Asheville – On September 2, President Trump announced his intention to create a commission to give students a “patriotic education.” In the divided nation, supporters celebrated somebody standing up against hypersensitivity, identity politics, and endless revisions to history; and detractors cringed at nationalism’s role in deadly European fascist regimes and claimed this would honor a history of racism and slavery.
Since Trump has a reputation for making celebrity appointments, and Hillsdale College receives a lot of promotion from conservative pundits, it was just assumed the college would be involved. Hillsdale’s curricula follow strict, originalist interpretations of the Constitution, and the school even runs without a drop of state or federal subsidy. It was either Hillsdale College or Praeger U. So, it came as no surprise when the president announced appointments to the commission, that among them were Hillsdale’s President Larry P. Arnn and Matthew Spalding, vice-president for Hillsdale’s Washington, DC operations. The only other really famous person among the 18 appointments was the youthful political activist Charlie Kirk.
The executive order establishing the commission doesn’t read like an iron-fisted call for thought control or even the normal political fare of favors for buddies disguised in general-specific language. It even expressly forbids appointees from being compensated for their service other than with reimbursement for travel expenses. One can almost see Arnn’s hand on the document, keeping it within the four corners of the law to avoid another national embarrassment.
Shortly thereafter, the November issue of Imprimis finally arrived in the mail. For those who don’t subscribe, it’s a monthly digest that features speeches from Hillsdale events. Speakers address serious Constitutional issues and have included the likes of the brilliant freedom fighter and Czech President Vaclav Klaus and Calvin Coolidge biographer Amity Shlaes. This month, a split-second stereotyping of the featured speaker would be as the archetypal scholar of religious philosophy who intends to be more than a mere observer of his field of study. He had the same tall forehead, a shock of white hair, and penetrating eyes – and that smile of compassionate tolerance earned from years of experience. He even looked like he’d speak with an Austrian accent.
According to his biography, Christopher Flannery had a lot of ties to the Claremont Graduate University, which is better known for publications from its Institute for Antiquity and Christianity than any research in American history. And, just on the first page, Flannery was delving into spirituality and “mystic chords.” This is not to disparage the seeking of universal, divine truths; which should be encouraged – it’s just not what anybody would expect a pivot motivated by a 1776 Commission to look like.
Calling on American Heroes
Flannery went on to talk about Helen Keller and Mark Twain, John Wayne, and then Ely Parker. Parker is an unsung Native American who, after a long struggle for acceptance, stepped up and filled in to see General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox through to completion.
The focus of the stories was not so much on the battleground carnage which continues to comprise a disproportionate share of history lessons, but on interpersonal relationships. Flannery told of the platonic love shared by Twain and Keller; he gave her opportunities, and she reciprocated with undying gratitude. Wayne made no pretension of being self-made. Instead, he, too, was given opportunities; and, beyond that, he created, though some say he became, a character people looked up to as representing American values that include confidence and adherence to a personal code of ethics. Parker was extended opportunities from Grant, having earlier saved his life; and he, too, reciprocated with steadfast devotion.
Flannery closes with, “The stories that I think are most important are those about what it is that makes America beautiful, what it is that makes America good and therefore worthy of love. Only in this light can we see clearly what it is that might make America better and more beautiful.”
Flannery is correct, and he is not the first to notice our laws and Constitution are not serving us as long as large segments of the population choose to value consolidating power higher than seeking and responding to the truth, seasoned with a little kindness. John Adams, for example, famously stated, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
Before that, One even greater declared, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”
Going back to Claremont, Arnn and Flannery both earned Ph.D.’s from the Claremont Graduate School. Arnn also cofounded and presided 15 years at the Claremont Institute, at which Flannery is now a senior fellow. And, although many scholars at the institute received degrees from the Claremont colleges, the two organizations insist they are independent. Unlike Hillsdale College, the Claremont Institute accepted $1,350,000 in Paycheck Protection Program loans; and it has extended fellowships to promulgators of populist theories like Pizzagate and birtherism. Its home page still celebrates its 2019 award, by Trump, of the National Humanities Medal.
And so, in these days when everything is demonized and scandalized, maybe it’s past time to look at where wallowing in the smarmy has gotten us and, as Flannery suggests, see how far we can go magnifying what’s charitable and humane.