written by H. Michael Hartoonian

The culture teaches. The only question is,
what is our culture teaching?

A necessary condition of any society that claims democratic DNA is a mindset that embraces a generational covenant. As citizens of such a society, we have a deep understanding of the ethical and material responsibility owed all of our children and all of our seniors. And, they, in turn, understand the mutual owed each other. This mindset and attending reciprocal duty is the hallmark of a democratic, market-driven society.

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The covenant starts with an agreement that self-interest is best understood in the context of cooperation. Civic wisdom means knowing that if we want the best for our family and friends, we must work to create and nurture a political contract where all can achieve to the limits of their intellect and their passion for good work. Self-interest is best served when understood that I am better-off when you are better-off. Better families make for better schools. Better schools make for better communities. Better communities make for better families. And better families make for better people.

True self-interest is achieved when competing with the best that society can generate. It is this wisdom that Adam Smith stated in his concept of “self-interest, properly understood” and what Jefferson meant in his words “the pursuit of (public) happiness.” In fact, the idea of public happiness and shared prosperity was so integral in the minds of the early immigrants that the original states such as Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Virginia are known as Commonwealths.

A republic needs an enlightened elite. These are people who, by virtue of their abilities and character, become leaders. Not all leaders have ability or character, but stewardship for the condition of our generational covenant is in the hands of an elite who does. A republic needs intellectual, business, government, and other leaders, who are ethically mindful of the care and nurturing of a commonwealth and understand how real wealth (excellence) is created. For example, the idea that a CEO is only responsible to the stockholders is an anathema to capitalism and an insult to the republic. These people may know how to make money, but have little understanding or interest in creating wealth, either private or common. They have no contract, no covenant, with their past or future. If they think of it at all, they, no doubt, believe that the United States is just theirs for the using. Yet many call themselves patriots. This could also apply to many other institutions, particularly today’s government agencies. The old concept of a “public servant” has greatly diminished over time. On a weekly basis we read reports of another “civil servant” moving to the private sector to take advantage of a substantial opportunity to make money.

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From personal observations to empirical research studies, it is abundantly clear that we have destructive divisions in our country among people with different incomes and education, from different regions, races, and different political ideologies. These divisions are diminishing our individual courage and our ability to take interest in wider economic or social issues, simply because we see so much ignorance and corruption among the elites. Studies such as Raj Chetly; et al* suggest that chances for upward mobility among children from the bottom 95% of American families, are so small that the data should be seen as “alarming.” The income of our parents should not determine our futures. But, more and more, it does.

As obscene as income inequality is to a democratic republic, a more catastrophic and fundamental disease is at work—the division and separation among our people. The rich play with the rich, the poor with the poor, and from tax codes to ill-conceived law to education, public policies keep people in their place. E Pluribus Unum has atrophied into a twisted notion of individual consumerism.

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We need to imagine a place where, regardless of family income, our youth can engage in jobs that foster respect for people doing all kinds of different work. Their end careers may or may not be loading box cars or cleaning streets and parks, but we should all learn the social utility of these jobs and respect the people who do them. It is necessary that the elite take that earned respect with them into leadership positions. Today, the elite who make policy in business, government, and education have little understanding of what it’s like to serve our country or work with people from other classes. This isolation has become so pronounced that some elites believe that they can poison the water or steal money from their fellow citizens because they don’t know those citizens and, thus, cannot understand their ethical connections with them. In many ways these elites behave like saboteurs, intent on destroying their own country.

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Individual relevancy or value seems to be based only on money. Income trumps education, ethics, service, and even civility. Within this context, gated communities and closed minds are ubiquitous. And our children are paying dearly for these vulgar conditions. Who are the poorest among us? Who have the poorest diets? Who have the worst health care? Who are the most abused? The answer is the same to all questions – our children.

This simple consistency speaks volumes about our faith in the future and fragility of our generational covenant. The great question for all citizens today, particularly the elite, is: How can we transcend income and enhance our commitment to each other?

There are four areas of work for us to consider that might turn us from these alarming conditions; one related to personal behavior and three concerned with public policy.

