Forward thinking: Signs of the times

How healthy is America…

Several months ago, I was introduced to the writings of author Jim Nelson Black. He made several comments that stirred my gray matter. One in particular was that from ancient Rome to the superpowers of the 20th century, all of the greatest nations in history have something in common.

In short, they all share ten symptoms that inevitably led to their decline. Some of them were suddenly conquered or overthrown, but the great majority of them collapsed from the inside out.

Then, Black went on to list the symptoms of a nation in decline, from his perspective. I would encourage you to review them, and then take a few moments to reflect. His list includes the following:

• Crisis of Lawlessness
• Loss of Economic Discipline
• Rising Bureaucracy
• Decline of Education
• Weakening of Cultural Foundations
• Loss of Respect for Tradition
• Increase in Materialism
• Rising in Immorality
• Decay of Religious Belief
• Devaluing of Human Life

I can’t speak for you, but it did seem to me that his list reads like the headlines in our daily tabloids and news magazines. We might expect them to comprise America’s Most Unwanted List.

This begs my original question: just how healthy is our nation?

When our founders ratified the Constitution, no other form of government had ever allowed so much freedom to its people. It is safe to say that America is the greatest single experiment of freedom in history. What began as a cry for liberty soon turned into a revolution, then a republic that would forever change the world – for better or worse.

It’s what prompted the now famous statement from Benjamin Franklin. On the day of its signing, a woman asked Franklin, “Well, sir, what have you given us?” He simply responded, “A republic, if you can keep it.”

If you can keep it. The five little words would come to mean an awful lot in the years to come… and never more they do right now.

Cultural traditions are often at the top of the list of making a nation strong. However, as time passes the, the foundational principles that were once considered essential to a nation come to be seen as old-fashioned and undesirable.

In other words, the proper knowledge of history and literature – our culture – is the foundation of a free society. If we are ignorant of our past, we are apt to repeat its failures and shortcomings to our detriment.

Since the time of our Founding Fathers, the United States has seen many wonderful advances in medicine, science and nearly every area of society. However, there are still major areas of concern. One in particular that stands out in my mind is the need for a new commitment to civic education.

America’s founding fathers understood that our democracy depends on it. As historian Alan Taylor observed, they knew that emperors and kings could easily mislead an uneducated public. The survival of the founder’s new republic required a public wise enough to keep power within bounds. It required citizens capable of resolving tension between private interest and the common good.

Unfortunately, civic education was long ago eliminated from the standard high school curriculum. In its place has come a narrowed focus on English and math, along with an avalanche of tests. At the same time, higher education has become ever more vocational. Students crowd into courses on economics and business or computer engineering. All told, education is now viewed mainly as a “private investment” rather than a “public good.”

If the so-called “common good” is to be restored, we must stop thinking about education as a “private investment” that may lead to a “better paying job” and revive the founders understanding of it as a “public good” that helps train young people in “responsible citizenship.”

Our schools, both public and private, must renew their efforts on teaching civic obligations. Every child should gain an understanding of our political system, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, separation of powers, checks and balances and federalism. They must understand the meaning and importance of the rule of law, and why no one should be above it. They need to know where these legacies came from and why they are important.

“Ignorance and despotism seem made for each other,“ Thomas Jefferson warned, “but if the new nation could enlighten the people generally… tyranny and the oppression of mind and body will vanish, like evil spirits at the dawn of day.” In other words, in all countries where education is confined to a few people, we always find arbitrary governments and abject slavery.

In commenting on civic education, it would seem appropriate that it should instill in young people a passion for truth, encouraging civic virtue and taking on responsibilities in their communities. However, word limitations in this column will not allow me to do so.

My hope is that I have made it clear that our obligations as citizens go beyond voting occasionally, paying taxes, obeying the law, serving on juries or telling the world you “can’t beat city hall.” Rather, we owe to one another our time and energies to improve our communities and to protect and strengthen our democracy.

Furthermore, this should not be thought of as charity. It is a commitment we each make in our hearts to pass on to future generations a society that comes closer to its ideals than it was when it was passed on to us.

After all, it’s what sparked a revolution over 240 years ago–and it’s what will preserve us for future generations! Are you in?

Until next time…

Loren (1)–By Loren Simmonds

Loren Simmonds has been a resident of Lynnwood for 37 years. He served on the Lynnwood City Council for 16 years, including eight as Council President. He remains active in the community by serving on the Parks and Recreation Foundation Board, Civil Service Commission and the Snohomish County Planning Commission. He believes that volunteerism sows the seeds of community. Loren  is semi-retired and works as a writer, speaker and leadership coach.

  1. I really enjoyed reading this article! The list of things that signal the downfall of a nation appears to be frighteningly present in the United States today. Enlightenment does not mean turning your back on the traditions of the past, but learning from those things, respecting them and refining them for a better future.

  2. How right you are, Mr. Simmonds. A very good analysis of our problems and duties as citizens.

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