Gongol.com Archives: December 2021

Brian Gongol

December 10, 2021

The United States of America Govern yourself accordingly

When Theodore Roosevelt said, "School is an invaluable adjunct to the home, but it is a wretched substitute for it", he certainly didn't know in what place America would be nearly 125 years later. He couldn't have foreseen World War II, the Cold War, or the Internet, nor the complexities of China's authoritarian-market hybrid, the profundity of mRNA vaccines, or school via Zoom call. ■ But Roosevelt was living at a time of rapid technological and cultural change, and he knew a few things about the American character. And among those things he recognized was the enduring influence of how people make up their minds. For as much as reformers for generations have looked to the tools of education as a means of turning out a different kind of adult, it remains as true as ever that people decide what they think about the most important issues within the quiet of their own minds. ■ Some are more conscious about it than others, really engaging in deep introspection and an examination of conscience. Others give it less thought. But everyone lives with a voice in their own head. That voice might echo or even repeat what it hears from others, but it's always fundamentally a matter of individual choice which of those words we allow to prevail. ■ That's the fundamental assumption of a system rooted in individual dignity and human liberty -- that certain matters are self-evident to the person who thinks about them. "We hold these truths to be self-evident" is more than just lofty prose: It is a statement that some matters are certain, no matter what any government or other power might wish to say about them. And those things are not made more or less true by indoctrination; at most, they are only made easier or harder to see. ■ Of course, schools and other institutions can help students learn to see things more clearly and can obviously help habituate them to how some of the nuts and bolts are practiced. Student government may be easy to lampoon, but low-stakes elections and small budgets can be good practice for full-strength self-government later on. ■ But the democracy we ultimately get is largely the product of the people who practice it, and the character of people is formed in a multitude of ways, but it certainly starts well before schooling begins. Roosevelt's words are emphatic on this account: "No leader in church or state, in science or art or industry, however great his achievement, does work which compares in importance with that of the father and mother". But long before Roosevelt, Maimonides wrote that "Man's governance of himself consists in making his soul acquire the virtuous moral habits and cease to have the vicious moral habits, if any have been formed." And, similarly, the belief that people cannot be denied their own liberty forever is buttressed by this very same belief -- that no matter what the authorities say, people have to decide their lives in the quiet of their own minds.

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