The education of an American

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When I was in school in the early 1960s (long before the onslaught of “political correctness” so popular today), I did not learn anything very serious or substantial about the history of this country to which I had immigrated as a boy.

In some cases, the things my teachers taught me were probably even untrue.  I was told, for example, by a history teacher that all I needed to know about Abraham Lincoln was that he was a racist. Nothing else needed to be known about him, he said.

And so, I set my sights on studying the history of Europe because it had great stories about straightforward tyrants who were unaffected by hypocrisy.

An intoxicating education

After years of study, however, it eventually hit me. The most important questions — What is freedom? What is justice? What is equality? — these were not answered in the European history books I had been devouring. These were questions tackled by men like Jefferson, Madison, Washington, and Lincoln, and contemplated before by men like Plato, Aristotle, Locke, and many others. This is where I could get a true education. So I started anew.

I took classes on Plato’s Phaedo, the American Founding, Lincoln, and Shakespeare’s politics. I was no longer studying things out of historical curiosity, but rather, looking into the very cause of things. Life seemed to be in full swing.

It was an intoxicating education, made evermore pleasant because it took place with friends. It was through my education that I started to understand what my father had always understood.  I began to see what it meant to try to establish a Novus Ordo Seclorum.

I realized, as many immigrants to these great shores understand instinctively, that all governments previous to ours had been established by accident and force.  But America was established on reflection and by choice; it was built upon universal principles applicable to all men at all times.

In America, human beings could prove to the world that they had the capacity to govern themselves. The Founders, according to Lincoln, proclaimed equality and freedom to “the whole world of men.”

It was then that I came to understand what Lincoln meant by the Declaration of Independence being the “electric cord” that linked all of us together, as though we were “blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh, of the men who wrote that Declaration.” This is what it meant to be an American, and it wasn’t all that far from being a man.

Teaching Americans

These days I continue my life as a student of America. The difference is that now a university pays me to study rather than collecting payment from me.  I am in the ironic position, here at this Midwestern liberal arts college in central Ohio, of teaching native Americans (I mean native-born Americans, not American Indians) how to think about their own country.

How odd it seems, and yet how perfectly American, that they should need me, a Hungarian immigrant, to teach them.

The United States was the first nation in the world to construct an elaborate system of public schools. All the founders understood that republican government demanded that the citizens be educated. And yet, unfortunately, I meet many students who, like me at that age, have no idea what they are doing with themselves and certainly have no civic perspective.

These native Americans need teachers. And I have become one of those teachers. Call it a repayment of a debt; call it honoring my father and mother for seeing things rightly and thereby giving me a chance to be in the right place and my children a chance to be born in the right place.

Call it what you will.

But what I do with these American natives is I teach them about American politics and American history. I start with a simple thing about their country and themselves. I tell them that they are the fortunate of the earth, among the blessed of all times and places. I tell them this as an obvious and an incontrovertible thing. And their blessing, their great good fortune, lies in the nation into which they were born. I tell them not only that their country, the United States of America, is the most powerful and the most prosperous country on earth, but also that it is the most free and the most just. Then I tell them how and why this is so.

That is, I teach them about the principles from which these blessings of liberty flow. I invite them to consider whether they can have any greater honor than to pass undiminished to their children and their grandchildren this great inheritance of freedom. And then we talk for a few years about how they might best go about doing that. And this is the beginning and the end of what I have learned and of what I teach both as an American citizen and a human being.

Peter W. Schramm teaches political science at Ashland University and serves as Senior Fellow and Director of the Ashbrook Scholar program at the Ashbrook Center in Ohio. This column is the second of two pieces for the NewBostonPost on American civic identity.  Part 1 appeared last Monday.