Once upon a time, I was part of something great. Though I knew it was important at the time, looking back as I recently had the chance to do, I realize even more what a unique and important opportunity I had now that it’s gone.
For two years while I was in college, I was a teaching assistant for a 100-level required GE course. Now, for most courses, TAs mostly grade papers and do other grunt work. While we did that in this course, we also had the opportunity to actually teach as well: under the direction of the professor, we taught the third hour of the course each week. (The course was structured with two hours of 1000-student lectures on Mondays and Wednesdays, and the students’ third hour was in a 30-student “lab,” of which I taught 3 to 4 each week.)
But teaching was not the thing that made this job so important. It was the course that we taught. The course, as far as we know, is unlike any other college course. It was called American Heritage and the material was, basically, a touch of political science, the history of the creation of and the evolution of Constitution, and the basic economics and the economic founding principles in the US.
But the course material doesn’t begin to express what was so important about this course. It wasn’t about “America first” or “America best”; it was about the efforts that real people made to create a unique beginning for a country.
From the beginning of time, civilization has struggled between two extremes—tyranny and the control and stability that it brings, and anarchy and the overriding freedom (and insecurity) that it brings. The cycle between these forms of governing ourselves is called the Human Predicament.
Many societies have made an effort to escape the human predicament, but most solutions have devolved into the same vicious cycle. During the formative years of this country, there was no guarantee that this country would be any different.
With great concerted effort, the founders of this country established what they hoped would be a good start, the framework and guidelines that could provide both stability and freedom for the people. It was a great experiment, really, since this form of government hadn’t been tried in quite this way before.
And, so far, it’s held up pretty well. Almost 220 years later, we’ve only required 27 official additions, changes or clarifications to that framework. A lot of the changes to the system have become matters of tradition rather than codification.
It’s so easy to look back at history and think that the way it happened was inevitable. But there really isn’t anything that guaranteed that this country would succeed other than the determined study and efforts and compromises.
And there’s no guarantee that it will continue to succeed in escaping tyranny and anarchy without the determined study and efforts of our citizens today.
I helped with that. I taught hundreds of college freshmen (mostly) about this—about our heritage and our responsibility to this country. Not all of them, and probably very few of them, fully caught this spirit at the time, but if and when they do, they will have the understanding of the country’s founding principles that should best be able to guide them in how to lead the country today.
I had the opportunity to remember this experience and these principles recently as dozens of professors, teaching assistants and administrative staff for this course gathered to honor the two founding professors of the course at their retirement. It was a very emotional experience, having worked with one of the professors, and having to realize just how important what we did was—and that I’ll probably never be involved in that again.
But I can hope that I’ll be able to feel this way about raising my own children. It’s probably not something you can appreciate fully at the time. It is a lot of work. It is a lot of effort. And after months and months of the same lessons, the same principles, still they just don’t get it.
But one day they will get it. One day what I’ve done here, like what I did there, will make a difference.
Happy Fourth of July!