Saturday, June 11, 2011

High- Minded Hope
(Photo courtesy of Gloria Carlson)

A few weeks ago I attended my son's graduation from the United States Naval Academy, Annapolis. The graduation was everything one would expect: inspirational, patriotic and celebratory. Secretary Gates gave the keynote and focused on the character of leadership that these young men and women would soon be demonstrating. And I thought, we have a chance if these graduates lead us.

As a college lecturer I experience a cross-section of America's youth each semester. I love each and every one of the young scholars I teach. Yet, each semester I am struck by the lack of knowledge they have accumulated in the previous 12 years of their schooling. Last semester in my English Composition class I asked my students to read and evaluate The Declaration of Independence. When I surveyed my class of seventeen how many had read the document previously only two raised their hand. Two of seventeen. The semester prior I asked the same question to my two classes and five responded affirmatively. Previous surveys have produced similar results.

And more remarkable: When they read an excerpt from the 911 Commission Report--a handful expressed their view that the attacks on the World Trade Center were an inside job.

In my Collegiate Seminar of the Great Books we read Aristotle. We discussed his notion of the "high-minded" individual. The high-minded is the man who "thinks he deserves great things and actually deserves them." The counter to the high minded is the fool; the man who "thinks he deserves them but does not" (Nicomachean Ethics, 93). As a group, my students had more trouble accepting the nature of the high-minded man than the fool. They felt he was arrogant and conceited rather than the other way around. I believe this is emblematic of our society. We pity and often exalt the fool at the expense of the high-minded. We're more comfortable with the fool because he challenges us less. Our weaknesses or faults pale in the shadow of the high-minded but shine when compared to the fool. Instead of being outraged by the audacity of the fool claiming the prizes of greatness we seem more intent on putting the high-minded man in his place rather than rewarding him.

Witness the defense of Anthony Weiner by prominent women, fellow members of the Democratic caucus and the media. Charlie Rangel, as reported by the AP, summarized the inside-the-beltway view when he said "that other members of Congress had done things more immoral than Weiner." Rangel's defense magnifies Aristotle's characterization of the Fool. Our political leader's believe they are entitled to the privilege of office, the trappings of greatness, despite their behavior or character.

I, for one, am pinning my high-minded hopes on men and women like the Ensign's and Second Lieutenants of the USNA graduating class of 2011. They, at least, understand the importance of integrity and discipline and...honesty.

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