Interview with the editors of
What So Proudly We Hail
Why the concern with civic education? What is the problem to which your book is addressed?
Civic identity and civic virtue in the United States today face unprecedented challenges, making it more urgent than ever to find better forms of civic education. We must educate minds and hearts not only to enable the young to live decent private lives but also to be attached to our country and to use their freedom to uphold and improve its institutions and values—especially in the face of the novel challenges we face: religious and ethnic pluralism grow at home, weakening the idea of “one nation, under God, indivisible”; globalized connections grow abroad, encouraging cosmopolitanism; acrimonious cultural and political divisions threaten national unity; multi-culturalist and anti-nationalist ideologies question the very idea of American identity; cultural and civic illiteracy is alarmingly high; moral relativism is on the rise, and the popular culture encourages the young to think mainly of their pleasures and rights rather than their obligations and duties.
What do you mean by “citizenship”? Are we not automatically, by birth, citizens of the United States?
In one sense, citizenship is a gift and privilege of our birth, as is the right to vote and to participate in public life. But voting and electioneering do not alone an active citizen make. The quality of our common life—our schools, neighborhoods, public safety and public services, cultural and charitable institutions, opportunities for recreation and worship, etc.—depend on a more robust idea of citizenship, and on people who care enough about the well-being of their communities to engage in the activities that will enable them to flourish.
This volume has a very unusual approach to civic education. There is nothing here about the institutions of our government or “how a bill becomes a law.” Does your project imply a criticism of civic education as it is currently conducted?
Yes and no. Of course we believe that Americans should understand the basics of American government, such things as the separation of powers, checks and balances, and an independent judiciary. Good citizenship does require knowledge. More fundamentally, however, citizenship depends on attitudes, character, and the habits of the heart—what Abraham Lincoln, in his Lyceum Address, called “the attachment of the People.” Contemporary approaches have largely neglected, and even depreciated, the shaping of the sentiments and the cultivation of public-spiritedness.
How can stories, speeches, and songs create this attachment?
There is a story from ancient Greece about the relationship between poetry and politics that might be illustrative. Lycurgus is known to us as the founder of Sparta. However, before he undertook his political reforms, he sent the lyric poet Thales to Sparta to prepare the spirits of the people. Lycurgus recognized that there were cultural preconditions for the political order he was instituting. The Spartan character was shaped as much by Thales as by Lycurgus. While the sensibilities and virtues characteristic of the Spartans are very different from those modern Americans would admire, we believe that this connection between the imaginative arts and political life still holds.
So, do you see yourselves as “the new Thales” aiming to make Americans more patriotic?
We think we might reserve that title for the literary artists whom we have collected in this volume, but yes, we are committed to the goal of producing thoughtful patriots and engaged citizens. It is important to stress the adjective “thoughtful.” The stories we present are not simple celebrations of American identity. They are instead explorations of many dimensions of the American character, including some less-than-attractive dimensions.
You speak of “the American character.” In a nation that is individualistic and pluralistic, how can there be such a thing as “the American character”?
The selections explore both American individualism and our ethnic, racial, and religious diversity. They are both prominent elements of our national life. Yet despite our many enriching differences, there are also things that we have in common. A people that is informed by the “creed” of liberty, equality, and the pursuit of happiness and prosperity will differ from a people informed by different principles. And there are common goals that we seek to attain as a society, and common virtues that a robust citizenry will need. These goals and virtues are central themes of most of our selections.
But are there not big differences among us about these goals and virtues? Is this a book that takes sides in the great ideological debates of our time?
To be sure, liberals and conservatives disagree about how to rank the sometimes-competing goals of public policy: Is freedom more important than equality? Is lifting the floor for the disadvantaged more important than encouraging and rewarding excellence? Yet it is crucial to understand that all sides of our political debate have something vital to defend, not only for themselves but for all of us. It is important for everyone to understand the complexity of the American character, the virtues that active citizenship requires, the claims of the competing goals that we pursue as a nation, and the ways that we are and can remain “one, out of many.” This book is therefore equally addressed to all our fellow citizens—young or old, rich or poor, liberal or conservative, and everyone in between.
Isn’t patriotism passé? Isn’t it more important that young Americans become good citizens of the world?
Since World War II, national attachment has indeed become increasingly suspect, as both private life and cosmopolitanism have grown. However, it is still the case, now and for the foreseeable future, that the world is divided into political communities. The health and happiness of individuals is closely tied to the vibrancy of their common life together. A self-governing nation, as we aspire to be, places high demands on its citizens. The selections in this volume explore the qualities of mind and character that contribute to national flourishing.
The separation of church and state is one of the principles of our political order and yet there are selections that seem to endorse religious virtues like charity and piety—especially the Flannery O’Connor, Homer Hickam, and John Updike stories. What accounts for this?
The separation of church and state means that the United States has no official church and no religious tests for office, but it does not mean that religion has no effect on our political life and national character. The free exercise of religion is part of the American creed, and religious associations of all denominations remain a powerful source of our beliefs and practices. In the Farewell Address which is included in the volume, George Washington asserts that “Religion and morality are indispensable supports” for “the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity.” We have included stories that explore in greater depth the nature—and the sustainability—of those dispositions and habits, as well as why they might be important for our common life.