The Chronicle of Higher Education's Academe Today section has a wonderful symposium asking what will be the defining ideas of the next decade. We'd like to excerpt some of the essay of Parker J. Palmer, founder and senior partner of the Center for Courage and Renewal, "Humility, Chutzpah, and the Future of Democracy." It seems relevant to anyone running for political office in 2010 and those who will be voting in November:
Democracy in America is a series of narrow escapes, and we may be running out of luck... For all of its shortcomings, we keep telling ourselves, "the system works." Now all bets are off. We have fallen under the spell of money, faction, and fear.
Democracy is a perennial experiment, and this is not the first time its outcome has been in doubt. Blaming what's wrong on "them" may be great adolescent fun, but we need grown-ups who can focus on the root problem: We need to restore our capacity for civic community. If educators do not attend to reviving "We the people"—a defining American idea since 1787—the deterioration of American democracy will accelerate in the decade ahead.
As the historian Joseph J. Ellis has argued, the democratic institutions the founders created were "not about providing answers, but rather about providing a framework in which the salient questions could continue to be debated." For two and a half centuries, those structures—designed like a loom to hold the tensions of diversity—have allowed us to keep reweaving the fabric of our common life. But American political institutions cannot work as intended unless they are inhabited by citizens who possess what Alexis de Tocqueville called democratic "habits of the heart."
Today we are in particular need of two such habits: humility and chutzpah.
"Humility" means knowing I must listen to others—especially to those who seem most alien to me—in order to understand and feel at home in a diverse world. If our students are to develop this habit, we must restore our commitment to the liberal arts. We must teach them to seek out opposing viewpoints; to appreciate ambiguity; to explore contradictions without fear; to appreciate the truth of paradox; to expand their sense of who they mean when they use the word "we."
"Chutzpah" means knowing my own voice and having the courage to speak it—with respect for others and in confidence that my voice counts. If our students are to develop that habit, we must teach in ways that make them participants in, not spectators of the educational process. We must engage them in learning communities where facts, ideas, and values are sifted and winnowed. We must immerse them in off-campus experiences where civic action is tied to reflection.
Too many Americans allow the tensions of diversity to tear them and their communities apart. They retreat from the public realm to the foxholes of private life, from which they lob rhetorical grenades at "the enemy," producing more psychodrama than social change. Democracy, meanwhile, continues to wither in the face of "money, faction, and fear."
Democracy depends on citizens who can work within the democracy's tensions by speaking confidently and listening openly, finding new ways to think, act, and connect with one other. We who educate the young (and the not-so-young) must spend the next decade proving that we value the gift of democracy and are doing what we can to pay it forward.