A recent issue of the Princeton Alumni Weekly reported that the most popular spring term course based on enrollment on the Princeton campus was overwhelmingly, “Children’s Literature,” the reading list of which included “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.” While a big fan of the Harry potter series, having read all seven books and seen some of the movies, I nevertheless suggest that these aspiring” best and brightest” who are receiving academic instruction expensed at over$1,500/hour/student, might be better educated in the responsibilities and opportunities based on a society founded on individual liberty.
In an earlier post, I suggested that it was time for “spring training” to learn and relearn the founding fundamentals of our country. For the younger generation, college theoretically provides the last structured opportunity to study these important principles of individual liberty and begin to relate them to modern day living. For if America is to continue to succeed as a nation and society, each generation of individuals must be imbued with a sense of achieving our nation’s founding mission; otherwise, we individually and collectively lose our way.
First and foremost is to understand that not only did the Founders establish a government deliberately designed to be limited (checks and balances among the three branches in a federal system), but that those chosen to head the new country in the 1780s for their leadership capabilities exercised authority to limit further the power of the national government.
George Washington is the perfect example. His towering physical presence plus heroic frontier service in the French and Indian War led to his unanimous selection as Commander-in-Chief by the 1775 Continental Congress. Yet Washington exhibited more telling strength of character on behalf of the young fledgling nation in peacetime by defusing a potential coup d’état by unpaid Revolutionary War veteran officers in 1783, then promptly resigning his commission to return to civilian life. Fourteen years later, he again set a standard that lasted for 140 years by leaving voluntarily the Presidency after two four-year terms. As King George III of England in amazement noted at the time, this was unprecedented for a head of state to give up power voluntarily.
In sum, Washington used his strength to limit others from rashly sizing power and to limit himself from extended exercise of authority. Moreover, Washington’s service to his country, both as commander in chief during the Revolutionary War and as president was without pay.
Washington’s lessons of limited domination and voluntary, uncompensated public service are part of our country’s first principles, which can and should guide us through America’s current problems. In a recently published book, “We Still Hold These Truths: Rediscovering Our Principles, Reclaiming Our Future,” Martin Spalding articulates 10 such core principles which define our national creed and explain our common purpose: equality, natural rights, consent of the governed, religious liberty, private property, rule of law, constitutionalism, self-government and independence.
These principles and applicable case studies should be integrated throughout liberal arts college curricula beyond history and politics. For instance, the genesis and importance of voluntary organizations from the initiatives of Benjamin Franklin through the 1830s commentary of Alexis De Tocqueville in “Democracy in America,” to the immigrant aid societies of the early 20th century, could be topics for sociology. International humanitarian relief and emergency response episodes could be examined as part of anthropology or religious studies. Self-sacrificing individuals for fellow citizens and country from well-known 1776 Revolutionary War hero Nathan Hale to less well-known Col. Rick Rescorla, decorated Vietnam War veteran who perished heroically in the burning World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, after helping save the lives of his Morgan Stanley co-workers, could be studied in psychology. Economics majors could learn about the development and effectiveness of private capital markets, and even aspiring engineers could be educated in the history and influence of patents, technology, and innovation. Through a reoriented coordinated curriculum, these principles could be meaningfully integrated as academic center points for the next generation. And such integrated curriculum is clearly feasible, if academic deans are willing. If leading universities such as Princeton can claim to align 51 courses across all departments to have a sustainability component, they can do similarly with America’s first principles.
It is a full schedule for spring training for the next generation. But they must be better prepared to enter the real world of America. For our potential leaders of the tomorrow will not have the magic wand of Harry Potter to assure that they live happily ever after.
Alex Beehler is the Assistant Deputy Under Secretary of Defense (Environment, Safety & Occupational Health) at the United States Department of Defense.