This past weekend, as conservative eyes were fixed upon CPAC and its cavalcade of presidential hopefuls, an organization that in time may prove more consequential held its annual Churchill dinner at the Los Angeles’ historic Biltmore Hotel.
Here is what I particularly like about the Claremont Institute: They approach political discourse past and present with intellectual seriousness.
The model for the Institute’s teachings is Harry Jaffa, author of arguably the most important book on Abraham Lincoln ever published, Crisis of the House Divided, which concerned the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Crisis showed that those debates –- often celebrated but rarely read at the time it came out in 1959 –- were a profound political dialogue, raising the same issues of justice and freedom that Plato raised in The Republic.
Following Jaffa’s example and that of his mentor, Leo Strauss, Claremont fellows like Charles Kesler, William Voegeli, and Michael Uhlmann are reinterpreting American political thought. For example, thanks to Charles Kesler in his recently published I am the Change: Barack Obama and the Crisis of Liberalism, American liberalism as it emerged from the 1930s is coming to be seen much more than a series of ad hoc responses to crises, which is how it has long been viewed. Kesler shows how it emerged as a governing philosophy via the often anti-constitutional writings of Woodrow Wilson. In four periods of national dominance – under Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson and now Mr. Obama – Wilsonian liberalism has pulled us away from the structures and protections of the Constitution toward something more like a caudillo system of the strong leader sweeping all before him.
At Saturday’s dinner, the featured speaker was radio talk show host and Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of Education William Bennett. Here are my abbreviated notes from Bennett’s brilliant address:
— Conservatives must focus on education.
— The road to conservative victory in the truest sense is through education.
— No scholar has better explained the link between the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution than Harry Jaffa.
— The Founders created the best regime ever conceived by the mind of man.
— But our schools no longer teach the hows and whys of that system’s strength and value.
— They no longer teach the story of the nation’s founding.
— We stand on a wall that divides today from tomorrow.
— Because they understood our national story and how unique it was in the world, past generations had the courage to face the Nazis and the Soviets.
— Do we have the strength today to meet the challenge of an expansive China, a Russia showing signs of renewed aggressiveness, virulent Islamofascism and other challenges?
— Not knowing the value of its past, is America on the final path to serfdom?
— Recent polls suggest that many Americans – nearly a majority — are OK with China overtaking us as the world’s superpower.
— Forty percent of young people see socialism as a good thing.
— Of course they do. How would they know better? It is how they were taught.
— Historian Niall Ferguson has written that a civilization is defined by the texts that are taught in its schools. What are the texts that define our civilization?
— In the early 20th century, a survey was taken of American educators. They were asked to name the major texts taught in their schools.
— The top three: The Bible, Shakespeare and the founding documents.
— These texts are not taught in our schools now.
— The biggest threat to our nation’s future is the threat of ignorance.
— From the teaching of the core texts come what Winston Churchill called the “civic virtue, manly courage and constabulary power” that sustain a country.
— From where will the next generation obtain those virtues?
— In his televised Farewell Address to the nation, Ronald Reagan spoke of his concern that young Americans were not being taught about our history.
— Without knowledge of our history, young parents will not be confident of the value of patriotism and will not teach it to their children.
— For if we forget what we did, we won’t know who we are.
— According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, American history is the subject at which American students do worst.
— We are making legal aliens of our own people.
— Can we recover what we have loved?
— America’s achievement is so high and in this world so irreplaceable.
— Ronald Reagan told the story of the Vietnamese boat people that our Navy rescued at sea. As they were brought alongside a launch sent to take them to the carriers, one stood up and said in halting English, “Hello American sailor. Hello freedom man.”
— That is why we must restore the teaching of our nation’s thought and history. So for generations to come, people around the world still call us and we still truly are just that: freedom man.