Liberal Education

Colleges as Shining Cities on a Hill

Our understanding of ourselves as Americans has always been rooted in a fundamental tension between the individual and the community. Is America a “We the People” kind of country, or is the American dream really about me doing as well as I can, period? Over the past three decades, the American allegory—the story we tell ourselves about ourselves—has become increasingly individualistic. Certainly, the current of individual liberty, individual progress, and individual achievement, along with the extraordinary openness of American life, has invited the talented and the hard working from all over the world. It has beenour faith that free individuals, operating in open markets and with careers open to their talents, would bring progress on a scale never before known on earth.

And so it has proven. Think of Dewitt Clinton and the Erie Canal, Alexander Graham Bell and the telegraph, Edison and the light bulb, Carnegie and the Bessemer process, Rockefeller and oil. Americans have excelled in science—think of Jonas Salk and the polio vaccine or Craig Ventor and the human genome discoveries. We set the bar for entertainment—think of Jack Warner and Hollywood, David Sarnoff and television, or Walt Disney. Even just in the last two decades, Americans have once again launched amazing breakthroughs: Bill Gates with the personal computer; Steve Jobs with the iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad; Jeff Bezos with Amazon and Kindle. It is a thrill just to mention these names and to consider how much has already been accomplished. They dreamed, they created, they built, they produced. The freedom to make their dreams come true gave a great deal of satisfaction and happiness not only to them, but also to their fellow Americans—to all of us who shine in the reflected glory.

But there is a darker side to that glory. Individualism unchecked can sometimes seem like an infection run wild. The captain of commerce is a robber baron to his competitors and an exploiter to his workers. The business that gives life to a community is later discovered to have poisoned it. The liberty of expression that shelters the artist also shields the most virulent pornographers. Commerce creates wealth, raises living standards, and supports the advance of civilization. Yet for whole periods of our history, commerce has also immersed the whole nation in greed, rapaciousness, and dishonesty; it has encouraged the exaltation of money and the decline of virtue.

By around 1980, when Ayn Rand’s philosophy started to become dominant, our hero was the person who was not tied down by family or friends or by connections to a neighbor or the larger society. Freed from the other, the individual’s talents could shine. Rather than asking who his or her neighbor is, the Ayn Rand hero thinks only of his or her own self. Create your own life. How are you doing? And, if you aren’t doing well, then you have only yourself to blame.

Those who preach the value of the free market and unfettered individualism tell us to start our own businesses, to be entrepreneurs. At a time when one out of four Californians is searching for full-time work, one presidential candidate claimed, “If you don’t have a job, it’s your own fault.” During one presidential primary debate, the audience cheered the idea that a person could be left to die because he had no insurance. During another, the audience jeered at a gay soldier who is risking his life for our country. Texas Governor Rick Perry lost his front-runner status in the presidential primary because he defended the Dream Act, legislation that would provide a college education for children of undocumented immigrants.

Our current political dialogue focuses on the right of individuals to remain indifferent and to pick and choose at will among their own models of happiness, rather than on how we can work together to build a better society forall. The very idea of improving society through legislative action is under attack today.

Undermining the common good

As the influence of the “greed is good” philosophy has grown, four additional developments have further undermined the common good and weakened the ties that bind us to one another: crony capitalism, globalization, whatChristopher Lasch called the “revolt of the elites,” and an increase of anti-institutional animus. The result has been an overwhelming and increasingly exclusive focus on “me, myself, and I” that threatens to devastate our democratic institutions and values.

Crony capitalism exists wherever the wealthy use their power to ensure that government policy favors them. Examples abound of companies that spend money on politics, rather than investing in their businesses. For many decades, it was illegal for coal companies to dump the debris from the destruction of mountains in Appalachia into streams and waterways. The coal companies went to court to argue against the law. They lost. Then, rather than investing in new technologies that would protect the streams and waterways in West Virginia, they “invested” in lobbyists, who, in turn, succeeded in getting the definition of fill changed. With the new definition, the coal companies can now proceed with their leveling of the mountains and filling of the streams and waterways with debris.

