November 7, 2006

Reclaiming the American identity

At the University of Chicago, we have a lot invested in the studies of people other than ourselves. The classics of Greece and Rome are embraced in the Core, and our Committee on Social Thought is renowned. We have a Center for East Asian Studies, a Center for Latin American Studies, the Katz Center for Mexican Studies, a Committee on Jewish Studies, a Committee on African and African-American studies, a Center on Middle Eastern Studies, and a Center for Eastern European and Russian/Eurasian Studies—an incomplete list, most of which falls under the umbrella of the Center for International Studies. All of these are of great importance to the scholarship that is pursued here, and we must strive to expand this list even further.

Still, there is something missing. In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates says, “I must first know myself, as the Delphian inscription says. To be curious about that which is not my concern, while I am still in ignorance of my own self, would be ridiculous.” I laud the University’s decision to sponsor serious scholarship through the pending Center for Study of the Principles of the American Founding, and find it equally ridiculous that in America today, the academic sphere has so successfully denied merit to the study of its own home.

Establishing an academic center dedicated to the study of American principles is more than just an attempt to improve civic literacy among college students in general, or U of C students in particular. I am of the belief that civics has its place in the high school, rather than the university, classroom, and that the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, which plans to fund the development of the new Center, would be better served in this endeavor to focus its energy and resources on public high schools—where civics has essentially evaporated from the curriculum. An American studies center at the U of C will do more than just expand the University’s existing course offerings in American history or provide a central hub for American history researchers and scholars to compare notes. Creating a center dedicated to the events, intellectual thought, and leadership that precipitated and followed the birth of this nation will reestablish validity for a field that has been ignored for a long time.

Especially since the ’60s, college campuses have been breeding grounds for anti-American sentiments and agendas. Many professors include dead white men on their syllabi begrudgingly, if at all. Ours is a nation of hyphenated Americans, where the emphasis is placed on a bracketed, multicultural society rather than an embracing melting pot. Thus the “great whites” of the American founding are lackluster candidates for scholarly study, and in this light I think it is almost brave of the University to acknowledge the importance of examining what it means to be an American. What a shame that a research center striving to understand who it is we are is proposed essentially as an afterthought to the existing diversity of our intellectual pursuits.

The belief that America lacks an identifiable culture is disturbingly pervasive among my peers. It is argued that America can’t have a culture of its own because it is composed entirely of immigrants. I find the opposite to be true. Americans have more in common than they care to admit—through a sort of “liberal-guilt syndrome” we try to deny the efficiency of capitalism, the strength of democracy, and the significance of freedom (as well as the price we pay for it). Yet what we all have in common is the reason we are here—we’ve all left something behind to gain the inalienable rights asserted in the Declaration of Independence. Americans are hard-working idealists, powerful diplomats, and philanthropic dreamers, but we’ve grown ashamed of ourselves for simply being who we are, who we came here to be. We nod in agreement when Islamofascists explain to us that we need to die because our Western values and economic profluence have gained too much footing in the rest of the world.

I recognize that America is far from perfect, and of course I don’t expect an educational center to change that. What I do anticipate, though, is a change of heart—it will be subtle and protracted over many, many years, but for an institution as prestigious as the University of Chicago to put its stamp of approval on the study of American principles is an important step toward reclaiming an American identity we don’t impulsively try to hide.