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Epilogue: What Have We Learned?

by Charles A. Endress

The United States stands as a unique adventure in the story of human life. As a sovereign state it was virtually invented at a stroke, in an act of will, not by a prince but by a people who saw themselves at the crossroads of destiny. At the same time, despite the rough and tumble of leather-stocking and long rifle, Americans, as we call ourselves, are the heirs of a transatlantic culture of great achievement. Janus-like, we have two faces -- one that looks to the new, the innovative, the west, the frontier, and another that looks to the old, the tried-and-true, the east, the historic for support and guidance. The evolving culture it is one of the youngest in the world, and though its constitutional structure is barely 200 years old it is one of the oldest. It has drawn together peoples from every corner of the world and out of an amazing diversity has fashioned a distinctly recognizable "American" culture.

Since 1984, in an annual symposium, the Angelo State University community has pursued the answer to the question, "What are American values?" and in a broader sense "What is it to be an American?" In this country, so large and powerful and yet so culturally diverse, with such division and alienation, are there any values that rise to the level of a distinctly American nationality -- values that set us apart from other nationalities and mark us uniquely and recognizably as Americans? Most would answer in the affirmative, but when pressed might paraphrase Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, "It's hard to define an American, but I know one when I see one."

There is an American expression that summarizes the difficulty in dealing with such a complex problem -- "It's like chewing bear meat, the more you chew the bigger it gets." Such has been the case in our pursuit of American values. Rather than try to eat the whole bear at one sitting, we have cut the problem into small pieces. Each year we have examined a particular facet of American life. Even here, the chewing has been plenty tough and the problem has expanded. This retrospective gives us a chance to look back over our 15-year pursuit of this elusive quarry called "the American" and to see if we have gotten any closer to understanding or defining it. Clearly some distinctive characteristics have emerged from this long and multifaceted discussion.

The featured addresses of symposium participants have contained several reiterated themes. The most prominent, a value identified at the core of the American character, is a powerful sense of "individualism" -- the sense that every person has right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Liberty, the right of the individual to act autonomously, is the touchstone against which every other right, process, and institution is tested in the United States. Powerful forces threatening life and liberty themselves must be in the field before the Americans are prepared to give up individual rights in order to protect individual rights. It is a paradox, that while we are proud of America's achievements and are among the most patriotic people of the earth, we have maintained a disdain for the government of the United States since the beginning of the Republic. The Declaration of Independence during the first half of our existence was seen as the document that proclaimed the rights of citizens against the tyranny of government, and with the close of the Civil War, the Bill of Rights became the bulwark of individual rights against the chance of government oppression. It contains the rights of free speech, freedom of religion, and security in one's home among others. "It's a free country isn't it?" has been the constant and successful battle cry of the individual against the government and every oppressive majority. It is to natural rights, inscribed in the basic law, rather than to an active government, that most Americans ascribe the source of their individual rights.

Our individualism against majority power is defended with an almost unbridled freedom of speech. Save for the limitations of crying fire in a crowded theater, the right is almost unfettered to the astonishment and amusement of most foreigners and their governments. Those who believe that we have only recently descended into a snake-pit of uncivil behavior and coarse language should study America's history to be disabused of that error. Freedom of discourse, however crude and messy, may not always provide justice, but will on a majority of issues in the fullness of time usually generate a working consensus that is the foundation of democracy. Freedom of religion, born of the European religious strife of our forebears, has also protected the spiritual life of the individual and insured the neutrality of the state.

While individualism has brought Americans a rich and fulfilling life, it has a darker side. Our freedom of speech is often expressed as monologue rather than dialogue. Religious true believers have often displayed both intolerance and aggressive proselytizing, while trying to enlist the support of government to their positions. The mantras of "self-fulfillment", "self-realization", and "doing your own thing," often lead to a self-absorption that can only be described as narcissism. Our disregard for responsibilities to other individuals, to the needs of the group, to the commonweal, is often appalling. The disregard for the good of the whole is very far advanced in America. It is reflected in the abandonment of children that has become a national disgrace. It is reflected in such attitudes as the absolute right of private property in the face of the common good or environmental needs. It is seen in hostility toward support of society's most needy whenever such support is linked to the word "welfare." Despite these negative qualities, the tradition of the massive charitable giving from the United Way to a myriad of private causes is virtually unmatched anywhere else in the world.

