Nobody has a fail-safe method to teach virtue or bring diverse people closer to each other. Aristotle thought it was a matter of good habit. Mark Twain thought it was like an acquired taste for poetry, poker, or frog-jumping contests. Unfortunately, a basic method for passing on values such as grit, mobility, confidence, and patriotism in children has been under attack. What is the powerful tool? Telling stories. Now, many of us might think that in the 21st century, we’ve left behind stories, fables, and myths—that once man stepped out of the cave and joined the rat race, he waived farewell to quaint notions of village elders and campfire tales.
Yet we are not so different from primitive societies. Human beings still like to tell and to hear stories. Even our august institutions revolve around instructive tales. What is the Supreme Court but robed elders telling and retelling stories of conflict within our society? Cynical veterans of congressional campaigns speak of campaign “narratives.” Aristotle defined homo sapiens as a “featherless biped.” I’d add that we are a featherless biped who tells stories. Other living things communicate, of course. Bees buzz directions. Dogs bark warnings. But humans have figured out how to begin with a backstory, build to a climax, and end with a denouement.
Since America’s birth, schoolteachers have transmitted its values through folklore and American heroes. I recall childhood afternoons running home from elementary school waving hats and banners cut with scissors from multicolored paper and assembled with that thick white paste that so many kids liked to snack on. What holidays did we celebrate with decorations and stories? Columbus Day, Thanksgiving, Washington’s Birthday, Valentine’s Day, and Memorial Day (and, of course, the last day of school).
Today many adults disdain the very idea of glorifying these holidays and the historical figures they involve. Just before Thanksgiving 2015, a young principal at PS 169 in Brooklyn banned a commemoration, while abandoning the Pledge of Allegiance. The assistant principal sent a memo supporting the decision and urging the staff to “be sensitive of the diversity of our families.” Critics claim that we cannot ignore the harsh “truth.” Columbus and the Thanksgiving Pilgrims had warts that cannot be erased from our historical portrait. Following the arrival of Columbus and the Pilgrims, Native Americans found their lands plundered. Columbus, according to some historians, was a vicious, slave-owning, disease-carrying racist. (others claim he was a victim of the blood-cleansing of the Spanish Inquisition). Although General Washington helped liberate America from the British, he then inspired the United States to trample on others by expanding its territorial reach.
Frankly, blaming Columbus, the Pilgrims, and George Washington for all the trouble that followed is like blaming Marco Polo because yuppie restaurants charge thirty bucks for a bowl of linguine.This cynical view of history is not found solely in the United States and is not a passing fad. The loss of myths is an entropic, shattering force that logically follows from economic development. How so? Why are holidays and national myths undermined? Why is there almost always a search for warts on founding fathers and mothers?
In The Price of Prosperity, I point out that prosperous societies require trade with foreigners and ultimately require immigration. But these do not come easy. At first a society will scorn foreigners. This bias is driven by biology and culture. Aristotle taught Alexander the Great to look at Greeks as “friends and kindred, but to conduct himself toward other peoples as though they were plants or animals.” For millennia nations have bonded over their shared dislikes of other peoples, often attributing vile traits to them. A common refrain: foreigners smell bad and were bred from pigs and monkeys or live like pigs and monkeys. Eventually, though, if a country is going to achieve prosperity, it must deal with foreigners as trading partners and as immigrants. At this point, founding national myths and founding heroes appear too old, too homogeneous, and too insular to be shared equally by the new multicultural population. Malcolm X put it memorably: “We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock; Plymouth Rock landed on us.” (Cole Porter used the same line earlier in his 1934 “Anything Goes.”) In addition, immigrants and foreigners typically accept dirtier jobs than the native born. Working conditions are usually more dingy and dangerous: “We were told the streets were paved with gold; now we find out we’ll be doing the repaving.” Again, the founding myths seem less applicable to newcomers. And if founding myths appear less applicable and less believable, why should they be cherished?
Today the Magna Carta—a nearly sacred text of freedom—is unknown to nearly one-half of the British public. Only about 20 percent of UK university students can name a single prime minister from the 1800s! In the United States, fewer than one in four college students can link James Madison to the U.S. Constitution. But do not worry: 99 percent correctly identify Beavis and Butthead.
Shared stories and celebrated holidays are among the strongest tools to battle the entropy of nations. That’s why John Adams in a letter to his wife Abigail wrote that Independence Day “ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance… solemnized with Pomp and Parade… Bonfires and Illuminations.” In July 1776 Adams was not a ninny mesmerized by the sparkle of fireworks and the flow of hard apple cider in muggy Philadelphia. In the same letter he warned that the fight for independence would surely cost “toil and blood and treasure.” He understood that history had warts, boils, and scars. But it was because of war’s savagery and the future threat of dissolution that Americans should ennoble Independence Day.
