2017 opens on a disordered and disillusioned time in America. There is a pervasive feeling that things have gone terribly wrong and that the great experiment launched by our Founding Fathers two hundred and forty years ago is now running in the wrong direction, or perhaps several different wrong directions. The election of Donald Trump to the presidency is surely the biggest factor in this, but it is only one of many. The chaos and debasement that characterized the 2016 election was more a symptom than a cause of our current troubles. Citizens of this once great republic seem to feel that we are tottering on the brink of a fatal precipice, as our political and legal institutions break down, the gap between the rich and the poor widens, the imagination of our cultural institutions seems to have become exhausted, and our once immense optimism and confidence in ourselves seems to be fading.
In the midst of this confusion, we look around for leaders to help guide our country back onto the right path. Yet they are nowhere to be found. Why not?
During the American Revolution, the estimated population of the thirteen colonies was around two million, four hundred thousand people. Today, the United States of America has a population of around three hundred and twenty five million people. Do the math, and one finds that the population of America during the Revolution was a mere 0.7% of the current American population.
And what came out of this 0.7%? George Washington did. Thomas Jefferson did. So did John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, Patrick Henry and Samuel Adams. So did dozens of "Founding Fathers" whose names are sadly unknown to the general public - men like Roger Sherman, George Mason, John Jay, Robert Morris, and Benjamin Rush - whose contributions were enormous. It also produced a generation of citizen-soldiers, commanded by brilliant leaders like Nathanael Greene and Henry Knox.
And what did this 0.7% accomplish? With an army that was outnumbered, poorly supplied, and untrained, they took on and defeated the greatest empire the world had ever seen. They formulated a revolutionary form of political thought, taking the Enlightenment concepts of natural law and individual liberty and molding them into a cohesive framework of government that would transform the world and bring down the corrupt old order. And they created a Constitution that still stands as the greatest and most durable achievement in government in all of history.
These were not perfect men. They had their flaws and failures, the two greatest being their inability to come to grips with the institution of black slavery and find an equitable way to relate to the Native Americans. Yet when taken in their totality, the accomplishments of the Founding Fathers are nothing less than astonishing. No other group of people in one nation at one historical moment has come close to achieving what these men achieved.
For every American that was alive in 1775, there are about one hundred and thirty-five Americans alive today. One would naturally think, therefore, that there would be one hundred and thirty-five times as many men the caliber of the Founding Fathers today as there were in 1775. Moreover, only white males were allowed the opportunity to participate in politics during the Age of the American Revolution. Having become a more inclusive society, in which everyone is given a chance to play a political role no matter their gender or ethnicity, one would naturally expect that a much greater proportion of American genius would have been unleashed in our own day and age.
Bottom line: there should be tens of thousands of Americans active on the political scene today with the same brilliance, courage, and integrity as the Founding Fathers. Yet we look around and we do not find them.
Instead, we find a President-Elect whose background is in hotels, casinos, beauty pageants, and reality television, and who is best known for making bigoted statements about women and minorities. The person he defeated is a former First Lady, best known for a history of secrecy and scandals. We have a Congress filled with mediocrities more concerned with raising corporate money and enjoying the taxpayer-funded perks of office than with serving the needs of their constituents, much less the country at large, We have fifty state legislatures filled with men and women who are basically just mini-congressmen. As for the courts, the judges now elected or appointed to preside over them are just tools of their respective political parties rather than guardians of the Constitution. And even among the small and decreasing number of men and women in politics who actually have integrity and want to serve the people, there are none with the caliber of the men who lived during the Revolution.
Where are the Founding Fathers of our own time?
I teach middle school, which gives me a front row seat to the development of the coming American generation. Generally speaking, the students with whom I work are highly intelligent, kindhearted, and eager to learn how they can contribute to the future of this country. But they are being let down by a school system that has all but eradicated civics education from the classroom. When I was in middle school, I remember spending a long time in 8th grade Social Studies covering the details of the Constitution, but nowadays we are forced to rush through it in just a few days. At the end of the unit, we have scarcely covered the basics and not had a chance to get into the details. Most of them can identify the three branches of government and they've been given a vague idea of what each branch does, but insufficient time has been allocated for teachers to teach them such things as the length of a Senator's term, whether Congress or the President has the power to declare war, or why the federal government has the right to issue money but the states do not. There is simply no time to get into the nuts-and-bolts of how the government works.
In other words, the education system is making sure that the next generation will come of age largely ignorant of how the political process works, how the government is structured, and what the rights and responsibilities of citizenship are.
I've also become extremely concerned that we are letting down our students in failing in instill critical thinking skills. We teach them to find primary and secondary sources of information, but we don't really give them much guidance in understanding why some sources may be valid and others may not be. Students need to understand that a Wikipedia article or a documentary they saw on YouTube are not necessarily accurate and that a story featured on Fox News or MSNBC is not as reliable as an article in the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times. From the perspective of middle school, the "fake news" epidemic is very real. They are astonishingly astute in their use of technology, but they are not being given the mental framework to filter out propaganda while accessing information. 2016 proved the critical need for our society as a whole to develop the tools to separate fact from fiction in the information with which we are bombarded. This is supposed to be the job of our education system and we are currently not close to succeeding.
I also think that our school system needs to do a much better job of identifying those students who are particularly gifted and display an interest in civics and government. These students should be provided with additional support and special classes to foster their skills and interest. Even as we speak, there are potential Thomas Jeffersons and George Washingtons sitting in our eighth grade classrooms. We need to find them.
It's more than just the school system, though. On Mondays, I typically ask my students what they did over the weekend. Almost invariably, especially among the boys, the answer is that they stayed at home and played video games. No camping trips with the Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts, no inter-mural soccer games, no reading of books, no gardening or cooking with the parents. Nothing seems to be going on in the lives of these young people that might help instill civic virtue, much less a sense of obligation to their country.
It's a cliche, as well as perfectly obvious, to say that today's students are tomorrow's leaders. But if we are to bring forth a new generation of American leaders who possess even a sliver of the ability and integrity of the Founding Fathers, we need to radically rethink both the way teachers educate them and the way parents raise them.
Because the path we are currently on goes nowhere.