Americans are a proud people. We are a people who expect to win every time and in every realm of endeavor. We cheer for the underdog who strives, but we rarely console losers in more than a perfunctory way. We can be brutally dismissive and contemptuous of losers on the playing field, in business, in politics, and in war. Our pride sustains us in victory and defeat. At home, despite great disparities of wealth, class distinctions have been hard to maintain against the sneering pride of each group and individual directed against the pretensions of their "betters" in every walk of life. Looking overseas, we are a ferociously patriotic, even chauvinistic, people with a massive sense of superiority with regard to all things foreign. At home and abroad we are quick to take offense, but we can also be quick to forgive and often forget. Although we glory in our heritage, we have a limited historical consciousness. We live in the future and even in our darkest hours have approached it with a sense of optimism, even destiny, that is not shackled with the memory of past failures. Everyday the world is new and therefore open to opportunities. It is this quality that has led to daring victories and successes. We run before the wind with all our sails set with the exuberance of adventure and discovery. Unhappily, we often set out with a cargo of the latest craze rather than the ballast of traditions and experiences to keep us on an even keel.

Our exuberance is often tempered with a common sense practicality that often stands us in good stead, but in a complex scientific, technological, and industrial world, it often unhappily disdains the theoretical. Although education has always been seen as the foundation of a better life, we have a collective distrust of the over-educated egghead who lacks "street smarts," who has not learned the lessons of the "school of hard knocks," or who did not attend "Vietnam U." This prejudice has also created sometimes subtle, and often not so subtle, bias against the intellectual achievement of women and ethnic minorities in our culture. This sense of practicality tends to focus on economic well-being, or "making a living," as the highest practicality and therefore the only true goal of education. As a result, the fulfillment of spiritual needs often gets short shrift. Despite great achievements in the arts, Americans are not world renowned for aesthetic sensitivity. "Will it work? How much does it cost? What's it worth?" are the questions we most often ask. Feeding the soul is beneath our sense of the practical, unless of course, a competition involving our national honor peaks our interest. This disregard for the spiritual is a curious part of the profile of one of the most overtly religious people in the world.

Americans share a unique sense of nationality. It is not a concept born of a mystical conception of blood or ethnicity. It is a civic nationality that has always said to all immigrants, accept our values and obligations and you are one of us. Despite the uniqueness of the shared immigrant experience, even here a tension exists. We confront the issues of multiculturalism and Americanism today as if we had not faced it since the beginning of the Republic. Each immigrant group has maintained its distinct heritage as it made the difficult and dangerous literal and figurative passage to full acceptance as Americans. Each group, in turn, has often been intolerant of the next group to seek the same opportunity. It is an ironic aspect of this process that those most often rejected as foreigners carry within them those qualities of mind and spirit that are most American -- religious conviction, dedication to family, a work ethic, and a deep love of freedom and democracy. The more they are absorbed into the mainstream, the more these qualities fall away. While we fear that the foreign will destroy what we have built as uniquely American, it is the steady flow of new hopes and dreams that has sustained and promoted the American dream.

As the century and the millennium draw to a close, and we as Americans confront a myriad of seemingly intractable global problems, many among us share a sense that the world would be a better place if only others were more like us -- democratic, free, innovative, industrious, religious, tolerant, courageous, practical, and caring.

Here, a final characteristic comes to the fore. To say that we can be self-righteous and overbearing is an understatement. Nevertheless, though we perceive ourselves and our country as the best that the world has to offer and the best hope of humankind for the future, we constantly examine our motives and our actions. We criticize ourselves for failing to live up to our ideals and our potential because we expect more from America than from others. We worry, even brood, about our mistakes as a people in a way that is hard for others to comprehend. As well as we think we have done, there is a sense that we should have done better and more, and there is an expectation that we will. It is this sense of responsibility to our ideals and our potential that prompts us to take interest in a discourse like the University Symposium on American Values. It also may be the best aspect of our national character as America goes into the future.