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Learning the Constitution Again

Reading Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay on history, I found a lot of nonsense along the lines of the universe being found within a grain of sand, applied to human psychology. Emerson's idea is that every human mind contains within it the potential of a universal mind. That's an optimistic, and not very testable, idea, but it bothers me because it doesn't represent the diversity of human minds, and the diversity of mental abilities within the human species, both preceding and as a result of individual development.

Later on, after Emerson stops talking about the universal mind for a while, he discusses the limitation of history as a source of knowledge and wisdom:

"Every mind must know the whole lesson for itself, - must go over the whole ground. What it does not see, what it does not live, it will not know. What the former age has epitomized into a formula or rule for manipular convenience, it will lose all the good of verifying for itself, by means of the wall of that rule."

This seems, in Emerson's way of exaggeration, too strong a statement, but there is a suggestion of something useful in it: The idea that the lessons of history are weaker than the lessons of firsthand experience.

I have witnessed old Sixties protesters try to lead younger generations in activism without much success, because the older protesters insist on pursuing an agenda that is shaped by "what we learned in the Sixties". They keep on forgetting that no one but a senior citizen has actually learned anything about activism in the Sixties. They assume that everyone around them, no matter their age, will be informed by the same historical events that have shaped their ideas.

It is, in the largest sense, a good thing that first hand experience is stronger than the influence of history. The need for new generations to consider ideas for themselves has been the mechanism through which human culture has been expanded over hundreds of thousands of years, from the discovery of fire to the discovery of the iPhone.

However, expansion of culture requires that each generation be able to preserve what is worthwhile from the learning of previous generations. It would not do to learn to build cars but forget how to ride bicycles. Each generation must learn for itself, but it ought to, in its own explorations, add on to the maps of the ground that previous generations have already traveled, and not only record what they are they seeing with their own eyes.

When it comes to the values contained within the Constitution of the United States of America, I wonder if each new generation must learn for itself, through abandonment of those values, about their worth. The generations of Americans alive during the Presidency of George W. Bush seem to have mostly forgotten during the first decade of the 21st Century the value of freedom of speech, of separation of church and state, of the right to free assembly and the free press, of the right to a fair trial, of protection from unreasonable search and seizure and the need for search warrants, and of the problems of cruel and unusual punishment and the right against self-incrimination.

Does the fundamental nature of human society make it necessary for each new generation to learn to value the ideals of the Constitution? No, I don't buy that. We can educate our children to know the historical context within which the Constitution was written. We can also work to restore and maintain a society that demonstrates for each new generation the worth of liberty.

That the United States has moved away from liberty under President George W. Bush is a result of the failure to provide a society that demonstrates the value of freedom. Instead, we have developed an American culture that provides opportunities for new generations to be educated in the value of authoritarianism. It has been the generation of leaders that experimented with its own path in the 1960s that has turned around and preached the ideals of united we stand, god bless america, the homeland, and the supposed need for a "balance" between security and freedom.

We can't just blame Bush for the problem. Most Americans went along with the new teachings of homeland insecurity. As a result, we have received a brutal, unintended education of the dangers that come with the abandonment of liberty. It is the duty of those of us who have lived through the Bush Presidency to educate further generations in the lessons about liberty that were learned during the years of George W. Bush. The lessons of the 1960s have not been taught as history because those who were active in the 1960s never accepted the idea that their generation had passed into a stage of adulthood with the responsibility of the transmission of culture.

However, teaching the history of the Bush era is not enough. We must also work to re-establish a society that provides new generations of Americans the opportunity to learn through their own first hand experience about the practical worth of the Constitution's freedoms. That means that we need show our children that citizenship is an activist pursuit, not a gift passively received from previous generations.




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