Notre Dame political scientist Patrick Deneen has a new book out, called “Conserving America?” In a review at the Wall Street Journal, Micah Meadowcroft summarizes some of his argument:
There is a sickness withering the tree of liberty, in Mr. Deneen’s assessment, and it arises from a catastrophic loss of historical consciousness, which he calls ‘the fracturing of the temporal horizon.’ He believes that this fracturing is inherent in liberal society: We have ceased to live in light of the past or in anticipation of the future. Fixation on the present has left us—a loose, contractual collection of individuals—unmoored, adrift in the now. Instead of living lives of memory and hope, we have severed the ties that bind us to our ancestors and to our posterity.
American knowledge of their history and government has been poor for decades. A series of surveys of adult Americans from 2008 to 2011 found that college graduates tended to know less than the average American about basic government functions, although the average American failed the test with or without a college degree. “[W]hile college adds little to civic knowledge, it does seem to encourage graduates to identify more strongly with the Democrat and Liberal ends of the political spectrum,” one of these reports found.
Younger students are no better. Although the Obama administration replaced national civics and U.S. history exams with technology assessments in 2013, their results were consistently poor: “In 2010, the last time the history test was administered, students performed worse on it than on any other NAEP test. Less than half the eighth-graders knew the purpose of the Bill of Rights, and only 1 in 10 could pick a definition of the system of checks and balance.”
Deneen’s book critiques both sides of the political spectrum and faults both for contributing to this state of affairs, and says we all bear responsibility for addressing this situation — before it’s too late.
Mr. Deneen argues that the aristocratic inheritance that made the liberal democratic project possible—a respect for law and a common-law tradition, the maintenance of a vibrant civil society and dedication to free association, all secured by a foundation of religion—has been almost entirely consumed in the process of America’s rise to pre-eminence. The cultural legacy that early America inherited from an aristocratic Europe ‘encouraged the sense that a present generation owed debts to past generations, and as a result, generated obligations to future generations,’ he writes. Today, ‘in contrast to ancient theory, liberty is the greatest possible pursuit and satisfaction of the appetites, while government is a conventional and unnatural limitation upon our natural liberty.’
In our republic, argues Mr. Deneen, a conception of men ‘not as parts of wholes, but as wholes apart’ has dissolved the ties and relationships that are the traditional essence of society. What began in the Constitution as a mandate for government to protect rights and individual freedoms has evolved—reflecting our desire for ever-increasing autonomy and self-definition—into a mission to sever us from our natural contexts of place and family. Alienation and an increasingly expanding state are our destiny, Mr. Deneen fears, ‘unless we recover a different, older, and better definition and language of liberty.’ We must, argues Mr. Deneen, cultivate the virtues needed to find freedom within the limits of human nature and the natural world. That means returning self-government to local communities when possible.