, that truth can only be approached through wisely selected content that allows students to ask all manner of questions about themselves and the world. The distribution of discipline fields and the inquiry methods associated with them must be consistent with the Liberal Arts tradition of “enlightenment through intellectual virtue.” This is what Thomas Jefferson meant when he argued for education and civilization as a virtue. He said that we should go to school not to be better off, but to be better, period.

To this end, educators must embrace the responsibility of their profession and align purpose with practice. The ascendency of intellectual virtue manifested in scholarship and citizenship may be the only way to transcend and address issues like achievement gaps, drop-out rates, and even global competition. It’s amazing what a person can do with the identity and responsibility of citizen-scholar. Schools cannot be anti-intellectual or unethical places. We cannot let our schools lose their civic compass and intellectual purpose.

Michael Hartoonian
Scholar in Residence
Hamline University, St. Paul