Am I For the Atlantic Ocean?

“In the United States as in every other democratic country, the need to-day is for a searching of the heart to discover what democracy really wants and how it can insure the fulfillment of its choice. It may choose death for itself and others; it may choose life on certain terms or unconditionally. Life without conditions can be achieved very simply by giving up and waiting — sitting and perishing in due course. Life under certain conditions of civilization means a fighting faith training its critical guns on what is daily offered us in the guise of government, education, science, art, dogma, cures, and creeds.

“The necessity for this faith and this critical war in our own culture is the great lesson of the recent past. It is not so much a new discovery as the rediscovery of a forgotten truth. And with the rediscovery we have learned the reason of our forgetfulness: we had become weary and lazy; we wanted short cuts to happiness and peace; we hoped to find rules of thumb that would answer every purpose; we were willing to join a party, sign a pledge, even enlist in an army, provided it was guaranteed to bring about the end of our troubles, by which we really meant make the last claim on our intelligence. The ‘distrust of intelligence’, the ‘retreat from reason’, were names given in alarm to what was thought to be a movement and was after all only a desertion.

“But if, as every symptom warns us, civilized life is the strenuous goal of democracy, if a diversified and vigilant culture is at once the source and the product of successful democracy, then our duty is to go over the common assumptions about familiar things, scrape the rust off our habitual opinions and see if there is any bright metal beneath, or only an oxidized mass of crumbling prejudices.

“The first of these prejudices is to believe that our choice is a political one when it is, as a matter of fact, cultural. We think that we can deal with matters that involve our life and liberty by acting as partisans, whereas the very thing we want can only be achieved by acting as artisans. I mean by this, taking and rejecting in the light of purpose, regardless of groups, labels, and the mock scrimmage of politics. I shall develop the point in my next chapter, but a single example now will make my meaning clear. People who appreciate the importance of education in a democracy often ask me whether I am for or against John Dewey and Progressive Education. The form of the question is political; it is a bid for a party vote, to which I return the cultural answer: I work for individualized teaching, for the breakdown of artificial divisions between school subjects, but against amateur psychiatry in the classroom and against the failure to teach the three R’s. My interlocutor sometimes insists: ‘But are you for it as a whole, Yes or No? Don’t sit on the fence!’ As well ask, am I for the Atlantic Ocean? I swim in it with pleasure, but deplore tidal waves and fail to see a fence in the distinction.” (Jacques Barzun, Of Human Freedom)