Saturday, July 2, 2016

National Books by Carolyn

I'm going to break the rules of this blog (again) by copying part of a chapter from a book I am currently reading, rather than writing my own text. My intent is to begin some thinking and some dialogue about what this author writes. Read carefully and consider . . .

     In 1987, the bicentennial of the Constitutional Convention, three very important bestsellers swept America: Robert Bork's The Tempting of America, E.D. Hirsch's Cultural Literacy, and The Closing of the American Mind by Allan Bloom. They presented essentially the same message, about law, society, and education, respectively: that we have straying from our founding - and not in a good direction. . . 
     Consider Allan Bloom's profound analysis of American education. As I read this modern classic, three major points stood out. First, societies are successful when people choose to be good. If people choose mediocrity, they end up with a mediocre society. If they choose excellence, they build an excellent society; if they choose decadence, society decays. This is not only common sense, it is historically accurate.
     Second, people choose to be good when they are taught and believe in good. People's choices are a direct result of their beliefs. And their beliefs are profoundly influenced by what they are taught by parents, friends, teachers, clergy, etc. If they are taught a falsehood or even evil, and if they believe it, they will choose poorly. Teaching influences belief, which guides action.
     Third, the thing which demonstrates how well they are taught is their national books. A national book is something that almost everyone in the nation accepts as a central truth. The national book of the Jews is the Torah; Muslims, the Koran; Christians, the Bible, etc. It could be argued that Shakespeare is a national author for England, Goethe and Luther for Germany, Dante and Machiavelli for Italy, and so on. Whatever the nation, its national books, the books that almost everyone in the nation revere and believe in, will determine the culture. Good national books, like the Bible or Shakespeare's works, will lead to a good nation. Bad national books like The Communist Manifesto or Mein Kampf will lead to bad nations until they reject such books.
     Now, what of a nation with no national book, with no central text which almost everyone agrees upon as the measuring rod of right and wrong? Such a nation is simply without culture, or at best is in the process of losing it. . . 
     In fact, there is no national book in America today. No national books mean no culture; and this is very ominous for the future. Any society which loses its national book declines and collapses in ignorance, dwindles and perishes in unbelief. 

     This seems to be a propitious time to think about this author's statements. We are close upon the anniversary of our nation's birth, a time for celebration. Yet, our country is in turmoil at every level - socially, politically, economically. We are searching for reasons, for someone to blame, for some positive, forward-propelling action we can take.

     So what do you think of his three points, and why? What are the implications for our nation and ourselves if his points are valid?
The author has certainly given me some food for thought.

From A Thomas Jefferson Education: Teaching a Generation of Leaders for the Twenty-First Century, by Oliver Van DeMille. Published by George Wythe College Press, Cedar City Utah, 2008, p. 63-64.


  1. Provocative, indeed! Since we're making points in threes I'll offer three rebuttals:
    1. Sorting into good and bad is a problematic thing, especially when done on a broad scale. Every thing, every action, every thought has elements of good and bad within it. Even the noblest of actions can have evil consequences. Likewise an evil action can have positive results. It is especially troublesome to call an entire nation good, evil, decadent, etc. The Soviet Union may have done terrible things, but it was made up of people, both good and bad, who were at heart not so different from you or I. Nazi Germany, on the other hand, is an excellent illustration of what happens when one group of people thinks themselves infallibly good, and another group completely evil.
    2. The same logic can be applied to a National Book. The Bible was inarguably the National Book of European states during the middle ages. They did a lovely job of murdering each other on the battlefield, abusing the poor, and burning heretics at the stake. A book can influence a nation, but it will not define it. More often than not, books are used to justify an action than to drive it. I would argue that while we don't have a National Book, we do have a National Document called the Constitution, which is far superior to any book. Our Constitution can be systematically changed when we discover it has a mistake, it sets up a system for its own interpretation, AND we can add to it when needed. How cool is that? We like to say it doesn't work when someone disagrees with its interpretation, but so far it has succeeded remarkably well as a National Document.
    3. Change is the only constant. People see the world around themselves changing, and they assume that it means the world is ending. I believe there was a verse in the Bible about how everything has a season. Our history is a constant movement between stability and instability and back again. We try new things to solve a problem, but eventually the problem changes and the solutions no longer work. What we are seeing now is many people standing up and saying "The system we have created, no longer works for me!" The world we live in is being torn down around us. It may seem scary, but being the author of your own story often is.

  2. Thanks, Rex, for your very thought-provoking responses! Your last line is particularly provocative.