July Fourth may be a good time to consider the concept of democracy as reflected in the writings of, say, Thomas Jefferson and Martin Luther King. Their ideas of democracy (as I understand them) are in many ways about shared power and fair play. Not only in government, but also in schools, where it must be learned so that it might spread to corporations and factories and families, since we all agree that it's generally a good and right thing.
But in most schoolrooms we find much emphasis on teaching and learning through standardized tests—a clear failure of vision. How do future citizens learn to practice democracy by learning to take tests?
They don't. Democracy is learned by the practice of democracy. But we don't have many educational (or corporate, or industrial, or economic, or religious) structures that allow genuine power-sharing; we reward schools that teach to the content of tests; students take the tests; and students—future citizens, soldiers, veterans—learn to follow the leader.
We've learned well. We've lately followed our president and other leaders into a pre-emptive strike (while never declaring war) against Iraq, a nation that did not invade us. We've followed our president and other leaders into policies that have brought unnecessary death to soldiers of many nations and to innocent citizens of Iraq in the name of "Freedom." "Yes ma'am, we did kill your uncle and your daughter, accidentally, and level your house, but we aim by God—in whom we trust—to make you Free. You must understand that there will be accidents and sacrifices in behalf of our noble endeavor."
This kind of arrogance, including our occupation of Vietnam (until we were run out), is not what our founding fathers had in mind. They would have great problems with the self-anointed right of "pre-emptive strike." Such a notion, given our country's military power and potential to be a moral leader in the world, is misguided, counterproductive and grossly unimaginative.
Our national imagination has failed to find ways to gain the trust of other peoples as they—and we—counter fanatic, militaristic, religious fundamentalism in other parts of the world. To much of the rest of the world we seem to be a nation that's faddish, foolish, greedy, pushing our heavy cart of military might in front of the horse of moral leadership. No wonder we're hated.
On this July Fourth I am embarrassed—as a veteran and a U.S. citizen—by my nation's military behavior in our shrinking world, and I also feel guilty about how little I do about that embarrassment. How little I do to work for the spread of democracy inside our businesses, and corporations, and schools—especially our schools, the place we are supposed to get our start in living together (not apart), learning what freedom and democracy meant to people like Mr. Jefferson and Mr. King. Learning through practice, like we learn other skills. Learning that democracy, and any notion of "spreading" it, should have a lot to do with decency.
There is so much to do. Shouldn't service be required of all of us? For the sake of decency and democracy in everyday life.
Durham native Clyde Edgerton is the author of eight novels and, most recently, Solo: My Adventures in the Air, a memoir of his life as a pilot before, during and after the Vietnam War. His next book, The Bible Salesman, will be published in July 2008 by Little, Brown. His college degrees are in the field of education. He now teaches creative writing at UNC-Wilmington.