What is education for? … The ancient philosophers had little doubt: They lived in a city-state whose success and very existence depended on the willingness of citizens to overcome the human tendency to seek their individual, self-interested goals and to make sacrifices needed for the community’s well-being.

Donald Kagan

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So begins the Yale University History Emeritus Professor’s excellent article in the September 27/28 weekend edition of The Wall Street Journal. His article focused on democracy and public education in the U.S.

His writing brings to mind Dr. Craig Spencer, the Doctors Without Walls doctor who strolled about New York City, visited many public ventures and rode the subway after returning from treating Ebola patients in Africa only to conclude he, too, was infected.

How might these two things be connected?

In Kagan’s article he reminds us that the ancients, up to Thomas Jefferson, saw education as having moral and civic content, not vocational – not merely an exercise in job acquisition or individual self-indulgence.  As Kagan says Jefferson and the ancients ” … reasoned that if a state or community is to be good, its citizens must be good, so they aimed at an education that would produce virtuous and good citizens.”

Dr. Spencer and nurse Kaci Hickox seem to have missed the idea that they might bear responsibility to others after engaging the dangerous Ebola virus in their work.

Kagan would explain their conduct this way: we have failed in education to impart a moral or civic sensibility, opting instead to let individualism reign.  One might say education dismantled community, disassembled a nation and not be too far from accurate in saying so.

Of course, we are wise to impart and defend our liberty interest, but not at the expense of moral responsibility and civic understanding.

If our lives are important, so too are the lives of our neighbors as well as strangers – a point seemingly lost on Craig and Hickox.  And, no, I am not in favor of mandatory quarantine per se as the go-to first option as more is at stake than restraint.

What is at stake you say?  A society of individuals who respect their own and others existence and act voluntarily to see that their risk is not off-loaded to others.  We lose much and gain little if we can be exposed to serious and deadly risk and opt go bowling, ride a bike and wander about at a serious cost to others, innocent others.

You see, like Thomas Jefferson, I contend that democracy requires that we conduct ourselves in a virtuous way and that this requires education that conveys both civic responsibility and a moral consciousness.  Each of which, by the way, are conveyed in religious faith and hence underline the vital importance of the freedom of religion and the role of faith and religion in culture.

Elections are opportunities to take stock of who we have become, what problems we have created for ourselves and to set course to correct those habits and policies which weaken and divide us, make us less than the best people and best community.

Kagan reminds us how we have strayed in a fundamental and self-destructive way.  We’d better take heed.  We are facing real serious issues in a number of areas – from economics, to defense, to health, to leadership, public safety, individual liberty …

Shalom.

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