Note: Summary of November 5 speech by Thomas Lindsay to the Texas A & M Class of ’51. In his speech, Dr. Lindsay issued a challenge to America’s colleges and universities to (1) require all of their students-regardless of major-to study the Founding principles of our democracy, and (2) to amend their Mission Statements to reflect the importance of democratic education in liberal education generally. What follows is his view of what such a project entails.
It is far from accidental that the word “liberal,” in “liberal education,” has the same root as the word “liberty.” Liberal education is an education for and through liberty. Agreeing with Socrates that the “unexamined life is not worth living,” a university worthy of the name finds the highest liberty to consist in the freedom of the mind; that is, in freedom from unexamined assumptions, for example, swings in intellectual fashion, partisan politics, and ideology. Liberty at its peak is thus identical with the pursuit of truth.
A genuine institution of liberal education recognizes that the intellectual liberty it pursues depends on its being situated in a system of political liberty. That is, the cultivation of free minds simultaneously transcends and depends on the political freedom enshrined in the American Constitution. This dependence, along with the commitment to enhancing students’ self-knowledge, mandates that such an institution require all its students to study seriously the Founding documents-the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and The Federalist-as well as the other original sources that both informed the Founding and reacted to it.
Consistent with the Socratic approach, the proper study of American democracy consists first and foremost in asking fundamental questions of our founding documents:
First, what is the meaning of human equality as articulated in the Declaration’s statement that “all men are created equal”? Equal in what respects? Does the Declaration include African-Americans, as Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, and Martin Luther King, Jr., insisted?
Second, what does the Declaration mean in stating that we possess rights that are not “alienable”? Who or what, precisely, cannot alienate our rights? Are all rights deemed inalienable, or only some? Why?
Third, why does the Founding generation consider government just only when it is instituted by the consent of the governed? Is justice for the Founders simply consent-based? If not, what for them trumps consent?
Fourth, why do the Founders opt for representative democracy over the “pure” version of democracy practiced in ancient Athens? What does Madison, in The Federalist, assert was the inadequacy of ancient democracy?
Fifth, and finally, what economic conditions make American democracy possible? Why does the Constitution protect property rights? Why do its critics, such as Marx, believe private property to be the root of injustice? How would Madison and Hamilton have responded to Marx’s and his followers’ critique?
– Dr. Thomas Lindsay