There is one further response to critics who insist that we expose all children to the whole, bitter “truth” about their national forefathers. As psychologist Jean Piaget taught, children require different methods of conveying information at different stages in their lives. A good teacher does not instruct a 5-year-old in the same manner as a 14-year-old. It’s okay to cover up some warts. Much more important, the heroes and holidays traditionally celebrated in elementary school instill the virtues and values that will permit and encourage children to explore truths and respect honest debate as they mature. Here’s where I differ from Plato: in the Republic, the mighty leaders proclaim noble lies in order to shield commoners from important truths (for example, “We stole the land that we are living on”). I defend patriotic myths and stories to help bind the country, knowing that adults can be aware of elements of fabrication. It is all right to ask citizens to suspend their disbelief from time to time. An example: at a traditional Passover feast commemorating the exodus from slavery in Egypt, the assembled read the story of Moses leading the Hebrews to liberation (some may question whether frogs fell from the sky). The book of Exodus commands that “you shall tell your son” of the bitter oppression of slavery. But there is more and here is the key: the Talmud insists that “A person is obligated to see himself as if he were leaving Egypt himself.” Each year Passover celebrants relive the journey, even though the actual event (which may be disputable) took place thousands of years earlier and none of the attendees at the family feast may have any genetic connection to those who escaped through the Red Sea. It is the as if that transforms the mere attendees into participants and that binds them together with thousands of years of history.
Our Thanksgiving story deserves similar reverence. We should be celebrating the feast as if we ourselves were among the Pilgrims and the Wampanoags. The original Pilgrims, of course, identified with the Jews escaping Egypt. Their wicked pharaoh was named King James. King James had vowed to make these deviants conform or he would harass them till they fled the land, or worse. Later Benjamin Franklin proposed that the seal of the United States include Moses holding out his arms over the Red Sea, which would slosh over pharaoh in his open chariot. Thomas Jefferson portrayed the children of Israel in the wilderness, led by a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. (On the reverse side of the seal Jefferson suggested Hengist and Horsa, the legendary brothers who settled Britain. I am not disappointed that Jefferson lost his argument for Hengist and Horsa.)
What do traditional holidays actually represent and how do they fit into a revival of a national spirit? Columbus Day does not glorify a Genoan sailor as much as it exalts the virtues of courage, discovery, grit, mobility, and confidence. Halloween does not honor pumpkins or pagans as much as it enchants children and prepares them to confront good and evil deeds in their lives. Knocking on a door while trick or treating teaches that adults will be more generous if children will be more polite. From a psychological point of view, it also guides children to face up to their anxieties (what monster is behind the door?). Thanksgiving teaches the virtues of comity and work, as well as the appreciation for bounty. Washington’s Birthday does not enshrine powder-wigged generals so much as it teaches children about freedom and courage. Valentine’s Day extols love. And Memorial Day honors sacrifice and inspires children to learn about the past.
These are the true lessons and virtues learned by children carrying pumpkins and wearing buckled hats: freedom, exploration, comity, work, courage, sacrifice, and heritage. Rather than lauding such common lessons and sharing a heritage, misguided adults often tell children to find role models who match their specific ethnic makeup. Blacks should not dream of becoming Albert Einstein. And whites should not strive to emulate Martin Luther King. This trend splinters communities and clouds our children’s dreams. When I was a kid, my hero was not, like me, a blue-eyed boy from the New Jersey shore. My hero was a retired black man from Alabama. His name was Willie Mays. When I received my Little League uniform, I asked my mother to sew the number “24” on the back. My mother was not a terrific seamstress and I was not the swiftest center fielder. But I am glad my coach didn’t force me to change my number so my complexion matched my hero’s.
It is important that a revival in national spirit encompass immigrants, too. A new Polish immigrant, for example, should be able to call George Washington his forefather with just as much conviction as the oldest WASP family in Virginia. A Thanksgiving turkey should look just as tasty whether surrounded by plates of kielbasa, steaming bowls of teriyaki beef, or black beans and rice. Immigrants who have braved the seas and the bureaucrats may carry in their DNA an even greater spark for daring and grit. It is a disservice to them if we do not insist that they join in our national story, as if they had been here for a very long time. That’s why I would insist that anyone applying for citizenship or a green card have their passports stamped at no fewer than five historical landmarks and museums. And I would require any student applying for a government loan to do the same. How can you expect immigrants or young people to admire the country if they think it was born yesterday?
Excerpted from The Price of Prosperity. Copyright © 2016 by Todd G. Buchholz. Reprinted with permission of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers
Todd G. Buchholz is a former White House director of economic policy, managing director of the legendary Tiger hedge fund, and an award-winning teacher at Harvard. The author of The Price of Prosperity: Why Rich Nations Fail and How to Renew Them, New Ideas from Dead CEOs, and New Ideas from Dead Economists, among others, he has written for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Time, Reader’s Digest, and The Washington Post, and he is a regular commentator on CNN, ABC News, Fox News, PBS, CNBC, The Daily Show and NPR radio. He is also a co-producer of the Broadway hit Jersey Boys and the inventor of the Math Arrow. Rated as one of “The 21 Top Speakers for the 21st Century,” Buchholz delivered keynote speeches to more than 100,000 people last year alone. He lives in San Diego, California.