Or consider the financial industry. The US Chamber of Commerce said that it was prepared to spend whatever it takes to defeat the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. From 2009 through the beginning of 2010, the Chamber was one of the biggest spenders among the more than 850 businesses and trade groups that, combined, paid lobbyists $1.3 billion to fight financial reform. And even after the bill creating the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was passed, the industry kept up its attacks. Last year alone, the financial industry flooded Congress with 2,565 lobbyists. JPMorgan Chase, which received a $25 billion taxpayer-funded bailout through the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), spent nearly $14 million on lobbying during the 2009–10 election cycle; Goldman Sachs, which received more than $10 billion in TARPfunds, spent $7.4 million; and Citigroup, which was teetering on the brink of insolvency before it received a $45 billion infusion from TARP, has paid more than $14 million to lobbyists since 2009.

Globalization, too, has helped erode the notion of common welfare to which our country was once dedicated. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, American business leaders saw that it was in their best interest for their fellow Americans to be well skilled and well educated. They also wanted river boats that operated smoothly, railroads that were reliable, and a highway system that ran east, west, north, and south. They built sewage systems. They insisted that the air and water be clean and that wilderness, forests, and parks be set asidefor the common good. The availability of healthy and productive workers improved businesses’ bottom lines. And the union movement fought for higher wages and better pensions, which meant that the workers had enough money to buy the cars, radios, dishwashers, and cornflakes that Ford, General Electric, Whirlpool, and Kellogg’s wanted to sell. Moreover, all were taxed—but, particularly, the wealthy—to pay for shared benefits. When I was growing up, my family gladly paid a marginal tax rate of 90 percent. My grandfather used to say that he wanted a country in which all could do well, not just the few. And for a while, Republicans agreed. Hoover raised the tax rate from 25 percent to 63 percent for those earning more than $100,000 per year. But today, when corporations can shift their production and customer bases overseas, why do they need good schools in the United States—or good roads or sewage systems that work?

Globalization is great for corporations, but it is less good for countries. The top priorities of corporate leaders are limited to management compensation, shareholder value, and customer satisfaction. Those who would once also have been our community leaders now no longer have to burden themselves with the cumbersome task of building civil society. They no longer need all the people to live in safe and orderly neighborhoods here in their home country.

This brings me to Christopher Lasch’s notion of the “revolt of the elites.” People today are more like nomads than rooted people. We travel, move, flee. We are not settled. So, of course, we are captured by commerce not country. Accordingly, as the elite of our times are not tied to a single country, why should they be loyal to their fellow countrymen? They don’t need to educate them, or provide good public transportation, or decent health care—or even jobs. Today, power derives not from running the local Lions Club or the local church group; it derives not from territory, but from the ability to move quickly. Traveling light rather than holding tightly onto things is now the asset of power. Rockefeller liked his railroads and oil rigs here in America. In contrast, Bill Gates moves around the world. The same is true of Apple, which, at one point last summer, had more cash on hand than the federal government.

Since the Vietnam War, critics have pointed out how few Ivy Leaguers fight our wars. The contemporary global elite seldom put their lives on the line. Nor do they burden themselves with chores of administration, management, welfare concerns, or morally uplifting and civilizing cultural crusades. Active engagement in the life of the middle class is no longer needed. On the contrary, it is actively avoided 
as unnecessary, costly, and ineffective. Upward mobility, or concern for the poor, is merely a quaint notion.

A final factor undermining the notion of the common good is the mistrust of government that grew up in the last century—a century that, for good reason, feared the heavy hand of the state. Governments in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, as well as horrendous dictators in South America and Africa, surely deserve criticism. Totalitarian governments gave rise to eloquent critiques, such as George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldus Huxley’s Brave New World.For much of the twentieth century, social critics feared government power. And because they feared that the state would control us, they focused on personal liberty and human rights.

