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Leon Kass on Walter Berns: Teacher and Patriot

Tuesday, September 27th, 2011

As a follow-up to the Program’s celebration of Walter Berns and the Constitution last week, the full text of Leon Kass’s remarks can now be found over at The American.

In part of his remarks, Kass spoke about one of Walter Berns’s more recent books, Making Patriots. Kass notes:

Patriots are not born, they are made. Their formation is even more a matter of the heart than of the head, and it takes place from the earliest ages. Although the Constitution is silent on education—this was a matter left to the states—the Founders were very concerned about the education of citizens for self-government. Jefferson proposed a system of universal public education that would render our children “worthy to receive, and able to guard the sacred deposit of the rights and liberties of their fellow citizens.” Walter reviews the efforts associated with such names as Noah Webster and William McGuffey, among others, to inculcate belief in God, moral virtue, and love of country, along with the teaching of reading, writing, and arithmetic, efforts that lasted, successfully, well into the early 20th century. And then things began to unravel. Supreme Court decisions in the 1940s, applying to the states for the first time the First Amendment’s separation of church and the national state, began the inexorable secularization of public education. How were virtue and love of country to be promoted once religious teachings were banished from the public education of the young? It was from there but a short decline into the belief that public schools should not be promoting patriotism at all, should not be arguing for the superiority of one way of life above another, should instead be teaching the young that preferential love of your own was indefensible and dangerous, that patriotism was in fact the last refuge of scoundrels. To begin to remedy these educational diseases, Walter suggests that we must pay renewed attention to the lives of those Americans who have not only grappled with the nation’s gravest troubles, but whose words have helped their fellow countrymen understand and appreciate the gift that is American citizenship. Walter gives us splendid and inspiring chapters on Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, men whose words and deeds can still be a beacon for budding—and aging—patriots.

Dr. Kass’s remarks are very much worth reading–or you can watch him deliver them at the event site.