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Repairing Our Broken System

American democracy is built on its institutions. In his classic study, Democracy in America, Alexis De Tocqueville argues that institutions are crucial to creating and maintaining a culture of citizenship. Institutions, he writes, “remind every citizen, and in a thousand ways, that he lives in society”–removing individuals from their isolation, bringing them into a world of common activity, and teaching them the habits of heart and mind necessary for self-governing citizens.

Today, however, there is a widespread distrust of our public institutions. Americans are less satisfied with the country’s direction than at any time during the last 30 years. This disaffection has not had insignificant consequences for citizenship, as reflected by the ongoing decline in civic and political engagement over the past few decades.

With this focus area, we seek to understand the reasons behind Americans’ disillusionment with their institutions, and, more importantly, to find ways to restore this broken trust.

History in the Age of Fracture

Like so many of the disciplines making up the humanities, the field of history has for some time been experiencing a slow dissolution, a decline that may be approaching a critical juncture. Students of academic life express this decline quantitatively, citing shrinking enrollments in history courses, the disappearance of required history courses in university curricula, and the loss of tenurable faculty positions in all history-related areas.

But even more disturbing indications of history’s troubled status are harder to measure but impossible to ignore. One senses a loss of self-confidence, a fear that the study of the past may no longer be valuable or important and that history itself lacks the capacity to be a coherent and truth-seeking enterprise, producing genuine knowledge that helps us locate ourselves in the broad expanses of space and time. Some of this derives from the growing vocationalism in American higher education, flowing from a desire that a college degree should lead reliably to gainful employment. But the fear rests just as much on the belief that the road we have traveled to date offers us only a parade of negative examples of oppression, error, and obsolescence—proof positive that the past has no lessons applicable to our unprecedented age.

This loss of faith in the central importance of history pervades all of American society.

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Physician, Heal Thyself: Doctors in a Pluralist Democracy

Today’s physicians are a beleaguered bunch. They find themselves attempting to satisfy multiple conflicting demands, morally adrift, spiritually depleted, and politically powerless. They have become trapped in a vice, squeezed between the grips of the market and government, with no apparent escape. Public trust in US physicians is at an historic nadir, with the United States ranking 24th among 30 industrialized nations, ahead only of Chile, Bulgaria, Russia, and Poland. Morale is at an all-time low. Many are leaving the practice. Only a minority would recommend that their children become physicians.

Yet all this is happening at a time when medical care occupies a proportion of the economy that exceeds even defense, and when physicians’ technical powers and skills have never been greater. Smallpox has been eradicated. Breast cancer has become a chronic disease. Robots perform surgery. Life expectancy in the developed world is approaching biblical standards. Medicine seems so powerful.

And medicine’s cultural reach is as broad as it is deep. Medicine now colors nearly everything about our lives.

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America’s Military Profession: Creating Hectors, not Achilles

America’s Military Profession: Creating Hectors, not Achilles
By Aaron MacLean
(October 2014)

The military provides a clear benefit to the American polity: it is the country’s federal mechanism for the common defense. But what is its relationship to America’s civic culture? Do the professionals the military molds and employs in the nation’s wars affect the civic culture positively, as models of necessary virtues and keepers of specialized professional knowledge necessary to a healthy civic life? Or do they affect the culture negatively, as damaged and occasionally dangerous men perverted by violence?

…A regular corollary of polities with endemic political instability is not only poverty but also a high rate of underemployed young men. Young men tend to be not only aggressive but also honor seeking—that is, they desire the recognition of society. The military provides a well-designed path to that recognition, and works to return these young people back to society with their aggressive instincts melded with a sense of outward-focused duty. The US military makes Hectors, and works to keep Achilles off the streets.

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The Practice of Science in a Democratic Society

The Practice of Science in a Democratic Society
By Austin L. Hughes
(March 2014)

René Descartes, one of the founding figures of modern science, predicted that the new mechanistic approach to understanding the natural world would yield great benefits for humanity, particularly with regard to improving health and longevity. For this reason, Descartes argued that public funds should be used to support scientific research. Descartes proved to be prophetic on both counts. The benefits of science have far exceeded anything Descartes could have imagined, and the public funding of science has become an accepted role of government in every industrially advanced nation. The result has been the creation of a new profession—that of scientist—unknown to Descartes and his contemporaries, whose scientific investigations remained the self-supported avocations of gentlemen of independent means.

The general public and their elected representatives seem to agree that scientific research is an important, even necessary, component of a modern economy. But the scientific profession is not without its contradictions. Government funding of science is justified by the argument that scientific research benefits the public, but modern science has become so technical and specialized that the public are rarely able to appreciate the potential value of the research their taxes fund. Scientific literacy remains low even in the most technologically advanced societies. The fact that science is mysterious to the general public has helped endow its practitioners with an aura of wonder in the popular mind. As a result, scientists have increasingly become accustomed to thinking of themselves as constituting an all-knowing elite that need answer to few or none.

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Architects and Citizenship

Architects and Citizenship
By Michael J. Lewis
(February 2014)

Here are three conceptions of the architect, as mutually exclusive as can be. According to venerable Vitruvius, whose Ten Books of Architecture is the only treatise on the subject to survive from classical antiquity, it is the architect who gives tangible form to the history, traditions, and “moral philosophy” of his civilization. To Richard Morris Hunt, the elegant virtuoso of Gilded Age mansions, the architect is a mere employee, duty-bound to gratify his client’s whims and wishes. But to Howard Roark, the fictional subject of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, the architect is an existential hero whose buildings belong to him and not his clients and who would even dynamite his own work if its integrity of vision was violated. In all of literature there is no more arresting portrayal of the architect: the exalted form-giver who recognizes no law but his own titanic force of will.

