10 questions with ‘What So Proudly We Hail’ editor Leon Kass

Jamie Weinstein Senior Writer
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Leon Kass is the editor, along with his wife Amy Kass and Diana Schaub, of the new anthology, “What So Proudly We Hail: The American Soul in Story, Speech, and Song.”

Kass is the Addie Clark Harding Professor Emeritus in the Committee on Social Thought and the College at the University of Chicago and the Madden-Jewett Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.* He served as the chairman of President George W. Bush’s Council of Bioethics from 2001 to 2005. During his tenure, U.S. News and World Report dubbed Kass “the president’s philosopher.” He has written numerous books and articles on a variety of topics.

Kass recently agreed to answer 10 questions from The Daily Caller about his new anthology and whether our leaders truly understand the foundations of our national character:

1. Why did you decide to put together this anthology?

To help improve civic education and national attachment in America. Our public life requires citizens who know who they are as Americans, who are knowledgably attached to their country and communities, and who possess the character needed for robust civic participation. Unlike other efforts to improve civic literacy and civic virtue, our approach assumes that developing robust American citizens is a matter of the heart as well as the mind, and requires more than approving our lofty principles or knowing our history and institutions. It also requires educating the moral imagination and sentiments, and developing fitting habits of the heart — matters displayed in and nurtured by our great works of imaginative literature and rhetoric. Our anthology sheds light on our civic character, encourages thoughtful patriotic attachment, and elicits timeless aspirations for civic improvement — always with an eye on our founding commitment to freedom and equality.

2. What will readers find in the anthology?

A collection of 74 great stories, speeches, and patriotic songs, by American authors from Herman Melville to Flannery O’Connor, Benjamin Franklin to Calvin Coolidge, Francis Scott Key to Irving Berlin. They are grouped under six themes: national identity and why it matters; the “American creed” (freedom, equality, individual enterprise, religious freedom and toleration); the American character; the virtues of civic life (including self-command, law-abidingness, courage, civility, compassion, public-spiritedness, and reverence); the goals of civic life (“lifting the floor”; “elevating the ceiling”; and preservation and perpetuation); and (6) making a national One out of a variegated many. Each reading is introduced with observations and questions to promote more active reading and to help direct deeper conversations — in homes or schools, colleges or reading groups — about our own American identity, character, and civic life.

3. You get the sense that more and more patriotism is viewed as a bad thing, something not becoming of an educated person. What do you say to this?

Since World War II, national attachment has indeed become increasingly suspect, as both private life and cosmopolitanism have grown, and our intellectuals today talk much about being “citizens of the world.” But for now and for the foreseeable future, the world is divided into political communities, with different ways of life. Moreover true citizenship — which entails self-government — is possible only in the communities in which we actually live, and there can be no robust civic life without patriotic attachment. Such attachment also enhances the health and happiness of individuals, which is closely tied to the vibrancy of their common life together. A truly educated American would be deeply grateful and loyal to a polity that has kept him safe and free and allowed him to obtain his decent education.

4. Do you think American higher education has failed in educating us about our national character?

American higher education is failing in many things, including in helping us acquire self-knowledge as Americans. Very few colleges require students to take even a single course in matters American. The American character we need to understand is not just how America as a nation differs from other nations. More important, we need to understand how our personal character — our dispositions, attitudes, and virtues (and vices) — are shaped by growing up in a nation dedicated to liberty, equality, individual rights, enterprise, and religious freedom and tolerance, especially if we are to be able to curtail the excesses and supply the deficiencies of characters thus formed.

5. Is American exceptionalism an important component of our national character? And how would you define it?

America has been, self-consciously and from the beginning, an exceptional nation, from its unique founding on a set of universal ideas, stated in the Declaration of Independence and given operative life in the polity established by the Constitution. We are the privileged heirs of a way of life that has offered the blessings of freedom and dignity to millions of people of all races, ethnicities, and religions, and that extols the possibility of individual achievement as far as individual talent and effort can take it. The United States has been and remains a shining example of stable self-government and a beacon of hope for oppressed peoples all over the world. To belong to such a nation is not only a special blessing but a special calling: to preserve freedom, dignity, and self-government at home and to encourage their spread abroad. American patriotism embodies a pride in this blessing and this calling — without, I would add, needing to lapse into shallow, chest-thumping jingoism.

6. What other characteristics are fundamental to the American character? What makes our character unique from, say, Europeans?

Generalizations are tricky, and Americans differ among themselves — as do Europeans: Italians are not Swedes. Still, Americans, especially when seen abroad, can be recognized as open, easy going, straight-talking, optimistic, ambitious, individualistic, neighborly, enterprising, practical-minded, both moralistic and tolerant, fair-minded, materialistic, and generous. We are committed to science and technological progress, but we are also genuinely religious. We extol material prosperity, but we are also exceedingly philanthropic. We prize individual achievement, but we also have robust voluntary civic associations, including many that help us care for one another without depending on governmental interventions. Tocqueville’s account of us, and how we differ from the Europeans, remains absolutely recognizable today.

7. What three literary works do you think every American should read to understand our national character better?

If you want the big classics, and an account of our national character in all its richness and ambiguity, Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter,” Melville’s “Moby Dick,” and Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn” — respectively on, among other things, religion and the Puritan strand of our culture, the heroic quest against nature and fate, and freedom and equality (and race). If your taste runs to short stories — our anthology has them — I would suggest Jack London’s “To Build a Fire,” Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat,” and Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron.”

8. Do you think our current leaders fully understand the foundations of our national character? Do you think President Obama fully grasps it?

In some respects not, though it may be that our national character is changing. Over my lifetime, which began in the year World War II broke out, there has been a big shift in public discourse, away from the language of self-reliance, self-command, personal responsibility and civic duties, courage despite suffering, and public spiritedness, to the language of correcting inequality, feeling good about yourself, personal entitlements and expanded civil rights, compassion for suffering, and getting your share of the public goods. We are a long way from John Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” I happen to think that, for the bulk of the population, the American character remains strong, and it would be stronger still if our leaders addressed us in ways that encouraged its best tendencies.

9. How does immigration affect our understanding of ourselves. While some would argue increased immigration might dilute our uniqueness and national character, others argue that immigration is fundamental to the American experience and an important component to renew ourselves every generation. What do you think?

America is, more than ever, a nation of immigrants. Those who hasten to our shores know — often better than the native born — what is wonderful about our country, be it economic freedom or political freedom or religious freedom. Once they are naturalized, and fully adopt the country that has adopted them, they will be as American as the descendants of the Mayflower; and their children, like the children of immigrants past, will be hungry to make the most of the opportunities they can have here. But the crucial thing is assimilation to what we used to call the melting pot, the learning of English, and the surrender of divided and hyphenated identities. Our trouble today is that our national (and some state) government(s) and our intellectual and media elites celebrate multiculturalism and the retention of ethnic and racial (hyphenated) identities. In the old days, these institutions all pushed full assimilation. We must do so again.

10. Any plans to write another book or put together another anthology? If so, what about?

I have been slowly working toward a commentary on the book of Exodus, a sequel to my book on Genesis, “The Beginning of Wisdom.” I would also like to pull together some of my essays on human dignity and on liberal education.

* This sentence has been updated to reflect Mr. Kass’ new roles at the University of Chicago and the American Enterprise Institute.