Government can be problematic, but those critics gave little thought to what would replace it. What happens if the public space is emptied, or at least narrowed significantly? The answer is clear: you get “Lifestyles of the Rich and 
Famous” and People magazine; you get gossip and discussion of hairstyles and dress, rather than discussion of what is needed for the public good. As people fled the public square, it filled not with power but with a focus on personal drama. Government, once the venue where we could make our most solemn common decisions, is now derided. Now, it is acceptable to deregulate and privatize our tasks and duties—schools, health care, even water. The individual pursuit of money is the only thing we have in common. As de Tocqueville said, setting people free makes them indifferent. The individual is the citizen’s worst enemy.

The virtues and values of democracy

In the final analysis, all nations depend on virtues that have nothing to do with money. Courage, self-sacrifice, honor, duty, stoicism, and truth—these are the essential virtues of a democracy, and none of them can be bought. Those values have been lost as we have entered a world where “greed is good.” In order to survive, a nation needs to instill the selfless virtues and values of democracy.

Our soldiers risk their lives. They know courage, loyalty, hard work, self-sacrifice. But it is not only in war that societies must turn to qualities not found in commerce. Societies at peace also require fire fighters, police officers, rescue workers, and teachers. No one goes into a burning building merely for money. Values not found in commerce need nurturing if we are to fight our wars, police our streets, teach our children, and care for the dying. Yet, in a nation that values only money, it is difficult to get people to honor those virtues that would help the soldiers. The suicide rate of returning veterans is way too high. Recall how much shame it took for our government to fully fund the health needs of the first responders of 9/11.

How, then, can we best nurture the values of responsibility, hard work, courage, and loyalty? And how can we construct a government that merits trust?

At one time, religion provided a counter-weight to the rapacious tendencies unleashed by capitalism. But now, even religion is divided. As it focuses narrowly on three issues—abortion, same-sex marriage, and stem-cell research—the Right has effectively shrunk God. Those three are critical issues, to be sure. But they do not represent the full range of God’s interest, I’ll wager. In fact, there is little discussion on the Right of Jeremiah’s warning (6:13), “From the least to the greatest, all are greedy for gain; prophets and priests alike, all practice deceit.” And on the Left? Some have abandoned organized religion, seeing in it either hypocrisy or a flagrant misuse of power—or both. Others think that the First Amendment prohibits faith from entering the public square. It was not always thus. My father, for instance, once wrote a front-page article for LOOKmagazine. It was titled, “Suppose God Is Black.” Then, God was a big God, not created in the image of His followers but, rather, demanding that we see His face in the hungry, in the immigrant, in the prisons—and yes, even in our enemy, as pointed out in Matthew 25. We were called to love our neighbor.

The service movement could provide another restraint on greed. Campus Compact and other such organizations have grown dramatically over the last two decades. The number of young people now engaged in service is stunning—far beyond anything ever experienced in our nation’s history. The retired, too, are making their contribution to our communities by helping schools, hospitals, childcare centers, nursing homes. The free voluntary association is, as de Tocqueville rightly saw, one of the fine distinguishing marks of the United States. Clearly, we still believe that caring about others is a value to be honored.

Yet, although many do care about community, that concern seldom translates into a respect for politics or a recognition of the importance of a government devoted to prosperity for all, rather than just the few. Sadly, many of those who happily serve their fellow human beings in Habitat for Humanity, the Boys and Girls Clubs, the Sierra Club, or any number of equally worthy associations do not like to see themselves as citizens. Instead, they prefer the word volunteerbecause it sounds selfless, whereas citizen sounds too political.

