Raising future rulers

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People often ask me what The Grindstone Institute is all about. In many ways, it is a work in progress toward a vision that began developing in my mind a few years ago. Some of the foundational work continues to be built, even as that activity may not be evident to our clients and others who follow us, as I dedicate my doctoral work to developing one of its signature offerings, our Emerging Servant Leaders (ESL) Program. (In fact, returning to graduate school for the first time in 20 years is one of the reasons I haven’t had time to post on this channel in several weeks.)

The ESL Program is based on the belief that self-government in a free, representative republic doesn’t happen automatically. It requires proactive involvement to pass along the wisdom of the ages to future generations. Its curriculum seeks to improve participants’ self-awareness, civility, citizenship, responsibility, gratitude, and attitude – all important traits in character and citizenship education.

Recently, the need for such a program appeared yet again, this time in the form of an earnest young lady who approached me to say hello after I had given remarks at a luncheon. The organizing group had invited me to speak about my experiences in public service and specifically the impact of the current administration on international affairs. This young person, who explained she was a college student, opened by commenting that she didn’t really have much of an opportunity to interact with Republicans. She look upon me with a tentative sort of curiosity, like one encountering an exotic cuisine for the first time.

I observed that it was once again a time of tribal politics in the United States and that people seem to stick mainly with people they perceive to be like them. We talked a bit and she allowed that the Democratic candidates for president, gathering that very evening in central Ohio, seemed intent on trying to get farther and farther left on the political spectrum. I acknowledged a similar situation in the opposite direction in recent Republican primaries. Then I commented, based on her observation about her party’s leftward tilt, that I found it curious socialism, which has been proven not to work everywhere it has been tried, seems to have such an enthusiastic following among young people. She clearly disagreed with the assessment of that economic system, her face revealing a pained expression, but was too polite or timid to counter my opinion.

She then asked me how we improve the political atmosphere in our country. I responded that it’s important for us to engage in dialogue with people across the political aisle like we were doing at that very moment. I went on to suggest (unspoken: our apparently divergent views on socialism notwithstanding!) that we probably agree on much more than we disagree. She immediately replied that she didn’t think that could possibly be true. I shared that when I served in the legislature, the vast majority of bills that came to the House floor resulted in the electronic board that tallied votes turning mostly green as Democrats and Republicans alike voted for those measures.

And at that she looked quite disappointed. It was clear this young lady, affable as she seemed, was not going to give up – or even reconsider – any of her positions by taking one step toward the center of the spectrum. And so her instantaneous conclusion was that it would be impossible to get along. Like so many today, it seems her idea of improving the political atmosphere consisted of people who didn’t agree with her – “hawks” she called us at one point in our chat, although those of us who have actually been to war are rarely warmongers – abandoning our sincerely held beliefs and accepting her views. No need to meet in the middle. If people like me would just capitulate and agree with people like her, we’d be able to get along.

Now I was the one who felt a bit downcast, because it was clear that, at some point in her short life, this individual had been denied (or at least had not internalized) a fundamental education in the principles of self-government by a free people. She seemed not to have been informed about how fragile and rare our constitutional republic is in the long sweep of history or how the efficacy of this pluralistic system is rooted in accepting viewpoints different from our own, compromising on policy solutions, and understanding we will rarely get what 100 percent of what we want. She seemed blindly trusting of top-down, one-size-fits-all government “solutions” from those who know better, yet simultaneously distrusting of those who suggest there is a better way – the way that has worked for over two centuries in our country – or that we could achieve consensus through dialogue.

In this encounter, however, I also found hope, for it underscores the importance of the work we are doing at Grindstone to help provide a fuller understanding of what makes the United States truly exceptional to those who, for whatever reason, have not received the benefit of this awareness.

And so, our work continues, as we should expect it would in a free republic. Sen. Ben Sasse, in his excellent book, The Vanishing American Adult, comments that we should treat our children as if we are raising future rulers, because under our system of government we are. He states, “…in America, the people rule. And thus our people need to be fit to rule. Not just some class of elites – but all of us.”

Why is there a need for The Grindstone Institute and programs like Emerging Servant Leaders? President Reagan summed it up neatly: “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same.”

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