Is Teaching a Common American Identity Indoctrination?

One of the best things about being a conservative writer is that we conservatives do not fear criticism—we embrace it. We have enough confidence in our ideas that we don’t feel the need to silence other voices. Instead, we are glad for the opportunity to engage, debate and educate.

The very best criticism, however discomfiting it may be, makes us reflect deeply upon our own words or beliefs. For in the end, after the inconsistencies or fallacies in our original arguments have been exposed, we can improve our ideas and make our arguments rest on more solid foundations.

I recently wrote an article attacking North Carolina State’s upcoming changes to its general education requirements. One reason I gave for having these requirements in college is that they are a way “to create a common cultural identity.” A reader who works in the UNC-Chapel Hill administration thoughtfully questioned my use of this phrase. She wrote:

    How does the proposal of a general education requirement “to create a common cultural identity” not amount to a political/social indoctrination that you or your colleagues often state is a left-leaning outcome of higher education? In a nation of such diversity, what do you feel is an appropriate balance of respecting the inherent worth of each person/group and providing a common understanding of our country?

At first I cringed at the way I had used the phrase without any explanation. It is the sort of phrase that needs no further commentary when “preaching to the choir,” since a conservative audience will grasp its meaning through the context. However, when the audience extends beyond the choir, such a phrase can cause confusion, as it did in this case. I soon became grateful that the reader had taken me to task, because the concept is so important and because she is making me clarify what it means to myself, as well as to her.

She presented me with three main issues:

  • Explaining how teaching a common American identity is different from the political indoctrination performed by some left-wing professors.
  • Explaining that there is little or no contradiction between teaching that common identity and “respecting the inherent worth of individuals.”
  • Explaining that there is a great deal of difference between group rights and individual rights, and that group rights are very much at odds with the American identity and its basic principles, such as liberty.

There are also certain concepts that need defining before delving into these issues for somebody who is not familiar with conservative thought. They are:

  • What the fundamental difference is between the way the left and conservatives perceive the world.
  • Why a common identity is necessary.
  • What a “common cultural identity” is in the general sense.
  • What the unique American identity is specifically.

The first half of this essay will define these four concepts. The second half will explain the three issues raised by the reader.

There is a fundamental difference between the two perspectives of left and right that has important bearing on this discussion. Those on the left usually believe in some grand vision of an idealized equality—there should be no rich or poor, all people should have their basic needs satisfied, there should not be justice in the ordinary sense, but “social justice,” and so on. Achieving this vision would require a complete transformation of society and its institutions, with no ties to the previous culture and with the ends justifying the means.

But this vision of equality is frequently in conflict with the real world—people are not equally gifted or inclined. Some are ambitious, others lazy; some are bright or creative, others dull, for reasons beyond our control. If there is liberty and equality of opportunity, some inequality of wealth and achievement will result. What liberals don’t realize, or choose to deny, is that to achieve the vision, equality must be imposed at the expense of liberty, against humanity’s natural differences in abilities and ambitions.

Conservatism, however, does not begin with any such constructed ideal. Perhaps its most important guiding principle is that tradition represents the surviving wisdom of the past—people over time tend to adopt the ideas that enrich them and empower them, and cast off the ones that fail or weaken them. It views modern free society as the result of the grand trial-and-error experiment that is Western civilization, occurring over many centuries—the result of efficiency and justice winning out over the inefficient and divisive.

It is therefore a philosophy thoroughly grounded in real events and human nature—it is confined to the possible. There is no need to convert or coerce people to believe in a vision that is against their nature—it is about letting people do as they will, knowing that they will generally choose wisely, having the wisdom of past generations to draw upon. Despite a hard-edged pragmatism that is often mistaken for “mean-spiritedness,” conservatism is a very optimistic outlook that places great faith in humanity to do what is right.

So why do we need a common identity? As conservative theorist Russell Kirk explained in The American Cause, societies need a common set of principles to live by; otherwise, either anarchy or the imposition of order through tyranny ensues. These principles are moral, political, and economic convictions: what behavior is immoral and worthy of punishment, what personal rights people should have, whether individuals or the government should control the means of production or should the government, and so on.

