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Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Opportunity to Plan America's Future

Students “should study American History in particular, so they can plan the future,” according to Woodrow Wilson, the young President of Princeton University in his 1902 inaugural address.  “Every concrete thing (America) has done has seemed to rise out of some abstract principle, some vision of the mind,” Wilson said.  “A general serviceableness  …  broad training would help them relate to all types and see their point of view.”

Is it any wonder that many issues ordinary citizens face today are strikingly similar to the issues of a previous day?  After all, the problems are the creations of man.  So shouldn’t it be a simple enough proposition to fix them?

The learning process begins with asking questions, which promotes and inspires critical thinking.  An effective platform evolves through the telling of stories.  When one story is begun, it starts out clear and linear, like anyone’s family tree.  But, then it branches out, loops back and links up with others, until what students think is a simple piece of cloth is suddenly a more complex tapestry.  The classroom is a place so full of curiosity that, through story telling, we can see their lessons and connections to one another.

Based on my experience, students of US History do appear to be in a preferred position to best plan the future, at least when measured alongside those who choose to neglect its study.

But there are legitimate concerns that opportunities afforded to students of US History are not favorable for the development of their genius.  The prospects to exercise opportunities and capitalize on their intellectual position are equally unfavorable.  While the US Constitution guarantees ordinary citizens the “equal protection of the laws,” there is no known guarantee of the opportunity to plan America’s future.

Through history, we learn that today 20% of all Americans control 85% of all wealth, and a full 40% of all Americans possess absolutely no wealth to speak of.  Haven’t we seen this movie before?  What appears to be lacking is not intellectual capacity, for even an ordinary citizen can achieve a significant measure of intellectual achievement, but equal access to America’s economic opportunity structure.

And while the lack of equal access has traditionally been more acute among America’s people of color, it is not strictly limited to that particular demographic.  Women are and have been vulnerable, too, having been denied the right to vote until almost a full 60 years after the black man.  Imagine, then, being both black and a woman?

On the other hand, those who ask questions expose themselves to criticism from a group which claims legitimacy as the sole defenders of the faith of the American spirit.  Dissenters, arguing that while they love what America represents it can still be made better, are seen as un-American.  Challenges posed to majority rule and the status quo are viewed as unpatriotic.  Sometimes, the voices of dissent are silenced by the ruling party through various means.  This is as unfortunate as it is dangerous to our civil liberties.

While the acquiescence of the minority and defeated candidates is a necessary maxim of self-governing society, there is a real, quantifiable danger of the “tyranny of the majority.”  In his 1801 Inaugural Address the nation’s new third president, Thomas Jefferson, sought to assure his defeated foes by proclaiming a sacred principle:

that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will, to be rightful, must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal laws must protect, and to violate would be oppression.

An “error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.”  In other words, we are all loyal Americans, whose patriotism should not be questioned and who should not be at another’s throats.

But every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle.  We have been called by different names brethren of the same principle.  We are all republicans: we are all federalists.

Jefferson’s tolerance for differences of opinion is admirable.  We all make mistakes.  For some reason, I have been unable to master the wisdom of an old proverb, although I continue to relate it in the hope that others will have better luck: “A wise man learns from his own mistakes, but a wiser man learns from somebody else’s mistakes.”  Can ordinary citizens learn from this lesson as we attempt to plan America's future?

-Michael D’Angelo

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