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Character and Family

Individuals must place less importance on image and more on character. Character is destiny; image is mercurial. Character is doing what is right and often hard, image is following the path of least resistance. Character is asking what I can do for family, school, and community; image is a belief that family, school, and community exist for your benefit. Character means governing yourself—a necessity in a free society. Image means following others and mimicking behavior and taste—a condition in a controlled society. Character means citizen, while image is the defining attribute of a subject.

Service

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Public policies need to be enacted that will encourage people to serve the common good. All eighteen-your-olds should be drafted into community, national, or military service. First hand experiences in getting to know the country and its people would go a long way in building the generational covenant. American youth need to face and grapple with questions such as: What issues are being faced by people outside my community and outside my age group? What can I do to enhance the common wealth as well as my own understanding of the nation’s needs? For a while, our youth need to get out of their gated communities, their ghettos, and expand their adolescent mindset.

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Infrastructure

We have lost the understanding that our private wealth is only as healthy and secure as our common wealth. With proper infrastructure policies in place there would be little need for welfare programs including subsidies for individuals, businesses, farms, athletic teams, and bailouts for unethical business/government/education practices.

Our common wealth is defined by our social capital of well educated, healthy, and ethical citizens, as well as by our commonly owned material structures including things like streets, schools, sewage plants, parks, libraries, and hospitals. When citizens have the opportunities and access to public education from Pre-K through the baccalaureate, quality health care, clean air, water and food, transportation, Art, and public justice, they feel a common ownership of and stewardship for the community. Infrastructure is simply the understanding of the necessary relationship among civilization, city, civic, civility, and citizen.

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Education

America is a school. We educate ourselves and our children every time we walk down our streets, turn on our TV or computer, attend a movie, or visit a park. The culture teaches. The key question is what is our culture teaching?

The answer is that our culture is teaching us to embrace personal image and consumption. Even our public schools and universities fulfill only a marginally public role in the sense that they no longer consider civic purpose within their mission. Although breathtakingly unsupportive of teachers and the profession, our business and public officials hold tight to the corrupt objective and attending policies that the purpose of our schools is vocational and self-oriented. We are graduating “elites” who cannot speak a second language, are innocent of their county’s history, ignorant of economics, devoid of the aesthetics art, music, and literature, and illiterate in mathematics and science. All international evaluations show this to be the case. But, the picture is even bleaker when you consider federal surveys and state data on graduation, where nationally almost thirty percent of our children do not finish high school, and many who do only function at a knowledge and skill level that is no higher than the eighth grade. This is not an endorsement for democracy.

Despite what is said at the highest levels of government and business, we are in a declining attitude concerning our county’s moral, intellectual, and cultural wellbeing. Our condition of weakness is the outcome of a society that no longer cares about its common wealth. It is a condition caused when a society has lost respect for its past and its excitement about the future.

The United States was created and built on a set of ideas that have pretty much atrophied in the minds and behaviors of Americans. While there is some antidotal evidence that indicates many young people are taking their citizenship responsibility seriously by working on social and environmental issues, and young adults are volunteering to help children and seniors after school and work, it is still the case that the generational covenant is broken and will not be mended until a new mindset is rapidly created by effecting, or at least honestly discussing, the suggestions above that embraces this land and the ideals for which it stands.

  • Is America the “Land of Opportunity”? In two recent studies, we find that: (1) Upward income mobility varies substantially within the U.S. Areas with greater mobility tend to have five characteristics: less segregation, less income inequality, better schools, greater social capital, and more stable families. (2) Contrary to popular perception, economic mobility has not changed significantly over time; however, it is consistently lower in the U.S. than in most developed countries.

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Michael Hartoonian is Scholar in Residence at Hamline University, St. Paul, MN and former Professor and Director of the Institute for Democratic Capitalism, in the Department of Educational Policy and Administration, College of Education and Human Development University of Minnesota. His research interests are in ethics, education and economics, and their integration in a democratic republic, as well as identifying democratic value tensions in American history and contemporary global life.

michaelhartoonian@comcast.net