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A Public Service Message from the American Income Life Insurance CompanyExecutive offices, Waco, TexasBernard Rapoport, Pres. \(An open letter from Stringfellow Barr to members of the Forum for Contemporary History, P.O. Box 127, Stearns Wharf, Santa Barbara, California 93101. Reproduced by Dear Forum Member, When I agreed last November to write this letter, I was one of the many Americans who were already growing self-conscious about the approach of July 4, 1976. For we were asking ourselves, “What have we done with the Independence we declared nearly two centuries ago, when we mutually pledged to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor?” For instance how would we explain, to the ghosts of those who signed the Declaration of Independence, the blood on our hands from “carpet-bombing” another people who, like ourselves, had dared win its independence from overseas colonial rule, this time in French Indo-China. Our painful confrontation with our political ancestors is still many months off; but meanwhile Watergate has overtaken my good intentions to write to you. On the one hand, ugly events have added poignancy and pressure to the questions the founding fathers were, I would contend, already asking. On the other hand, Watergate also threatens to reduce an opportunity for national self-criticism to an orgy of headlines on criminal acts directed from the White House. The matters I wanted in November to discuss with you still seem to me far more worth discussing than President Nixon’s duplicity or incompetence or both. Mr. Nixon’s personal defects have been readily observable and matter of public record ever since he entered politics over twenty-five years ago. What is much more interesting than the defects of a devious and mediocre man is the average voter’s declining comprehension of the purpOses the U.S. ‘Constitution was written to serve. It does not follow, of course, that crime would go unpunished, even when committed in the White House. How did we Americans lose the vision? I suggest that high on the list of causes for this dangerous loss, was a momentous change in our colleges of liberal arts. In the eighteenth century the colleges, such as Harvard, Yale, Princeton, William and Mary, that many of these Signers attended, still taught the same seven liberal arts that Oxford, Cambridge, Paris, and other famous European universities were teaching and had already for centuries taught. Of the Signer of ‘Seventy-Six, those who had gone through college could in most instances not have been admitted without having learned ancient Greek and Latin. Most of them would not be graduated unless they could write in Greek and could debate publicly, as well as write, in Latin. Greek and Latin were the media in which they learned the uses of language along with the uses of mathematics. When they was because they could use the three arts, or skills of language, and logic. This meant being able to speak and write coherently, persuasively, and rigorously. It meant also how to listen and read with genuine understanding. Finally, it also meant that these B. A.’s of earlier days could udnerstand other speakers or writers who could use even better than themselves the three arts of the trivium. But, in addition, candidates for the degree of B. A. had to prove they could practise also the arts of the thinking in numbers; geometry, the skill of thinking in spacial magnitudes; music, in its mathematical aspects; and mathematical astronomy. The Greeks, then the Romans, then the medieval universities, and finally the modern colleges of Europe and of the American colonies studied these seven skills, or “liberal arts” arts that could considerably liberate a man’s niind. What Happened to In the latter part of the nineteenth century these skills increasingly gave way to numerous branches of “knowledge,” taught in separate departments, usually by specialists with Ph.D.s A memory for “facts” tended to replace the acquisition of intellectual skills. The courses given in these various fields of knowledge \(some of which contain more nutritious grass than the plethora of data they offered and the dearth of ideas. What most undergraduates in most of our modern colleges want to know is the Answer, for “exams” are always creeping up on them. But shouldn’t they forget their lecture rooms for a moment and listen to Alice B. Toklas, reporting in her book on Gertrude Stein, that witty writer’s death? “Alice,” asked Miss Stein, “what is the answer?” “I don’t know, Gertrude.” Silence. Then, “Alice, what is the question?” She was then taken to the operating table, where she died. The man who seems to me to have had the greatest gift for asking the right question and the healthiest instinct for seeing through dogmatic answers was Socrates of Athens, as he appears in the Dialogues that his disciple, Plato, wrote. Between them they can teach us the irony, not to be confused with scepticism, that has dazzled, rejoiced and nourished the intellects of generation after generation. But Plato, of course, also had an equally famous disciple, Aristotle. Since the colonial college commonly required for entrance two years of Greek, as well as four years of Latin, a matriculant could master The Republic, which is a fascinating conversation not only about the constitutional requirements of a good political order but also about the ethical requirements of a good life. In effect, Socrates’ gentle manners and ironic wit explore man’s need for the justice, the freedom, and the self-discipline that both man’s own soul and his own government must acquire and preserve if ma-n is to know true happiness. In short, The Republic is, in dialogue form, not a recipe for grabbing and holding power but a stimulus to achieve a combination of one’s personal good and to help achieve the common good of one’s political community. The Republic did not try to give all the answers; but it did raise the right questions. Aristotle followed his master’s example in writing on ethics and politics; but Aristotle wrote his discourse in the form, not of a witty, imaginative, and deeply moving conversation, but in the form of lectures. These lectures came to be published as two treatises, one on the science of ethics and the other on the science of politics. But, different as The Nicomachaean Ethics and The Politics are from Plato’s Republic in both method and spirit, it is worth noting that, for Aristotle as for Plato, the function of the state was not just to enforce law and order,’ important as these were to both writers. The state’s function was, by aiming at the common good of the community, to make it possible for the citizen to lead an ethical and intellectual life; that is, both to act well and think weel, both to choose the good and to know the truth. Since these two writers on ethics and politics were probably better known . to the men who signed the Declaration of Independence than any other philosophers, or at least to those signers who had graduated from either an American or European college, perhaps we might honor these signers best by forgetting momentarily the information pumped into us in undergraduate days, thus honoring also a character in one of James Thurber’s memorable drawings who complains to a friend: “He doesn’t know anything except facts.” Maybe we