My friend Billy Peebles, Head of School at Lovett in Atlanta, recently sent me a book that has re-oriented my focus on American values and ideals as we stumble to the end of a long and bitter national election. Earlier this year the cultural critic Os Guinness wrote A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future. Dr. Guinness is an Englishman who has lived for many years in the United States, and his assessment of where we are as a nation and where we are headed is both sobering and hopeful.
It’s impossible to type-cast Dr. Guinness’ politics, for he is equally critical of both Republicans and Democrats. His central point is that Americans of all political perspectives cherish freedom, but we have increasingly lost sight of the fact that freedom has to be nurtured and protected with a constant commitment to public virtue, self-restraint, and an over-arching investment in the common good. Many Americans prefer to ignore the laws of history, and this complacency yields a false sense of invulnerability that will lead to our decline. “The problem,” Guinness writes, “is not wolves at the door but termites in the floor. Powerful free people die only by their own hand, and free people have no one to blame but themselves.”
Unless we can find our footing in relatively short order and renew our commitment to a higher-minded pursuit of the greater good, Guinness sees the United States following the inevitable decline of other great powers in history. Given the tawdry state of American culture, the incredible indebtedness that’s come from satisfying our every urge, and the hyper-individualism that we praise at the expense of what our communities truly need, it’s hard to believe that the United States will somehow escape the historical patterns of the former great powers.
So, how does this relate to Randolph? How sustainable are we, and how well do we know what really matters? In many ways what we do here is counter-cultural. We value character in a world that celebrates flashy success and superficial form over the substance that lasts. The rigor of our programs in academics, the arts, and athletics puts a premium on the self-restraint necessary for citizens to govern each other. The Honor System creates a culture of freedom that depends on individual responsibility and the collective virtue of our community.
We’re a sustainable school because of the shared values in our culture, and what we do here is more desperately needed in our country than ever before. Consider a recent poll (taken from Arthur Levine and Diane Dean’s new book, Generation on a Tightrope: A Portrait of Today’s College Student) of American college students, the results which feed the sense that too many of us expect something for nothing. A heavy majority (89 percent) say they are optimistic about their personal futures but 65 percent are pessimistic about the future of the United States.
Colleges are awash in grade inflation, a shabby practice that encourages hubris and feeds a false sense of accomplishment. 60 percent of today’s college students believe their grades understate their academic ability, but 45 percent have had to take remedial courses in college. 41 percent have grades of A-minus or higher, compared with 7 percent in 1969, and only 9 percent have grades of C or lower, compared with 25 percent in 1969. Are we really that much brighter?
Sustaining freedom over the long haul is far bigger than the results of a single election, and certainly larger than a single grade or test score. Renewing our investment in these beliefs needs to be a daily practice. It begins with each of us and our commitment to avoid complacency and to be an eager learner in everything we do. Balancing freedom with responsibility and virtue has to be among the highest calls of parenthood, and it’s clearly the most important responsibility that the faculty and I share as we pour ourselves into the education of Randolph students. They are our future, and if we nurture the climate and culture of this special place, they will make our country greater.