Monday, January 14, 2008

Why Are We Who We Are?

A variety of strange thoughts rumbling around my head coalesced this morning while driving to pick up my dry cleaning. The main theme from Schindler's List came on the radio--that haunting piece of music that always rips my heart to shreds. For some reason, everything I had been thinking about wrapped itself around the music and led to the question above: Why are we who we are...and not some other way?

I guess I've been thinking about this because of the presidential campaign, and all the assumptions and platitutes that get thrown around so casually as part of the National Discussion (such as it is). We revere and respect our political process, while mocking and criticizing it (or, for may of us, ignoring it altogether). Meanwhile, in Kenya, people are murdered during an election. We applaud ourselves for being tolerant, while attacking each other with insults and vile language. Meanwhile, in other countries, people of different religions, tribes, and groups don't bother with vile language--they just slaughter each other. We think things in our public discourse have decayed and degraded to a terrible point, with no real understanding of how bad it could really be--how bad it is, in many other places--how bad it has been through most of human history.

We are still isolated enough from the rest of the world to take what we have--and who we are--for granted. And because of that, we don't bother cherishing it, preserving it, teaching it to our children--or even acknowledging it (the good or the bad). It's a dangerous combination.

If we can't identify all the different things that have contributed to our national character, how can we guarantee that those things will exist into the next generation--the things we want to keep, that is (or vanish--the things we want to get rid of)? We just assume that things will go on as they have been, but there's no guarantee. In fact, we have no reason to think that values or ideas we cherish will survive beyond us, if we don't do anything to preserve them.

But how can we know who we are if we don't test who we are? How can we know what we believe unless we investigate ideas that, perhaps, we don't or can't believe? How can we assess whether some new idea fits into who we are--or who we want to be--if we haven't really thought through who we have been, and why we've been that way? How can we test whether our actions are living up to our ideals if we examine neither?

A lot of people seem to think they know what a word like "Un-American" means. But what does it actually mean to be "American"? Isn't that something that should be taught in our high schools? And I don't mean taught as in "lectured," as though the answer were known and set in stone and ready to be memorized. I mean taught as in investigated...explored...thought about. Why are we so afraid to let our children root around in our history and discover what's there, the good and the bad?

Here's a little quiz--really little, not even close to being exhasutive. It's just a few things off the top of my head--a few of the kinds of things that get me thinking about what it means to have inherited citizenship in this country. It seems to me that any adult living here ought to have enough information about their country to be able to answer most of these questions, even if they don't all come up with identical answers. But I wouldn't put money on it.
  1. Name three individuals, groups, or historical events that helped teach the American colonists how to govern themselves without the presence of an absolute monarch.
  2. What is one reason why the American Revolution succeeded, while many other revolutions in history have ended with a reversion back to autocracy?
  3. Why did the U.S. have to abandon its original governmental agreement, the Articles of Confederation, and write a new Constitution?
  4. List five things that the Bill of Rights prohibits the government from doing.
  5. Name one thing that authors Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, or Henry David Thoreau (your choice) contributed to American thought or the idea of a uniquely American character. Name an American historical figure or fictional character who best exemplifies this idea.
  6. In what ways did the American character change and grow as people settled the West? What kinds of things influenced or affected these changes?
  7. Other than the abolition of slavery, what was different in the United States as a result of the Civil War?
  8. Airmen in World War II often drew pictures of Bugs Bunny on their airplanes--as a mascot, of sorts. What qualities or characteristics did that cartoon character represent, that the young soldiers wanted to identify with?
  9. Which presidents are represented on Mount Rushmore? Name two things of note that each of these men did--two things that represent your idea of what the American character can and should be.
  10. Name one event of the past 50 years that has helped move us, as a country, closer to our founding ideals.
  11. Name one eventof the past 50 years that has moved us away from our founding ideals.
  12. Name three people currently in public life who represent some of the qualities you've listed in the answers above.
  13. Who said, "There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America." Regardless of what you think of the speaker, what, in your opinion, does that phrase mean?

No comments: