written by H. Michael Hartoonian
Athens, itself, is a school where we understand that,
Any society that does not educate its warriors to be philosophers,
And its philosophers to be warriors,
Will have its wars fought by fools,
And its philosophy crafted by cowards.
-Pericles, King of Athens
As with the ancient Athenians, every society creates a cultural narrative. That narrative reflects identity and purpose. Most of all, it informs survival. Early on in the evolution of human society, it was clear that survival would depend on a family’s or a community’s memory and ability to discriminate among those cultural factors that should be passed on to the next generation. This would mean that other elements of culture would have to be left behind and some elements created anew. These cultural elements, which have a half-life of one generation, demand that people evaluate these elements and teach them to each other and to their children. As societies advanced, this task became more complex and professions were created to do the work. Who would deal with and explain death, the cosmos, and the mysteries of the hidden soul? Who would explain the need for order with justice? Who would deal with the sick and the nature of health? And who would take these ideas and intentionally and critically instilled them in the next generation? Certainly, other groups of people would administer and guide the implementation of the cultural concepts, but the professions were created to judge which ideas and narratives were necessary for cultural survival. This is and has always been tricky business because of the changing nature of the cultural context and the nature of being human. When the culture works well the professions, working in concert with one another, debate, synthesize, and recommend principles and policies that create more gentle changes on the landscape. When shared learning and debate are missing, cultural change (social, ethical, economic, etc.) can be brutal and often bloody.
It is altogether true that a culture creates professions to, first of all, protect the culture. The four classical professions so charged to attend to this challenge are education, medicine, religion, and law. These four professions were created out of the ongoing need
for cultural sustainability, and crafted to protect, enhance, and transmit the culture to the next generation. However, once a profession atrophies and loses its first purpose, it becomes irrelevant, corrupt, and the larger culture becomes problematic. Within a democratic republic this evaluative transmittal is even more necessary since our republic is simply a set of ideas sustained through enlightened civic arguments. Any inequitable distribution of knowledge and justice, manifested in differential rules and sanctions based on such differences as class, geography, or ethnicities diminishes the republic and leaves all citizens venerable to disillusion and cynicism.
We are, by fortunate circumstance, a nation of law, not a nation by law. To this end, all four professions teach about self-governance and responsibility. However, within our republic, those who call themselves professionals in the practice of education take leadership and greater responsibility for teaching the general tenets of enlightened citizenship. In our contemporary context, education teaches citizens why they should, and how they can, govern themselves as well as why justice must be understood and practiced as a necessary condition of civil society. This should not be secret knowledge kept solely within the profession. Just as we want physicians to explain the principles of good health, and law professionals to teach the standards of justice, we need educators to help the citizenry at large to understand the foundations of democracy and self-government. Armed with this knowledge so transmitted, citizens of a republic become more competent in discussing and acting on bringing balance to the fundamental values tensions of democracy both in their private and civic lives. (See The Idea of America, by Hartoonian, VanScotter, and White; published by Colonial Williamsburg (2013.)
If professions do not teach these things, citizens will become subjects and will not have the knowledge or will to live civil, healthy, productive, and happy lives. In so many ways, this knowledge and ability separates citizen from subject. Citizens place importance on character. Subjects put their faith in image. 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. Our first obligation, then, as professionals is to teach ourselves and fellow Americans the duties of holding the office of citizen. Our first attribute of identity is, and must be – citizen.
Like Pericles, we acknowledge that America is, first and foremost, a school. We teach adults and children every time they walk into our offices or down our streets, turn on their TV or computer, attend a movie, engage in a civic meeting, or visit a park. The key question is what is America teaching? The answer, gleaned from surveys and research alike, makes clear that we are teaching each other to embrace personal image and consumption. The values of materialism, sexuality, athleticism, and physical strength have all but replaced the virtues of character. Our classical professions fulfill only marginally their public role as they no longer consider civic purpose within their mission. A private greed has eaten way at our public happiness and in so doing we have diminished liberty and life itself. Why aren’t professionals, and particularly those professionals of the law, outraged?
So often we tend to keep knowledge to ourselves, believing that if we let the people in, they will not need our services, and besides many of us have come to believe that citizens are too dense to understand God, to learn how to learn, to take better care of their bodies and minds, and to understand the law. These attitudes have led to a deep corruption in our citizenry, as well as in our professions. Individual wisdom, relevancy, and value seem to be based only on money. Income now trumps education, ethics, service, and even civility. Professions are no longer protecting the deep values of the culture. They seem to have lost touch with the connections that their work must have with the transcendent narrative upon which our republic was conceived. It was a narrative of honor and sacrifice in the attempt to build a more perfect union. We would ask again read the last sentence of the Declaration of Independence, and the Preamble to The Constitution of the United States. Or take James Madison’s defense of virtue and citizen, and the new Constitution in 1788, stated in The Federalist: I go on this great republican principle, that the people will have virtue and intelligence to select men of virtue and wisdom. Is there no virtue among us? To suppose that our form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people is an absurd idea.
Consider the words of Abraham Lincoln in his First Inaugural Address on 4 March, 1861: Why should there not be a patient confidence in the ultimate justice of the people? Is there any better or equal hope in the world? Is there any greater wisdom? The questions would be answered through instruction – as Jefferson so nicely put it. And the questions that all instruction aimed to address included:
- Who should be a citizen? Why?
- Who should rule? Why?
- What must I give up in order to be a member of society?
- Must my personal identity be tied to my community and country?
- What obligations and rights do I have as a citizen?
- Can there be justice for all? How?
- Is happiness a function of service to others?
These are primarily the questions that professionals help citizens answer. It is interesting to see, however, that all fall upon the landscape of education. But, of course, as people confront more dramatic separate and exceptional visions of their group’s religious, economic, military, and cultural idiosyncratic tendencies, we need, more than ever, the enlightened and mediating work of the education profession. Unless we pay attention to this cultural need, not only are citizenship and scholarship problematic, but so too is the republic itself.
The duty of the educator within this context is clear. It is to develop contemporary and cultural (historical) perspectives in harmony with the larger obligation of critically passing on to the next generation the will and skill to understand the meaning of “We The People.” This is the proper meaning of the profession’s identity. That identity and attending duty is to protect and enhance the individual, while at the same time, enhancing the more general and higher attributes of democracy and humankind. This means working with two dynamic and contradictory ideas at the same time – private wellbeing and the common good. This democratic thinking and teaching, which should be ubiquitous in the profession of education, will make it possible for the unique and changing culture of the United States to exist and maintain its integrity while embracing and complementing the civic principles of civility, justice, and knowledge.