“I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not.” W. E. B. DuBois begins the peroration of his majestic essay “Of the Training of Black Men” with that line of blank verse embedded in his prose. “I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will,” he thunders, “and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension”—linking freedom with learning, and individual dignity with art.
Can it be that our racial divide is only the most egregious instance of our unfinished national work? That under the argument between DuBois and Booker T. Washington about practical training versus the life of the mind lay an even larger, still-urgent American issue?
DuBois’s cadences echo Ralph Waldo Emerson, and behind Emerson the Founders—those Enlightenment landowners and merchants educated in the classics, some of them slaveowners, some of them autodidacts, all of them imperfect idealists.
The American Idea
Scholars, novelists, politicians, artists, and others look ahead to the future of the American idea.
The words American and idea make a provocative combination: The United States itself can be considered a partly realized idea. A nation not defined by blood or religion must cohere by the force of ideas, or not at all. Sovereignty of the people is an example. So too is equality. Such ideas are made explicit in our governing documents precisely because they are unrealized.
A great surprise of my brief time in Washington was how often members of Congress turned out to be more intelligent than they let themselves seem on television—better read, more reflective, more sensitive.
On one side, the anti-intellectual style of populism; on the other, the transforming success of the GI Bill. To our pride, the prose style of Abraham Lincoln; to our shame, the electoral success of politicians who conceal their intelligence.
Mark Twain’s provincials call the wisest man among them, the keeper of truth, “Pudd’nhead.” Twain’s anticlerical, antiracialist, antiroyalist rage implicitly indicts, from beyond the grave, the presidential candidates who “don’t believe in evolution.”
About half of American college students attend community colleges. Most American children attend public schools. If we fail to recognize them as our children—if we deny them the kind of care that phrase implies—then we will have done ourselves great harm, by accepting the gulf of privilege.
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