Many people lately have recognized the irony of America’s attempt to export democracy while it seems to be seriously threatened here at home. While the source of our concern can easily be traced to the current administration and its policies, perhaps we should also look to ourselves and our increasing indifference to civic life. We the people are, after all, the factor most responsible for the success of democratic life.
Civil democracy requires many factors to be effective. Foremost is an educated and moral citizenry. Democratic citizenship demands that we be effective critical thinkers and possess a knowledge of history and ideas commensurate with our responsibility to govern ourselves. Likewise, it requires that we be virtuous —not only law-abiding, but neighborly, socially trustful and capable of looking beyond individual self-interest to a greater common good.
We on the Cape are more fortunate than most in that our numerous cultural activities allow us to gather in shared experiences. These events provide opportunities for both enlightenment and friendship, perhaps the most essential moral virtue. To this intellectual community we are adding Cape Lyceum, a monthly lecture series dedicated to one theme: the preservation and enhancement of civil democracy.
The series begins at 7 tonight at the Kelley Chapel on the grounds of the Old Yarmouth Historical Society on Route 6A in Yarmouthport. Each of our speakers will explore the same topic through his or her own particular prism, including philosophy and ethics, education, the arts, history, science and politics. July being the anniversary of our nation’s political independence, this writer will open the series with “Aristotle, Jefferson and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
The lyceum in America, taking its name from Aristotle’s Athenian school of philosophy, originated as an adult educational movement in Massachusetts in the 1820s. Lyceum halls sprang up across the landscape and soon became centers of intellectual ferment for rural citizens. Lyceums such as the one that still stands as a residence on Route 6A in Yarmouthport enabled American democracy’s early growth by helping people stay abreast of the contemporary ideas of which they would otherwise be ignorant. The influence of lyceums was such that they were eventually transformed by Horace Mann into the world’s first public school system.
It was through the lyceum circuit that America’s most renowned intellectual, Ralph Waldo Emerson, became a truly national figure. Other well-known speakers included Frederick Douglass, Henry David Thoreau and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Were it not for the lyceum circuit, many 19th-century Americans would not have had any exposure to ideas like transcendentalism nor insight into the most volatile issues of the time.
Some people would argue that with today’s electronic global communications we no longer need intellectual events such as the small-town lyceum provided. We have, they would argue, instantaneous access to news and commentary that is not only informative but entertaining to boot.
This, ironically, may be one of democracy’s most serious current problems. We have allowed electronic gadgetry and the amusement they provide not only to reduce our capacity for sustained critical thinking but also to isolate us from our fellow citizens in a far more serious way than did the miles of unpaved roads that separated our 19th-century forebears.
In his groundbreaking book “Bowling Alone,” Harvard professor Robert Putnam speaks of the need for an increase of independent civic engagement in order to counteract “the widespread tendency toward passive reliance on the state.” Putnam’s thesis is that “the vibrancy of American civil society has notably declined over the past several decades.” In short, active civic engagement is what prevents the fabric of democracy from unraveling.
I doubt many of us would disagree with Putnam’s premise. We need only observe how technological gadgetry has “privatized” our use of leisure time. Devices such as iPods and DVDs allow us to satisfy our individual tastes without joining “in concert” with others, further driving a wedge between our individual and collective interests.
We are hopeful that our Cape Lyceum series will contribute in some small way to those collective interests, enriching our intellectual and moral lives and the civic life of the Cape. We invite you to join us.