- The Washington Times - Monday, August 4, 2003

The greatness of the United States was won by men and women of courage, wisdom and a sense of duty. Whether the nation retains and brightens that greatness or plunges toward moral and cultural degeneracy aping the decline and fall of the Roman Empire pivots on an enlightened education of youth. That requires inculcating each school term the following premier principles of learning, judgment and moral duty.

First, despite its flaws, both past and present, the United States sparkles as mankind’s finest hour. It features the greatest legal, political and social equality; freedom of inquiry and expression; domestic tranquility; economic opportunity, and impartial law enforcement in the annals of history. The United States is a magnet for the plighted fleeing persecution or economic destitution. The best and the brightest in less developed nations overwhelming flock to our country for permanent residence or citizenship. We uniquely have fought to liberate tens of millions from the yokes of slavery, tyranny or barbarism with no territorial or imperial calculations. Foremost examples include the Civil War, the Spanish American War, World War II, the Persian Gulf war, the Bosnian and Kosovo wars linked to the former Republic of Yugoslavia, the Afghan war against the Taliban and Operation Enduring Freedom to oust and destroy Saddam Hussein.

We should thus celebrate the United States as the moral high water mark of civilization. But celebration does not mean complacency with warts. We are obliged to speak and act against every form of racism, bigotry, intolerance or injustice by peaceful and informed dissent; affirmative cooperation with law enforcement; court challenges to government misconduct; intelligent voting, and active participation in the political life of the nation. As Edmund Burke observed, all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men and women to sit idle.

Youth is saddled with a moral duty of learning, industry and political prudence. Students are wont to summon John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty” to justify a preoccupation with the egocentric: “The individual is not accountable to society for his actions, insofar as these concern the interests of no person but himself.” But the knowledge, practical skills and political judgments of every individual in our democratic dispensation impact the community. As Thomas Jefferson sermonized, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”

Demagoguery flourishes among the illiterate. The ignorant, indolent and dissipated subtract from the nation’s political health, military strength, economic prosperity and moral vertebrae. Rome fell to the barbarian plunders of Alaric because its culture came to relish self-indulgence over self-discipline and civic mindedness. “Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die” became its sound track. The barbarian hordes triumphed because Rome’s moral will to resist had decayed.

Youth is obliged to acquire scholastic and moral excellence and wisdom not only to preserve the nation’s greatness for the living, but to pay homage to those who died in its achievement and to safeguard that inheritance for those yet to be born. Classroom instruction should thus be imbued with a solemnity commensurate with what is at stake.

The wise man knows what he does not know. Students should be discouraged from voicing an opinion on issues of which they know little or nothing, for example, the best way to deter North Korea’s nuclear adventurism, as fatuous as asking them whether they agree or disagree with Einstein’s theories of relativity. They should be directed to master sources of reliable information before reaching judgments, which may require months of undistracted study.

Reading, colloquy and writing should be staples of the curriculum. As Sir Francis Bacon lectured, “Reading maketh a full man, conference a ready man, and writing an exact man.”

Classical literature should dominate reading lists. Homer, Euripides, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Milton, Alexander Pope, Sam Johnson, Jane Austen, Victor Hugo, James Fenimore Cooper, Charles Dickens and sister literary giants are imperative not for pedantry but to grasp universals in human nature that educate and delight every generation. Contemporary writing is alarmingly inferior on both counts.

In discourse, students should be taught to express disagreement without being disputatious; to recognize that virtually all enlightened judgments are matters of degree; to appreciate that time has upset many fighting faiths and that moral judgments should not be discounted simply because shorn of earmarks of mathematical certainty.

Instruction in writing is urgent. No adjective honestly enlisted to describe the writing skills of high school and college enrollees or graduates would be complimentary. Students should be taught brevity, lucidity, vocabulary, metaphors and allusions. They should be taught to adapt their styles and tone to the audience and to the purpose of the writing. A sentence blazing like a racehorse rather than dawdling like a plow horse should be required each day and be answered by a teacher’s critique.

Youth properly educated will enable the United States to escape the folly and decadence of Rome. Is there any excuse for neglecting the labor?

Bruce Fein is a founding partner of Fein & Fein.



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