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What Do We Have in Common?

After seeing so many utilitarian and, to be honest, philistine political comments about higher education and culture—the most recent came from Jeb Bush—it was in a sense refreshing to read President Obama’s exchange with novelist Marilynne Robinson, presented in two parts in the New York Review of Books. (Readers of this site should not neglect Paul Seaton’s very fine reflection on Robinson’s collection of essays that provides the context for her conversation with the President.)

One of the most striking things the President said was this:

When I think about how I understand my role as citizen, setting aside being president, and the most important set of understandings that I bring to that position of citizen, the most important stuff I’ve learned I think I’ve learned from novels. It has to do with empathy. It has to do with being comfortable with the notion that the world is complicated and full of grays, but there’s still truth there to be found, and that you have to strive for that and work for that. And the notion that it’s possible to connect with some[one] else even though they’re very different from you.

Two cheers for that. Yes, literature plays, or can play, an important part in forming our imaginations and our character. We meet people there that we can’t meet at the mall. We encounter “the other”—individuals whose experiences, characters, and choices are very different from our own. Once taken outside our narrow little worlds, we can perhaps learn to engage sympathetically with people who aren’t like us. Given the “diversity” that we are likely to encounter—I was going to say inevitably, but there’s at least some evidence that we tend more and more to hive ourselves off from one another—this is potentially a very important civic skill.  And yes, it would be wonderful to be encouraged in the belief that, although “the world is complicated and full of grays,” there is “still truth there to be found”—which presumably would give us a stake in trying to reach agreement across ideological and cultural divides.

But I want to leave it at two cheers, not three, because the President’s comments need a supplement, both in terms of the role literature should play in civic education and in terms of its adequacy as the foundation of such an education. To begin with, while it is undeniable that empathy for the other is an important feature of our moral imaginations, we also need to encounter figures with whom we can identify and whom we are inspired to emulate. We all need to read African American, Latino, and Asian American literature to appreciate the various complex stories of what it means to be American today, but none of us should neglect the inspiring exemplars provided by the traditional American canon. By all means, read James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, and Richard Wright, but don’t neglect Lord Charnwood’s biography of Abraham Lincoln

Indeed, to the degree that novels focus on the interior and domestic lives of more or less ordinary people, they don’t necessarily encourage us to cultivate our particularly civic character, our public lives and responsibilities. Empathy may lead to toleration, understanding, and perhaps even affection for those who are different from us, but love of country, and willingness to make sacrifices for it, is more than that. We the people are, or at least ought to be, more than the sum of our private lives. We need a common history, common heroes, and common principles (or, if you will, propositions to which we are dedicated). Perhaps novels can provide us with “this important stuff” (to borrow the President’s rather inelegant phrase), but they surely should be supplemented by drama, poetry, history, and perhaps even—perish the thought!—political philosophy.

It’s not wrong for a President to think aloud about the narratives that help us constitute ourselves as a distinctive community. It does seem, though, that his view of how much, as a community, we have to have in common does not match mine. The President seems to think we can build our community through the instrumentality of the empathy that we can cultivate by reading novels. Better to ask what incentive we have to build a community out of increasingly diverse parts. Perhaps we need a past—Lincoln’s mystic cords of memory—to give us a burden and responsibility to refresh and renew for future generations. Before we think about and empathize with difference, we may need to be acutely conscious of commonality.

Perhaps this is the difference between postmodern Progressive and conservative visions of community. The former is built pragmatically out of whatever materials are at hand, the latter from cherishing, sharing, and adding to the stories we have from our past.

Another consideration is missing. Citizenship, as I have implied, is more than just a well-cultivated capacity for empathy, or even just dedication to a particular community, however constituted. It also requires the capacity thoughtfully to grapple with perennial human issues. For this, it’s probably not enough to read “our” novels, plays, and poetry, or even to watch “our” movies and television shows no matter how skilled in the making. We might have to read (among others) Homer, Aeschylus, Shakespeare, Moliere, Dickens, and Tolstoy—and not so we can encounter the other—though we will do so—but to gain insight into problems of justice, courage, sacrifice, and good rule that never go away.

Not that these are absent from American literature, but there’s no reason simply to prefer our own to exclusion of the proverbial “best that has been thought and said.” A good education, even a good American education, derives some of its substance from the cosmopolis. And I should not omit, in this connection, that some of these issues and themes come to light most clearly and are articulated most penetratingly in works of political philosophy.

Now, I think that the President actually understands some of this. Here are two other points he makes in his conversation with Robinson. The first indicates his appreciation of the difficulty—or is it impossibility?—of creating a common culture:

Part of the challenge is—and I see this in our politics—is a common conversation. It’s not so much, I think, that people don’t read at all; it’s that everybody is reading [in] their niche, and so often, at least in the media, they’re reading stuff that reinforces their existing point of view. And so you don’t have that phenomenon of here’s a set of great books that everybody is familiar with and everybody is talking about. [Emphasis mine.]

While it is surely the case that talking about it doesn’t make it so, even when it’s a President talking, he is better positioned than anyone else to promote the notion of “a set of great books that everybody is familiar with.” (Just so long as he doesn’t refer to it as a common core.)

The second remark indicates his appreciation of the need to understand history:

Look, America is famously ahistorical. That’s one of our strengths—we forget things. You go to other countries, they’re still having arguments from four hundred years ago, and with serious consequences, right? They’re bloody arguments. In the Middle East right now, you’ve got arguments dating back to the seventh century that are live today. And we tend to forget that stuff. We don’t sometimes even remember what happened two weeks ago….

If, in fact, you don’t know much about the evolution of slavery and the civil rights movement and the Civil War and the postwar amendments, then the arguments that are being had now about how our criminal justice system interacts with African-Americans seem pretty foreign. It’s like, what are the issues here? If you’re not paying attention to how Jefferson and Madison and Franklin and others were thinking about the separation of church and state, then you’re not that worried about keeping those lines separate.

To be sure, he and I may have a different understanding of how “history” informs our understanding of the relationship between religion and politics in contemporary America. But once we recognize that it is history we’re talking about, and if we’re capable of getting outside our ideological silos, we might actually be able to have a conversation that doesn’t look and sound like two people shouting over the barricades. It’s at least worth the effort.

A decade ago, I thought that this young guy, Barack Obama, was one of the most interesting figures to come onto the American political scene in a long time. In those 10 years he has mostly disappointed me. Every so often, though, he reminds me of what I thought I saw then. This is one of those times.

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