Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The old days . . .


The man depicted above in a photo from Center for the American Idea, Josiah Bunting III -- a military historian, novelist, and inspirational speaker -- notes the historian Henry Steele Commager, pictured below in a photo from Amherst College, and makes a point about the way that Americans learned in the old days.


The passage is from Bunting's article "Gen. George C. Marshall and the Development of a Professional Military Ethic," in Footnotes: The Newsletter of FPRI's Wachman Center (June 2011, Vol 16, No 4):
Many of you, if you are historians, know the word "prosopography," an alluring subset of history concerned with the study of groups united in some purpose or by some chronology . . . . The most important prosopography in our history is that of the American founders. Henry Steele Commager talked about periods of extraordinary fluorescence in human leadership and human talent in history. He detailed the Athens of Pericles, Elizabethan England, Renaissance Italy, and particularly the American founders. How was it that at that time in our history we had a number of people born roughly between 1730 and 1750 who grew to be such extraordinary human beings allied in a common purpose -- people of astounding versatility? Where did they come from? Commager makes the point that once you clear away the debris of great challenges bringing forth great leadership, you have to look very seriously at the way people were raised and how they were educated. What did they study? What did they read? What were their parents’ expectations for them? They were not obsessed with SAT scores, there were no Blackberries, no one cared if you went to Princeton or the University of Virginia. You went up to your room at 7:00 at night, and if you were John Adams, you read Plutarch, and you were given no rewards for reading Plutarch. This is essentially Commager's thesis.
It seems that in the old days, greatness called for inner-directed men. Thanks to progress, we can now be great through obtaining high SATs and getting into an Ivy League school.

If only I'd have had a Tiger Mother . . .

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9 Comments:

At 5:42 AM, Blogger dhr said...

Bunting is right, imho too. It may be added that that life-and-study-style probably, more or less indirectly, owed something to the Medieval paideia in the Benedictine monasteries.

 
At 6:52 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

As refracted through the Enlightenment . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 1:48 PM, Blogger Carter Kaplan said...

Enlightenment? Yes, but my sense is that's been amplified out of proportion . . . by Kant's essay, perhaps, but more especially continental schoolmen who've drifted over and want to teach their heroes, looking "askance" at English calvinists they talk about "Enlightenemt, blah, blah, blah"; rather it's the Dutch and English Reformation that's inspiring the founders, the same way and to the same purpose that the Good Old Cause and the Dutch inspired Locke. Jefferson and Franklin are Lockean in method, outlook and habits. And I wonder, is Tom Paine at heart a leveler? Also, have a look at Jonathan Mayhew--Good Old Cause transplanted to 1750s Boston. Adams remembers him well.

 
At 2:15 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I had considered including the Renaissance and Reformation but decided to stick with the closest in time.

I was thinking of their tendency toward Deism as well . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 1:33 AM, Blogger Carter Kaplan said...

Matthew Stewart is currently researching a book on Deism in 18th century America.

I wonder if the case for Deism is overstated? Of course, the reference to Deism in connection to the founders is what we hear about beginning probably in grade school, but I wonder. Our modern tendency (perhaps wisely) is to seek to render our intellectual history in secular terms, so has Deism been amplified as an influence? In much the same way that "enlightenment" is amplified. The more I read, the more it seems to me the founders were influenced by the good old cause—and Locke. Our Bill or rights is a recapitulation of the English Bill of Rights (1688), for example.

My essay in Emanations touches on some of this.

Item:
I seem to recall "Deism" being used by Jefferson's enemies to attack him. Was "deist" a label used to attack politicians--Democratic-Republicans--who were rooted in the English Independent political tradition? Along these lines, I think I read in Mayhew's biography that his enemies were seeking to disparage him by calling him a "Socinian."

 
At 3:07 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

An article in Christianity Today looked into this issue and tended to agree that the better-known founding fathers were theists but not orthodox Christians. Only Washington seems to have been orthodox, but he was not particularly pious.

But the article also noted that various brands of Protestantism were actively, intellectually engaged in the political issues of the day and did have influence on popular opinion.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:59 AM, Blogger Carter Kaplan said...

Mayhew

 
At 6:00 AM, Blogger Carter Kaplan said...

Do you have a cite for that Christianity Today article?

 
At 7:02 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks for the link to Mayhew. As for the article, no, I have no link. I can't recall the issue. I get emails from CT nearly every day. I always click to see what they have to say, and that article was interesting, so I read it, but I don't recall more than that. That was maybe a couple of weeks ago.

Jeffery Hodges

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