Say You Want a Patriotic Education?
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- President Trump last week proposed establishing a commission on "patriotic education." What books should be featured in that education? Bloomberg Opinion's columnists had some suggestions.
Disagreement Is Democracy
Given our current circumstances, the book that might be most useful for young people to read is “Think Again: How to Reason and Argue,” by Walter Sinnott-Armstrong. Sinnott not only offers a spirited, readable defense of rational argument, he also explains quite succinctly both how to know when others (or we!) are making arguments, and how to argue better.
Why this book? Because most adults argue terribly, when they bother to argue at all. We seem to spend far more time in condemning our fellow citizens than engaging them. Democracy rests crucially on our acceptance of the notion that those who disagree with us, even on divisive issues, do not thereby become lesser than we.
If instead we define disagreement as wicked, there’s no reason to argue; there’s reason only to destroy the opposition. That might be many things, but it isn’t democracy.
(Confession: The better answer might be the Bible. No book has contributed more to the Western way of thinking, including the evolution of the values of equality and individualism. But rather than enter that thicket, I offer a choice more ... shall we say neutral?) – Stephen Carter
A Trinidadian’s Hope for America
“Patriotism,” Samuel Johnson famously said, “is the last refuge of the scoundrel,” and nearly four years of Donald Trump should be enough to underline the perils of national unity behind demagogues. Still, a wisely devised education can inculcate the idea of responsible citizenship and encourage social cohesion — what tottering democracies need more than anything else.
“American Civilization” would be an excellent part of the syllabus. Mostly written in the late 1940s and early 1950s by C.L.R. James, an extremely cultured — as distinct from cultural — Marxist, a man who published fiction and wrote about Bette Davis and cricket, this book is remarkable for its open admiration for the American project.
A snobbish disdain for the U.S. was then a badge of intellectual sophistication on the European right as well as the left. But James, Black and born poor in Trinidad, saw in America a new future for humanity.
In his view, democracy had found no more fertile ground than American soil. This was partly because Americans, though strong individualists, had an “exceptional capacity for free association.” James didn’t overlook the long history of White supremacist violence that had made some Americans uniquely wealthy and powerful. Nor was he blind to the forces of conformism in American life, something that most leftists of his generation harped on.
Unlike them, however, he saw in America’s much-scorned mass society and culture the potential for far-reaching democratic transformation. To this end, he thrillingly interpreted Walt Whitman and Herman Melville, two authors forced upon high-school students, as exemplars of the “passionate individualistic American temperament.” And he also looked at soap operas and Hollywood movies, arguing that America uniquely possessed “a vast populace, literate, technically trained, conscious of itself and of its inherent right to enjoy all the possibilities of the society” and that “no such social force has existed in any society with such ideas and aspirations” since ancient Greece.
James wasn’t a naïve utopian. Much would depend, he argued, on the political arrangements Americans chose for themselves. That choice has never seemed more important today. And, whatever happens in November, young Americans would still need the faith a cultured Marxist once expressed in the promise of the American experiment. – Pankaj Mishra
The Free Market and Lasting Freedom
In America’s rise to preeminence — roughly 1850 to 1990 — freedom and free enterprise were its central guiding light. In the period since the collapse of communism, however, that light has waned. New generations are increasingly questioning what was so great about the American project. There is no single book that can explain why, but more than any other work Milton Friedman’s “Capitalism and Freedom” lays it out.
It was written in 1962, when the first inklings of our current divide were beginning to show. America was being made to face the gulf between its ideals and the inequities of racial segregation and entrenched gender discrimination. This reckoning would profoundly shift American attitudes on these issues and at the same time bring into question the righteousness of the American project.
Friedman embraces that skepticism and seeks to show that, despite misgivings about the free market, it is essential to lasting freedom — and that it is no accident that the U.S. has been a leader in both.
