America: Lost Child of the Enlightenment


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July 06, 2014 00:31 EDT

Ideas of the Enlightenment that led to the creation of America have been set aside for celebrities, cheerleaders and consumerism.

Every year, I write something for the Fourth of July, the day the United States of America celebrates its independence. Last year, my article that delved into inequality, education and liberty upset the mother of a friend because birthdays and anniversaries are not moments when you say anything critical. It seems this is the second year running when I might disappoint her.

As I was driving my car, I heard on the radio that 288,000 jobs were created in June, bringing the unemployment rate down to 6.1%. This is the lowest figure since September 2008. President Barack Obama talked about how “the economy has built momentum.” This is great news for a Fourth of July weekend that marked the 200th anniversary of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the US national anthem. One could use Robert Browning’s words, “God’s in His Heaven — All’s right with the world!” However, something does not quite feel right.

The Founding Fathers

Sitting in sunny California, I cannot help but muse on the motley group of men who banded together to fight for independence from the mightiest empire in history. In 1776, the British dominated the planet. More importantly, a large number of Americans were in favor of British rule. The hotheads who decided to create a new nation had to fight not only the British, but also their fellow countrymen. In the midst of “Made in China” fireworks, most people forget that the American Revolution of the 1770s was more of a civil war than the 1861-65 conflict. The latter pitted the north against the south, while the former saw neighbors fight each other and sometimes even family members. Benjamin Franklin’s illegitimate son, William Franklin, remained a loyalist till his death, and relations between father and son broke down irrevocably.

So what drove the Founding Fathers like Franklin, who risked death to strike out against the British Empire? Simply put, they were fired up by the ideas of the Enlightenment, an era when European intellectuals prized reason over tradition. Logic and evidence, science and knowledge were valued. There was a great desire to change a society dominated by old privilege. In an era of kings, the ideas that “all men are created equal,” that they have “certain unalienable Rights,” that governments derive “their just powers from the consent of the governed” were radical. The intellectual firepower of Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Patrick Henry and others, along with George Washington’s common sense and judgment, fueled the revolution, created the constitution and forged the DNA of a grand and glorious country.

Yes, there are warts in the story. Washington, Jefferson and many others of the South owned slaves. Washington made the British return liberated slaves when they lost at Yorktown. Native Americans were decimated and later confined to soulless reservations. Still, for all their faults, Americans of that era questioned fundamentals, shook the ground beneath their feet, and engaged in the pursuit of what they deemed to be a nobler society.

Copyright © Doo Lee. All Rights Reserved

Copyright © Doo Lee. All Rights Reserved

Fox, Cheerleaders and Facebook

A few days ago, I spoke to a retired American diplomat who had a most distinguished career. He spoke about how the America of his childhood put great emphasis on education. The idea of public education that Jefferson pioneered in Virginia was implemented throughout the country. Robber barons such as Andrew Carnegie won legitimacy through investing in public libraries that one can find, even in small American towns today.

In a land of immigrants, education was the way to both self-improvement and getting ahead. Abraham Lincoln, a largely self-educated man, was a classic example of this tradition. Richard Feynman, the son of Jewish immigrants, went to a public school in New York that set him up for a glorious career in physics and a Nobel prize.

Today, America is more about status than substance. Anti-intellectualism has become rife with the likes of Fox News peddling opinion as fact. Their rivals such as CNN are not much better. They rely on the seductive good looks of Anderson Cooper to attract viewers. Each time I come back to America after time abroad I am struck by two things. First, Americans watch an awful lot of TV. Second, cheerleaders jump around a hell of a lot before big men engage in the modern equivalent of gladiatorial contests on television.

On July 1, I was invited to have dinner at Twitter. I sat with MIT graduates who were doing new things with technologies that are too complex for my limited brain. Yet they didn’t know that India just had a historic election. One of them didn’t know anything about ISIS, the Islamist organization that has been sweeping through Iraq. The last time I spoke at Harvard, I was shocked by the fact that none of the undergraduates had heard of the Balfour Declaration. After the lecture, half of them hit their phones to check updates on Facebook. They were carrying iPhones and wearing Brooks Brothers. Consumerism begins early in America and students seem to know more about brands than about the wider world.

Today, America is more about status than substance. Anti-intellectualism has become rife with the likes of Fox News peddling opinion as fact. Their rivals such as CNN are not much better. They rely on the seductive good looks of Anderson Cooper to attract viewers. 

It wasn’t always this way. People like Franklin and Jefferson were citizens of the world. Today, the best and brightest of America are notoriously insular, distracted all too easily by social media, and have skills but often lack an education.

So, What Next?

Adam Smith, the godfather of the free market system, was of the view that public education is essential to create active and engaged citizens and a decent society. He was a product of the Enlightenment and, though Americans love paying him lip service, his ideas have been forgotten. America no longer prizes public education. In fact, it faces an educational crisis of monumental proportions. Schools focus on test scores, not learning. Universities have become watering holes on the path to well-paid jobs. A culture that lacks questioning and curiosity has developed, which is reflected in the media fixation with sports and celebrities.

