Discovering the American Mind

Peter W. Schramm

November 1, 2009

Some years ago there was an unusual applicant to the Ashbrook Scholar program.Not only did she have a pretty good education at an elite private school, but also, she did not hesitate to let me know how smart, ambitious and learned she was. Yet, the more she talked the more she revealed that she was burdened by it all, even bored by it. She was not moved by wonder. She thought that her upcoming college education would be nothing more than another roadblock she would have to navigate in order to get on with the next thing and the next. She was describing an endless effort, without purpose or true joy.

How unlike the usual applicant to the Ashbrook Scholar program! They are full of apprehension; they don’t trust their abilities. They not only lack wealth, they also lack experience of the wider world and—as a rule—of reading good books. Consequently, they do not know much about their own powers, their ability to learn. Quiet, shy and even subservient, they do not yet know that nature has liberally sown talents among us all, among the poor as among the rich. They have yet to discover the freedom of their own minds and the good that may come from its labors.

For these students, too, can become part of the natural aristocracy, joining in the rule over human affairs. The grounds of this natural aristocracy are nothing more than virtue and talent. They can be part of it through hard work, for it is through work that their talents will reveal themselves. It is this natural aristocracy that Jefferson called “the most precious gift of nature,” and it is in America that this opportunity first revealed itself to the world.

Let me turn to Abraham Lincoln to explain what I mean.

Lincoln wrote a rare non-political—as that term is ordinarily understood—lecture in which he praises “Discoveries and Inventions.” (Lincoln was an inventor himself; in 1849 he patented a device for floating stranded boats off river shoals. He was in fact the only president to hold a patent.) Surveying the inventions of the humanmind, he elevates certain ones asmost important, “on account of their great efficiency in facilitating all other inventions and discoveries.” These are “the arts of writing and of printing—the discovery of America, and the introduction of Patent-laws.”

Speech, a natural capacity of man given him by “his Creator,” precedes and facilitates invention because it allows individuals to “interchange thoughts” and “thereby combine their powers of observation and reflection.” The problem with speech is that it lacks permanence. Each thought is always at risk of being lost with the death of the man who had it.

So man invented writing. Discovering and perfecting a way of representing sound by marks—what Lincoln calls “the art of communicating thoughts to the mind, through the eye, rather than the ear,” was a long and painstaking process. But writing, Lincoln says, “is the great invention of the world.”

When writing was joined by the discovery of printing, the “dark ages” finally came to an end because now people could access the thoughts of others on their own. It is probable, Lincoln asserts, that until then “the great mass of men, at that time, were utterly unconscious, that their conditions, or their minds were capable of improvement.” He continues:

They not only looked upon the educated few as superior beings; but they supposed themselves to be naturally incapable of rising to equality. To emancipate the mind from this false and under estimate of itself, is the great task which printing came into the world to perform. It is difficult for us, now and here, to conceive how strong this slavery of the mind was; and how long it did, of necessity, take, to break its shackles, and to get a habit of freedom of thought, established. It is, in this connection, a curious fact that a new country is most favorable—almost necessary—to the emancipation of thought, and consequent advancement of civilization and the arts.

Literacy not only frees the mind, it teaches the mind to know that it is free. If you can read and write, Lincoln says, you can “converse with the dead, and the unborn, at all distances of time and space.” Eventually, you can have conversations with Aristotle and Locke, Homer and Shakespeare, Jefferson and Lincoln. You can meet these great thinkers directly, rising to their level as you come to understand them and pursue the questions that engaged them.

Notice Lincoln says rise to equality. Equality is not a lowering. Once the habit of freedom of thought is established, the mass of men can rise. This is their opportunity. And they must re-learn this—and establish and maintain the habits necessary—in each generation. This, the heart of a liberal arts education, undergirds that last best hope of the world called America. When a student really begins to see this—the conditions of freedom—he knows he has risen to the level of the American mind.

Peter W. Schramm is the Executive Director of the Ashbrook Center and a professor of political science at Ashland University.