When I was on a mission to make Maryland the first (and still only) state to require service as a condition of high school graduation, I talked with thousands of high school students. One class in particular sticks in my mind. All the students had performed service, and the teacher had asked them to describe what they did—clean up a stream, plant trees, tutor younger children, raise money for the Red Cross, and so forth. One young man told how he delivered “meals on wheels” to an elderly couple, but that he had to stop at one point because they had a problem with Social Security. So naturally I asked why he didn’t help them with the Social Security issue. He answered, “Well that would be politics.” “Oh,” I said, “that is rather solipsistic of you.” And since the class had not yet studied for the SATs, they didn’t know what I was talking about. “You are willing to help if it’s community service,” I explained, “if it feels good. But you’re not willing to help the couple if that means getting involved in politics.” Well, that started a lively discussion. The teacher, who was a friend, called me three months later to say that the students were still debating the relationship between politics and community service.

The role of the university

This brings us at last to the role of the university. One path is to simply accede to what one might describe as the bulldozer of history, and to focus your efforts on helping each individual student hone those skills that will make her or him most marketable. Or, you can be the change that is needed. Adam Michnik, the intellectual force in the Solidarity movement in Poland, famously counseled his compatriots that it would be better for them to build an alternative society, rather than to fight the Communists head on. He argued that when the fall comes—as they all believed it inevitably would, given the rottenness of the system—the men and women of Solidarity would be able to step into the breach, which indeed they did.

I propose that we reintroduce the notion of America as the “shining city on a hill,” that abiding image from American history. John Winthrop first wrote about it on the Arabella as his little band of Pilgrims braved stormy seas to establish a new kind of city in what was for them a new world. The night before the D-Dayinvasion, Dwight Eisenhower quoted the passage to the troops. On the day before he was inaugurated, John Kennedy spoke about that shining city before a session of the Massachusetts legislature. Ronald Reagan used it as the image of an America whose admirable actions at home would set a standard for what could be achieved across the globe. Let me quote a portion of Winthrop’s 1630 speech on the Arabella:

We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others’ necessities. We must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality. We must delight in each other; make others’ conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together… For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us… And to shut this discourse with that exhortation of Moses, that faithful servant of the Lord, in his last farewell to Israel, Deut. 30. “Beloved, there is now set before us life and death, good and evil,” in that we are commanded this day to love the Lord our God, and to love one another….

The image of the shining city on a hill captures our imagination because it reflects the abiding truth that we become fully human in society, not outside of it. We need one another to become happy, healthy, and whole.

What better place to instill those values than at our colleges and universities? Campuses have traffic, jobs, utilities, labor unions, questions about sustainability—in short, college campuses face many of the same challenges that our country as a whole faces. There is a broad range of jobs; talents are not evenly distributed. Yet the way to ensure a stronger campus and a better college or university is to make sure that all do well. The prologue to the Constitution speaks of creating a more perfect union. The constant devotion to improvement, to leaving a better life for the next generation, is the central virtue of a college or university.

The task of colleges and universities is twofold. The first is to make sure that students develop their talents. Notice that I did not say, “provide opportunities” for students to succeed. Some students don’t know how to take advantage of opportunities. Some students have too much static in their lives—poor preparation, a learning disability, a jobless father, a sick mother, an addicted brother, no car and no public transportation, no mentors or models of success. Second, by your actions as members of the campus community, you can show that opportunity need not be an empty promise, but can instead be a genuine commitment to the success of all. Those who have done well have been lifted by a network of relationships and institutions. We are connected to one another, we need one another, and we have a responsibility for one another. By making sure that all do well, you can show by example that it is in the good society that people have the best chance to use their talents.

Rather than accede to Ayn Rand’s philosophy that each person makes it on his or her own, you can take a different tack. We are free when we are economically secure; we are happy when we are using the full range of our talents. We can’t be satisfied if we do well while others suffer. America is an idea. That idea isn’t perfect now, but we can always improve it. Each college or university can helprefine this idea. You can take Winthrop’s 
vision and make it your own. You can see your campus as a shining city on a hill, where all members of the campus community are cared for and where all do well. And in so doing, you can create a model for a nation that can indeed govern itself.


Kathleen Kennedy Townsend is adjunct professor at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute. She was lieutenant governor of Maryland from 1995 to 2003. Copyright held by the author.


To respond to this article, e-mail liberaled@aacu.org, with the author’s name on the subject line.

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