Posted in Writings
Published in The Atlantic
I was born in Canada, and my sense of national identity, like that of many Canadians, was formed in direct relation—perhaps in opposition—to the great colossus to the south. We were a country that aspired not to the lofty abstractions of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” but to the more prosaic benefits of “peace, order, and good government.” I have always been proud of Canada’s basic values—but I have also envied the grandeur of the American experiment, even in the face of its shortcomings and contradictions.
When I first came to the United States, in the mid-2000s, I expected, perhaps naively, that this country would be a bastion of civic learning. Surely the stewards of the world’s first modern democracy would understand the need to cultivate an understanding of both its majesty and its mechanics—the Enlightenment ideas that animate it and the institutions that make it work. But when my children enrolled in high school in Philadelphia, they received only a weak introduction to any of this. That modest exposure, however, was far more elaborate than what many other children across the country receive. Two years ago, during a seminar at Johns Hopkins University, I asked my students if any of them had learned about core democratic ideas and institutions in high school. Only a smattering of hands went up—and those few were at half-mast.