Later this week I will be spending two hours with elementary and secondary school teachers in a conversation about the Declaration of Independence. My job is to engage them in thinking about how the Declaration came about, and in what it might mean for them, as teachers of children, in Utah.
Schools tend to approach the Declaration as content--something to be learned about, something that contains information that is useful. I've been wondering again, though, about the Declaration as a practice, something that was performed as much as it was written, and something that should be performed today to be understood.
Two of the best books on the period of the Declaration make the point that it was as much enacted as written. Pauline Maier's American Scripture notes that Americans of all stripes were declaring independence from the British at the same time that the Second Continental Congress was arguing about doing it as a collection of states. Maier's book makes two points--that the document was less significant than the act itself, and that since World War II Americans have given ever more attention to the document than to the act. The other book, Gordon Wood's Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different concludes with the point that the founding generation, in declaring independence, opened the door for the demise of their class--the educated, well-bred political class that could expect deference from the public. Wood puts it this way: "In the end, nothing illustrates better the transforming power of the American Revolution than the way its intellectual and political leaders, that remarkable group of men, contributed to their own demise."
I wonder what role schools play in the making it possible for people to enact independence today. In many ways, education is less about becoming independent than about linking a person into a system of connections--jobs, communities, classes, etc. that make people dependent on each other. This is undoubtedly a good thing, both for personal prosperity, but also for the well-being of democracy. After all, it is the connection to other people that makes it possible for the public--the demos--to rule itself or to respond to the ruling impulses of the powerful.
At the same time, though, there is a sort of independence that schools ought to do more to inspire. Rebecca Hoffberger, the founder of the American Visionary Art Museum, describes it as "going to the edge to report"--that is, it is the sort of thirst for learning that drives people to the edge--of art, of physical experience, of politics, of community--in order to report on the deep meaning of being human. In this interview, Hoffberger connects this going to the edge with liberty, the center panel of the Declaration of Independence's triptych--life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Schools do very little to encourage this sort of experience, or to help students make sense of it. But we could. More and more students have edge experiences--living abroad, committing huge amounts of time to service, creating things--music, art, drama, dance--on their own. (I once met a student in a history class at Westminster who had taught himself to make chain mail...) But we do almost nothing to help them report, or to listen to those reports. And so creativity, independence, and the good they do are relegated to the "creative majors" while the rest of us learn about independence rather than learning to be independent, and by becoming independent, gaining the power to go to the end to report.
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