Occasionally, former students will contact me to let me know that upon further study and reflection they believe I failed to tell them the truth about their country and its history—its sprawling and unending flaws stemming from systemic injustice and brutality. My passion for the Enlightenment, my celebration of classical liberal values, my belief in the uniqueness of America’s democratic and egalitarian culture, my zeal for the men and women who founded this country in I776 and I787 and for the extraordinary feats of Lincoln and the Civil War Amendments, and my adoration for Americans like Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, and Martin Luther King Jr., who made us face up to our failings, was all a fraudulent sideshow. They don’t accuse me of lying, but of the sin of omission.
What, exactly, do these former students take exception to?
My optimism. My unvarnished belief that the creation of the United States of America was one of the most extraordinary pivots in human history because it sought to extricate humanity from the shackles of perpetual subjugation. America meant no feudalism, no religious wars, no state-centered society. The creation of the United States was a philosophical revolution made political reality on a continental scale. American optimism is intertwined with the notion that we, the people, are created equal, with a God-given right to liberty. Equality is our shared origin, but it is not our destination, because we are free to pursue happiness as we see fit.
The American dream allows us to act according to our consciences and convictions, our hopes and desires, our ambitions and our efforts. The American dream is unique for everyone—and in America we can pursue happiness in different ways. Indeed, our free-market economy, our respect for the individual, and our federal system of government rest on our guarantee of social and political pluralism. As Americans, we are free to live where and how we want, to believe what we will, to associate with communities and groups of our own choosing, and to spend our time as we wish—and where these freedoms have been violated, it has been a violation of the American promise that can always be redeemed, because it is written into our political DNA through the Declaration of Independence and into our laws through the Constitution. America’s success has been a success of freedom, mass prosperity, science, and innovation.
Most of all, America’s success marks the success of human aspiration. The ultimate irony is that the young people who condemn America for its flaws do not recognize that their standards of justice, equality, freedom, opportunity, and prosperity are entirely the product of our history. They carp at the extraordinary achievements of the American past—and do not recognize how that makes them less capable of building an even more extraordinary future. Their cheap cynicism leads them to believe that all this talk of freedom, individual agency, and opportunity is a lie, a fraud, a malevolent myth—which is a perfect excuse to do nothing, to drop out, to accept no responsibility for one’s life.
Very little has wounded me more in my life than these retrospective denunciations of America from my former students.
I don’t delete these rare emails or texts in a fury or with a diffident shrug. I read them over and over again, and the sting never goes away; I agonize over them, because I believe with every ounce of my being that the winning recipe for a meaningful life is to be found in the philosophy of the founders, the country they gave us, and the opportunities that exist here for those with the gumption, the dedication, and, yes, the optimism to pursue them. In the middle of the 2020 election season, a former student of mine from early in my career tweeted, “I’m an immigrant who fell in love with American politics because of the passion and patriotism of my high school teacher.” Her comment was kind and generous. I confess, though, that it also saddened me, because I never hear comments like this anymore. I never hear young people professing love for their country. I used to. But not lately.
This is when I really think teachers have a front row seat for America’s decline. G.K. Chesterton observed, “Every high civilization decays by forgetting obvious things.” Our young people must be reminded of the “obvious things” about our country’s history, its extraordinary achievements, its still bountiful promise and potential. More than that, they must come to know the boundless possibilities of a good life, a full life, a life of service to our country, our families, and our highest ideals.
We must show them these possibilities through love—a love that believes that every young person has a worthy future. We must educate them through instruction—instruction that helps them understand their privileged place, no matter how unprivileged they might feel, in the great pageant of human history, thought, and learning. We must enlighten them through compassion—a compassion that acknowledges that every person is a unique individual with a singular calling and inestimable value.
If recent history is the cautionary tale of our culture’s being hollowed out and denied meaning, then let the next chapter be the triumphant story of a filling in with all the hopes and aspirations that will restore our country and ourselves.
As a teacher that is my deepest hope. It will take all of us to make it happen.
Jeremy S. Adams is the author of the recently-released Amazon best-selling book Hollowed Out: A Warning About America’s Next Generation. He has taught American civics for 24 years in Bakersfield, California and was the 2014 California Teacher of the Year (DAR). You can follow him on Twitter @JeremyAdams6
The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.