Another reason why we need this common identity is provided by a report issued in 2008 by the Bradley Foundation’s Project on America’s National Identity. The report says that such an identity is necessary “to transcend self-absorption and commit to the common good. Without it, America can neither perpetuate its institutions nor defend itself.” National defense, and many other facets of existence, require the sacrifice by some for the good of the whole. Such sacrifice is more readily performed for those with whom we share a deep bond than for strangers.

Then what did I mean by “common cultural identity?” It is that bond that causes us to sacrifice for those who we have never met, but whom we feel akin to by membership in the same society. It is the shared cultural elements that identify us as one, as a nation. These cultural elements—“the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits,” according to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary—greatly influence the common principles by which we choose to live. A people that feels comfortable with liberty will naturally develop laws and a form of government that is less heavy-handed than the laws and government of a people who prize order and security above personal freedom.

The American national identity is therefore not, as the reader seems to suggest, group obedience to rigid political or social doctrines that can be imposed against people’s will. It is instead a consensus, an organic process happening over time—an evolving mindset that adheres to the basic principles despite the changes.

There are no ethnic or religious barriers to the American identity. These barriers once existed, in varying degrees, but have been removed over time. The left, however, often claims that they continue to exist, in order to forward their political agenda, but Jim Crow laws are long over. In fact, the current debate is not over whether to exclude minorities from colleges and the workplace, but how much, if any, preferential treatment they should receive in admissions and employment.

The American identity is unique largely because we were originally bound together, not by ethnicity, religion or some accident of nature, but voluntarily, by a set of ideas. These ideas are embodied by our social contract, the Constitution. The ideas it espoused are further elaborated upon in the Declaration of Independence, The Federalist Papers, Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, and other early documents. The ideas expressed in them, such as personal liberty and a respect for the rule of law, form the innermost core of our identity.

Our common culture did not originate spontaneously. Many of the early nation’s most important traditions and beliefs came directly from the British Isles. It had a considerable inheritance from the European continent as well—from the Enlightenment, the Reformation, and beyond. The classical worlds of ancient Greece and Rome, though remote, have also left their imprint on the American mind.

Despite our religious freedom, one influence that cannot be over-emphasized is our Judeo-Christian heritage—from Christianity in particular we owe a great deal of our common morality. It is from Christianity that we owe our tradition of tolerance, and it was Christianity that initiated the American and British movements against slavery. Until recently, almost every American, no matter what his or her personal beliefs, was steeped in Judeo-Christian thought.

Yet despite the deep roots our modern culture has in Europe, the race or country of origin of the individual American is of little or no relevance as it relates to how fully he or she is immersed in it. For instance, there has been no more ardent and accomplished defender of the European concept of natural law, a key influence on the Constitution, in recent years than Clarence Thomas, the black Supreme Court justice. A Russian Jewish immigrant, Irving Berlin, not only wrote one of our “alternate” anthems, “God Bless America,” but penned the lyrics for perhaps our most popular native Christmas carol, “White Christmas.”

Our land has had an enormous impact on our identity as well, one that explains many of our cultural differences with modern Europeans. It was, to the first European settlers, a vast, untouched, and untamed wilderness. Many ties were severed by the voyage. Their survival from day one was tied to their ability to fend for themselves—the Old World was months away. From these realizations, other characteristics were etched onto the American psyche: self-reliance, individualism; a focus on the future and not the grievances of the past; a feeling of limitless potential; an eye for the practical, commercial, and material; a sense of wonder, innovation and discovery; and the feeling that one is in control of his or her own destiny.

Because they lived so far from the Old World, when problems arose, the early settlers did not waste time petitioning the aid of a far-off king—they handled it themselves or within their own communities. This too, is ingrained in who we are as a people.

Since then, we have fought wars with other countries and with ourselves, had many ups and downs, and undergone many changes. We have absorbed many different influences and people from every nation on Earth—we could not have done so if tolerance were not a key element of our identity.

The second half of this essay, which addresses the three issues raised by the reader (about a common identity in regards to indoctrination and individual and group rights) can be found here.