“The younger generation doesn’t know much about our founding values.” So said one of the upcoming guests on First Coast Connect with host Melissa Ross (I’ll be appearing today at the bottom of the hour to talk with Melissa about The Philosophy of Childing, before heading on to Gainesville to facilitating a dialogue at Santa Fe College on the questions, “What are we teaching our children? What should we be teaching our children?”
But it’s the older generation, I believe the argument can be safely made, that has even littler clue about these values — or at least, the best of those founding values. Or at least, what Jefferson (as flawed and foibled a human as there ever was) considered (as I put it in my Constitution Cafe: Jefferson’s Brew for a True Revolution) them to be — and he believed that we are a “dysfunctional society” if we believe we “have to have our way in all things.” As bad a rap as kids get on having their way in all things, I believe this is a case of pot-calling-the-kettle-blackism, and that they are far more flexible, far more willing not only to compromise but to blend a variety of perspectives into a solution. This is based on more than 20 years of engaging in rich dialogue with kids, of experiencing firsthand their openness, and their willing to amend and adjust their views as they weigh and consider a bracing variety of perspectives. Maybe they don’t know didactically what our founding values are, but nonetheless it’s second nature to so many of them to prize this most principal value if the human heart and mind are to grow as Jefferson envisioned.
And so at tonight’s dialogue, I’ll steer or gently nudge the dialogue among adults into perhaps unsettling territory and we consider, “What can children teach us?”
They can teach us to listen, to consider that we have something new and valuable to learn from every human, that we all have our unique stores of wisdom based on our singular experiences. The extent that these founding values are lost, we can’t find our nation, or ourselves, until and unless we recapture them.
I’ll leave you with this passage from my Constitution Cafe, because it touches not only on our founding virtues, but on the kinds of virtues kids in particular most value today:
Virginia’s colonists looked at elections as opportunities to choose a candidate whose “virtue showed most clearly in their persons.” They rejected “(t)rials of strength between contending social classes and popular choice between rival programs,” since they considered these “precisely the lines upon which …elections should not be conducted.”
To this end, Isaac relates, a public announcement placed in Accomack County, Virginia, in 1771 seeking freeholders to vie for particular offices made clear that prospective candidates must possess a range of virtues. For instance, the candidates must have “penetrating Judgment,” so that they would be able “to scan each Proposal, to view it in every Light.” They must further have the talent of “piercing into Futurity,” in order to “behold even how remote posterity may be thereby affected.” What’s more, the ideal officeholder, as the paragon of virtue, must be one “who regards Measures, not Men”, and accordingly, “will follow his country’s interest regardless of the effect of his course upon either his friends and foes.” Consequently, candidates were expected to possess “that Fortitude, or Strength of Mind, which enables a Man, in a good Cause to bear up against all Opposition, and meets the Frowns of Power unmoved.”
The virtues that Virginia’s voters demanded in their elected representatives, according to Isaac, clearly “owed a great deal…to their own sense that they were engaged in a momentous struggle that would determine the destiny of mankind.” In 1769, among all those vying to serve as Albemarle County’s delegate in the Virginia assembly, Thomas Jefferson was deemed the person most reflective of voters’ values, virtues and aspirations in what would prove to be a pivotal moment. At age 26, Jefferson was elected to be his county’s representative in the House of Burgesses. Upon arriving in the stately chambers in Williamsburg, the political neophyte was struck by the fact that “our minds were circumscribed within narrow limits, by an habitual belief that it was our duty to be subordinate to the mother country in all matters of government.” This collective shortcoming, Jefferson surmised, was not due to any lack of “reflection and conviction” on the part of his brethren, but rather it resulted from “habit and despair.”