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Gilbert: Dysfunctional Culture

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Last spring, when she was a high school senior, our daughter took part in one of many programs that bring high school students from around the country to Washington. Afterwards, she said that what she found particularly exciting and valuable was visiting with students from different regions of the nation, to share stories and perspectives from their communities. In the process, she said she came to understand better the complexity and paradoxes of our enormous country. And, as is often the case in learning about others, she and her fellow students gained new insights into their own lives, values, and assumptions.
 

But while students were learning from one another, elsewhere in Washington Congress was dysfunctional. It’s been better in recent weeks, but who knows if the improvement will last. Trust remains in the basement, negotiation and compromise rare, and there’s little opportunity for elected officials to get to know their colleagues in part because many of them fly home every weekend to press the flesh and raise money, and in part because in some quarters, it seems, talking with members of the other party is tantamount to fraternizing with the enemy. Lack of understanding and communication may be worst among different regions of the country: different regions, different cultures.

Hearing my daughter talk, I couldn’t help but think of George Washington’s proposal for a national university in Washington, a place where students from different parts of our new nation could rub elbows and get to know each other. Washington wrote that the likely future leaders of the country, early in life, “would by degrees discover that there was not that cause for those jealousies and prejudices which one part of the Union had imbibed against the other part.”

It wasn’t just George Washington who had such thoughts. Before the Civil War Senator Jefferson Davis of Mississippi - yes, that Jefferson Davis - was in favor of a Smithsonian Institution that was a great national center for learning, and greater emphasis on the liberal arts at West Point. That was because, he wrote, “Leadership to maintain the honor of our flag requires a man above sectional prejudices, and intellectually superior to fanaticism.”

Now, Jeff Davis has some serious conservative credentials, and he thought the federal government should take specific steps to help us rise “above sectional prejudices” and to be “intellectually superior to fanaticism.” And note Davis said that future national leaders should be “intellectually superior to fanaticism.” I understand that now the mere use of the word “intellectual” by an elected official in either party virtually assures political defeat, or at least a serious challenge.

Both Washington and Davis saw the importance of talking with, knowing, and striving to understand persons of different regions, backgrounds, and opinions, the importance of rising above sectional prejudices and rejecting fanaticism. They both saw a similar problem, both wanted the national government to succeed, and both advocated that the government act to address the problem.

Interesting; surprising, even; and perhaps a good lesson for today.