All these outrageously contradictory portraits are equally valid—such is the paradox of the architectural profession. It is indeed true that the architect is the advocate of the client who engages him, whose best interests he represents as would a doctor or lawyer. And it is just as true that every building is an individual artistic statement. Just as a handwritten signature is the work of a single human hand, so the contours, masses, and volumes of a building must be shaped by a controlling artistic intelligence; it cannot help but express the personality of its creator, although few are as arrogant as Roark. And yet Vitruvius too is correct to recognize that architecture has a civic dimension, that it is the essential civic art. “Moral philosophy” is not out of place in an architect’s tool kit if one recognizes how profoundly the spaces and facades of buildings affect our public life.

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Tocqueville’s ‘Most Powerful Barrier’: Lawyers in Civic Society

Tocqueville’s ‘Most Powerful Barrier’: Lawyers in Civic Society
By Adam J. White
(September 2013)

To those of us who want to believe that The Federalist is the “true account of the Constitution and of the regime it was calculated to engender,” the early weeks of summer always put our faith to the test.

Every June, the Supreme Court concludes its year’s work by releasing many—maybe all—of the term’s most controversial decisions. That annual spectacle, in which judges and lawyers dominate political headlines for a week or more, often casts no little doubt on Publius’s famous prediction that “the judiciary, from the nature of its functions, will always be the least dangerous” branch of the federal government, exercising “neither force nor will, but merely judgment.” Whatever one thinks of the court’s decisions that term, one cannot deny that the court’s justices, and the lawyers that bring the cases to bar, wield enormous power in American politics.

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The Role of Political Science and Political Scientists in Civic Education

The Role of Political Science and Political Scientists in Civic Education
By James W. Ceaser
(August 2013)

Civic education in America today is widely said to be in trouble. Whether the concern is primary and secondary education (K–12), where national civics tests show that only a quarter of 12th graders score at a level considered proficient; higher education, where requirements in core American history and government courses are being rapidly abandoned; or adult education for immigrants, where communities and businesses have fallen woefully short in providing English language and civics instruction, all signs point to a failure in imparting the basic knowledge that contributes to good citizenship.

We cannot say for sure if things have gotten worse than they were in the past, but leaders and educators today are certainly worried. As former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, now active in promoting civic education, recently noted, “We have a terrible problem on our hands.”

Although not alone in expressing alarm, members of one profession can perhaps lay special claim to a proprietary interest in this problem: political scientists. Practitioners of political science in ancient Greece first identified the concept of civic education, and political scientists to this day continue to produce some of the most significant commentary and scholarship on the subject.

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The Future of Journalism and Citizenship

The Future of Journalism and Citizenship
By Christopher Caldwell
(July 2013)

In 2012, the Pulitzer Prize committee awarded the prize for breaking news reporting to the Tuscaloosa News in Alabama for its coverage of a wave of tornados that had swept through Alabama and other southern states the previous spring. There had been hundreds of dead and missing. Buildings were smashed or lost power—and one was the paper’s printing plant. While the News was getting its operations up and running at another plant
50 miles away, it used Google Documents and social media to report on storm developments and coordinate searches for missing persons.

It is an inspiring story for watchers of storms, but a depressing one for watchers of journalism—a newspaper gets praise for finding an alternative to publishing a newspaper. That, in microcosm, describes journalism’s encounter with information technology over the past decade. The efficiencies brought by open trade and the easy flow of information were revolutionizing many industries by the 1970s. It took a very long time for these developments to work their way into the journalism world, but when they arrived, they did so with a vengeance.

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The Literary Profession and Civic Culture

The Literary Profession and Civic Culture
By Paul A. Cantor
(May 20, 2013)

The humanities in general and literature departments in particular have reason to feel beleaguered in today’s higher education environment. Their student enrollment numbers are declining in relative and even absolute terms, while departments and programs are accordingly being cut back, consolidated, and even eliminated entirely. It is difficult to measure such matters precisely, but it is safe to say that the prestige of literature departments at the moment is closer to an all-time low than an all-time high.

The well-oiled publicity machines of colleges and universities are quick to trumpet the triumphs of their faculty in the hard sciences. A professor who finds a new cure for a disease is headed straight for the cover of the campus alumni magazine, whereas a new interpretation of Hamlet is far less likely to be deemed front-page news in publications designed to impress wealthy donors.

Literature departments may have always felt like the Cinderellas of the academy, but these days they have virtually abandoned any hope that someday their prince will come. Right now they would be happy just to hang on to their old pair of shoes.

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AEI Report: Music and Civic Life in America

Music and Civic Life in America
By David Tucker and Nathan Tucker
(May 6, 2013)

Civic life is the life we live in dealing with problems of common concern. It is our public life, as opposed to our private life. In a liberal democracy, civic life is all-embracing in the sense that it is open to all. Yet in such a regime, civic life may also be a small part of life, since liberal democracy assumes the priority of private life.

Correspondingly, the music we share in our civic lives will occupy a smaller place than the music of our private lives. Music may be more private than many other activities: it is not verbal, and through its rhythmic component, affects us bodily—that is, most privately, despite the ability of groups of people to move in unison to a beat. Speeches mark our public life more than music; we have no musical equivalent of the Gettysburg Address.

Being nonverbal, music may communicate more universally than any given language, and yet what is universal is not necessarily civic. Music is thus both above and below civic life, both more private and more shared. The naturally tenuous connection between music and civic life has been particularly evident in America, and the connection has grown more tenuous or ambiguous over time. Yet, as we hope to show, American music remains perhaps the best expression of what America is.

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AEI