Today, Friedman looks both reactionary and prophetic — precisely the kind of mix that makes him essential reading for high school students. His book shows that views now associated with the extreme left (universal basic income) or the extreme right (repeal of Social Security) can come from the same mind and the same heart. That’s an especially useful lesson for our current times. – Karl Smith
The History That Our Textbooks Ignore
A book I wish I'd read much earlier in life is Paula Giddings's highly readable history of Black women in the U.S., "When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America." There's no excuse -- it published in 1984, when I was three. Plenty of time for it to make it onto my high school and college syllabi. But it didn't. The courses I took on U.S. history tended to relegate women's history to sidebars -- and then it tended to be the history of White women, with only brief asides for Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks. But there's so much more to the story of how Black women have fought to hold this country to the ideals espoused in our founding documents. It's a story that should be considered central to the American experiment, and in Giddings's book, it is. – Sarah Green Carmichael
Founding Challenges, Laid Bare
Ron Chernow's “Washington: A Life” shows what real sacrifice looks like from a public servant and the lengths Washington went to avoid even perceived conflicts of interest or favoritism. But it's also an unvarnished look at how our founding fathers struggled with issues such as slavery even as they attempted to form a new republic where all men are created equal. – Robert Burgess
The Page-Turning Story of Malcolm X
Every American teenager should read the autobiography of Malcolm X, co-authored by the famous black Muslim leader in conjunction with Alex Haley, who wrote “Roots.” First of all, it’s a gripping story which follows the teenage Malcom, nicknamed Red, from his life of petty crime, gambling, alcohol, and marijuana to prison, spiritual awakening, and community leadership. It’s never boring, not even for a minute. The book also deeply confronts the perennial question of race and racial justice in America. Malcolm powerfully expresses the progenitor of the Afro-pessimist viewpoint. But he also eventually embraces a more universalist world view after making the pilgrimage to Mecca. It would be hard to imagine a book more relevant to current debates about Black Lives Matter or the proper role of the United States in the world. The fact that there is a terrific Spike Lee movie based on the book is an added bonus for students who might want to supplement their reading with visuals. The lessons of grace, passion, dignity, law, and yes, power and violence are crucial for every citizen. – Noah Feldman
The Essential Spirit of Settlers
A patriotic reading list should encompass founding documents, philosophical writings and political speeches. But even in the U.S., whose ideals of liberty and equality are essential to its nationhood, abstractions are not enough. National identity requires a sense of shared history and experience—a common heritage that goes beyond one’s own family and local culture. We need to see something of ourselves in our fellow Americans, present and past.
With that goal in mind, my choice is Willa Cather’s novel, “My Àntonia,” a story of settlers on the Nebraska prairie in the late 19th century. The title character is a girl whose family has immigrated from Bohemia. They arrive on the same train as Jim, an orphaned boy from Virginia coming to live with his grandparents. The adult Jim, a successful New York lawyer, narrates the story. Jim, whose experiences and attitudes mirror Cather’s, represents a cosmopolitan and great-hearted American spirit, formed on the prairie and at home in the wider world.
“He loves with a personal passion the great country through which his railway runs and branches,” says a friend in the chapter that frames the story. He raises capital for western enterprises and “is still able to lose himself in those big Western dreams.”
“My Àntonia” is often assigned to high school students—I first read it in 10th grade—but few teenagers can appreciate it. It’s a book for the experienced: a story of displacement and opportunity, of growth and progress inextricably bound together with loss. Particular in time and place, Cather’s stories, characters, and setting embody universal themes in an especially American way. “You are not the first to be uprooted,” she tells us, “to see the world around you change, to learn and grow and struggle to find your true path. You are not the first to seek hope in the new.”
In the genealogical sense, “My Àntonia” is not the story of me or my people. I hail from the rolling hills of the Carolina Piedmont and found my home in southern California. My family tells no immigrant stories. Though I’ve traveled the length and breadth of the U.S. and lived in Texas, Boston and the Delaware Valley, I’ve never set foot in Nebraska.
But ancestors alone do not a nation make, certainly not in the U.S. “My Àntonia” honors the people from many places who made the larger whole by knowing and tending local ground. Cather evokes the stark beauty of the prairie in quietly magnificent prose. Yet unlike some localist literature, “My Àntonia” doesn’t celebrate staying put. Some characters remain on the prairie, some migrate, some return. The novel doesn’t treat leaving as a betrayal. It’s too American for that. – Virginia Postrel
HBO, and Also Hannah Arendt
I’m cheating: Rather than assigning a book, I’m going to ask everyone to watch one TV series: David Simon’s “The Wire.” It has everything for the patriot who realizes the complexity of patriotism in the United States: Race and ethnicity; the rule of law; electoral politics and the even more complicated politics outside of elections; economics, cities, gender, education. And how they all come together, or don’t, in policing.
True love of country isn’t found in the cartoonish version of history that President Trump wants us to have. Patriotism in the United States, if it’s worth anything, has to embrace the entire nation – good and ugly. “The Wire” is as good an introduction to that as you’ll get.
I’ll pair it with a book which is only partially about the United States and isn’t even particularly good history: Hannah Arendt’s “On Revolution.”
It’s a brilliant discussion of politics in a republic, and what it means to live in a nation that actually had a successful revolution – even if, all too often, we don’t live up to its promise. If you want a careful historian to explain that, yes, the American Revolution was really revolutionary, go to Gordon Wood’s excellent “The Radicalism of the American Revolution,” but Arendt’s political theorizing is even more essential. Combine all of them, and learn of a nation that was specifically set up to make political action possible and meaningful, and then try to reconcile that with the ways we practice politics today. — Jonathan Bernstein
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