Americans have checked out at a time when we are experiencing an inflection point in history. New tensions are bubbling a hundred years after the start of World War I. The global economic system is still in crisis. Income and wealth inequalities are increasing to frighteningly high levels. Even within the US, few jobs pay well. At the same time, a single visit to the emergency room at a hospital can cost over $4,000. Yet there are few conversations going on about fundamental issues such as education, economy and health care in the land of the free and the home of the brave. An era that demands critical inquiry and deep thinking is marked by superficiality and noise.

On this Fourth of July weekend, I am convinced that America needs an intellectual reawakening. This is the land of deeply thoughtful giants who crafted a great constitution. Economically, America is making a comeback of sorts. Manufacturing and exports have rebounded since the financial crisis. America is enjoying a cheap energy bonanza thanks to shale gas discoveries. Socially, a country that began as Albion’s Seed has become a multiracial society with an African American president.

What America lacks, however, is civic engagement. It needs a politics that is informed by ideas and a society that engages with the great issues of our era. For America to become what it set out to be, it has to work hard on becoming smart again.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Gary Yim /


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  1. Nima

    July 15, 2014

    Amusing Ourselves to Death Democracy in America Revolt of the Masses 3 recommended texts to provide further context for this piece... Just an idea.

  2. Ajay

    July 15, 2014

    From Days of Washington to Adam to Jefferson; from Whiskey war to the evolution of constitution to Civil War, America evolved as a place where law of land was paramount; where the land of opportunity gave equal freedom to everyone; where liberty was equated with dignity of labor; What has happened off late to this amazing country? Why a democratically elected government of third world countries are challenged by this Great Power, if those countries don't agree to the view of this Great Nation. Can America count number of countries supporting, barring a few exception like: NATO members nations and a few Gulf authoratatian countries. Did anyone ever think that American and its allies marched into Iraq when the oil filed of Kuwait was taken over by Saddam, then why did it paid only lip service when Russia lapped crimean peninsula?. Why double standard? However, still I believe a few things would definitely let America to sail through any crisis: Innovation, Exploration, Education and Independence of Local government. Innovation in Pharmacology, metallurgy, chemical engineering, agriculture will make it stand unique in this world even though other countries will surely compete in the field of: Automobile, Aeronautical, Space programs, Machine and tools etc. A wonderful article by Atul Singh is an eye opener for everyone to ponder and be given a deep thought.

  3. Bipin

    July 10, 2014

    Insight shared is good. American living room should have a conversation about how to build a family, community and grow kids who understand the value of hard work, and giving. Family need to engage in conversation as to how to build a political system that serves American and not just big corporations. Bigger question in my mind is that, does democracy in the current form really work? If yes, then where is it working. It certainly not working in UK, India, and other countries. Democracy in the current form has become a channel to serve big business. Money by corporation and individuals is used to control media and win the elections. As much as I like Modi, he is a representative of big business. Congress was no better, they were worse then Mafia. Education is the best investment that Government should do? What is education and what is the purpose of education. Real education happens at home, community, at school through interactions. Thank you for sharing your insight Bipin

  4. Mary

    July 8, 2014

    I entirely agree with the sentiment of this piece. We do need an intellectual awakening of sorts, and the type of anti-intellectual furor that is evident in some political and social settings is quite frightening. I would just like to challenge one point: "Today, the best and brightest of America are notoriously insular, distracted all too easily by social media, and have skills but often lack an education." While this may be true of my generation in general, I have found (and this may just speak to my own interests and therefore the type of people I have as friends) that many young, educated people are aware of the world and are questioning the current foundations of our government, and perhaps more importantly of our society, much like the founding fathers. Many of these people employ social media as education tools that create awareness and allow for the spread of information that is not in the mainstream news media, such as Fox and CNN. I have found some of the most scathing and enlightening critiques of our society through social media,which have challenged my own opinions and beliefs and have pushed me to be civically engaged, so perhaps it is not simply a distraction (although, I agree that it most definitely can be and is for most). What is perceived by some as insular can be quite the opposite; however, I believe that we have to push beyond merely creating awareness through social media and engage in human-to-human interactions, fueling social movements and honest and informed debate.

  5. Siyuan

    July 7, 2014

    The ideas at work in America are those of neoliberalism which are opposed to a redistribution of wealth. That's why the public education and health care system are worsening and the gap between rich and poor is growing. I think the author could be more clear on that point WHICH ideas should be appreciated and contribute to a more equal society in which human live flourishes. I think a rethinking of values would also imply a change of the whole system- how can we establish a more equal society in which everyone and not only the powerful elite (mainly existent in the political and economic sphere) have a voice? In what kind of society do we want to live?

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