What I Learned at School Today

Peter W. Schramm

April 1, 1994

I went to the former Soviet Union again this April. For a week I lectured and conducted seminars for sixty Estonian (both Estonian and Russian speaking) high school teachers. You would think that teaching the principles and practices–with its many flaws–of democracy to people who have been living under communist tyranny for five decades would be quite a chore. The truth is it is not. They are intelligent, hard working, and keen to learn. Besides, the principles of natural rights, constitutional government, equality of opportunity, and so on, seem to be something they almost instinctively understand. Their new laws reflect their sound understanding.

I arrive back home heartened by what I have seen and the progress Estonia has made since my last visit. In good spirits I return to the classroom, my home. Sharing my excitement and what I have learned with my students, my thinking seems clearer and more deliberate. A few days later I enter my seminar on the theoretical difference between the French and American Revolutions. Surprised by seven or eight young girls in the room whom I have never seen, I am told they are junior high school students from a nearby community in Northern Ohio who are visiting the University, part of a program to get them thinking about higher education.

After the introductions, I politely ask them what they are about, what they are interested in, and so on. I was thinking that after a few minutes if civility, I would just begin my class and they would have an idea of what goes on at a university.

But something unexpected happened. Without hesitation or provocation they began making pronouncements. They begin by telling me that they do not stand for the National Anthem, nor do they recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Although surprised by the subject and the tone, I pursue it by asking them why. They assert that because both Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln (!) had slaves, America is profoundly corrupt, always ready and willing to be oppressive. That is what the flag represents. The situation, they maintain, is not much better now. They all feel oppressed, prejudice reigns, and they are in a continual state of depression as a result.

I decide to begin with a fact. Abraham Lincoln did not own slaves, and was opposed to slavery his whole life. One student responds firmly: that is not true, our history book says that Lincoln owned slaves. I maintain the opposite, but not persuasively. Finally, I think more as a result of my position and age, they seem to let me have my way about this one fact. However, without taking a breath, she begins to maintain that it doesn’t matter if he actually owned slaves or not because he had black people working for him, and that’s just like slavery anyway, isn’t it? After all, she was certain they weren’t well paid.

Although shocked at the turn of the discussion, I regroup and take a different take. I rhetorically start defending slavery. I tell them I think slavery is a good thing. They are aghast, but I push on. I tell them that slavery has existed in virtually all societies for millennia. Indeed, it is only in the last couple of centuries or so that it has been called into question and actually ended, at least in the West. I ask them what the matter is with slavery; I think slavery is good. They are squirming in their seats now. I ask again, “If you think that slavery is wrong, tell us why it is wrong.” They murmur, hem and haw, but no answer. I repeat my question, in a different form, to see if they are thinking. I ask, why should one human being not rule another human being without his consent? Why should a person not treat another as I treat my cow or dog? I think I sense that their minds are beginning to go into first gear. Yes, I begin to see movement. One thir
teen year old says: “You shouldn’t treat people like dogs because they are not dogs.” They are different, she says.

All right, I say. Now there is a document, a very important document at the founding of the United States that uses this self-evident truth. What is the principle, and what document is it found in? They’re quiet again. But this time I know they are starting to think. Definitely a movement, a lurching forward. After some minutes of thoughtfulness–and some huddling on their part–one of them announces, “All men are created equal, and it’s in the Constitution.”

First part true; second false. What document? Another try claims that it’s the Bill of Rights. No. They are thinking again. Two minutes later someone says, “The Declaration of Independence.” All right! Now I try to articulate, by continuing to pose questions to them, what this means. If it is true that all–I emphasize the all–men are created equal, that no one is obviously superior to another as to be his natural ruler, then what follows this self-evident truth is that men have to agree to be ruled by someone else, and only for a limited period. Slavery, one man ruling another without the other’s consent, is wrong. They agree. And they are much quieter than they have been. Although one is daydreaming, the other seem focussed and even eager to see where we go next.

Next I merely point out to them that before the founding of the United States of America, no political order, no country, had ever asserted such principles. This was the first time. We’re back to the fact that slavery continued to exist in this new political order, but in understanding this practical imperfection, we now begin to see it at its theoretical best. This is the thing that Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. could appeal to when they wanted to bring the country back to its true self. They see it.

The discussion is by no means finished. I get back to the Pledge of Allegiance and ask what it is they object to in it. After some false starts they maintain that they do not like to pledge to the flag because it is a symbol of the imperfection; of slavery, of taking the Indian’s land, etc. I get someone to recite the pledge to the flag, and she finally does so–not without some assistance. I point out that it says the flag stands for the Republic and for “liberty and justice for all.” I ask if there are any objections to liberty and justice for all. I emphasize the all. Someone whispers, “No, I don’t have an objection to liberty and justice for all.” Thank you.

Sometime during this discussion one of the girls announces that she is a mulatto. Pretending not to know what this means, I ask what it is and why it is important. She says that her father is white and her mother is black, and a grandparent was an Indian. This is important, she maintains, because it allows her to clarify what she is as a person. It gives her an identity. We have a long discussion about race that culminates in my asking, “Have you ever met anyone that is not a mulatto?” She sees my point. No, she has never met such a person. We then talk about out individual characters, and how nice it would be if we were all judged only by the content of our character, rather than the color of our skin, or who are grandparents were, or where we came from. This way we could take responsibility for our own lives. Everybody is thinking now, also feeling a bit better about themselves and what the future might portend.

We then conclude our discussion by talking explicitly about what an education is, an education that should be liberating of the self from the reigning silly questions one encounters. We talk about reading books, writing, thinking. We talk about waking up each morning knowing we a better human beings than we were the day before because we learned something that day. We have tested our mettle a bit, and we are better for it.

These were your average, normally intelligent, young Americans. I liked them. I could spend time with them; they are capable of becoming citizens. But isn’t it interesting that eight full years into their public education, they don’t seem to know very much, and what they do know is almost never so. Who is responsible for this state of affairs? Why has it come to pass? Why do I go to Estonia to teach? I should stay at home, there is no travel involved, and much more need.

Peter W. Schramm is a Professor of Political Science at Ashland University and Associate Director at the John M. Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs.