We’re free to think freely

Our governance systems work best when citizens hunt down true facts and thoroughly analyze them to reach their own conclusions — which may, or may not, comport with the fads of the day. Read the commentary below and then comment yourself.

By the AJC Editorial Board

Even the brightest, fastest-rising Independence Day fireworks eventually arc over and tumble downward, fading into darkened skies.

Nations and regions can follow a similar trajectory. It can be avoided.

That’s worth considering even as we move beyond another Fourth of July. For independence is a powerful word. It summons to mind the best attributes of a people who’ve historically each made up their own mind and acted decisively on conclusions thus reached. That’s how Atlanta pursued, and captured, the Olympics. It’s what led us to plan for and build an airport when trains and buses were the most-popular travel modes. These and other spunky moves paid off.

This self-reliant streak has been in our national psyche since the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776. During colonial times, the current buzz-phrase critical thinking was likely not known, but the concept surely was. The Declaration’s signers, including three Georgians, reasoned together, and stuck together, to craft a revolutionary document.

Their work and thinking still set a sound example for us, and we need more of such today. Our governance systems work best when citizens hunt down true facts and thoroughly analyze them to reach their own conclusions — which may, or may not, comport with the fads of the day.

The ability to apply common-sense logic to our challenges, conceive audacious strategies and act on them is in too short supply today, we’d argue. We need it to make a comeback. Otherwise, our prosperity and perhaps ultimately, our very freedom, is at risk.

America has historically excelled at teaching its people to think; these lessons happened in schools, homes and everywhere in between.

Robust thinking backed by equally muscular action has helped keep us free.

Embracing and practicing free thinking doesn’t take a college degree. It requires only a desire to examine all relevant sides of an issue and weigh them rigorously to reach sound conclusions.

Atlantans will show their skill at these tasks in just a few weeks. The July 31 penny sales tax vote for transportation represents the most rigorous civic test we’ve seen perhaps in decades.

Will voters act solely on a disdain for new taxes? That would leave congestion solutions for another year.

Or will they choose based on an equally powerful dislike of the traffic clogs that waste our time and money?

Reaching sound decisions on the transportation special purpose local option sales tax should, in our view, entail considering arguments and data from both camps above.

Such logical rigor is a large part of what has made the American experiment work so well for so long.

As important also is the ability and willingness to argue boldly for one’s carefully reasoned views. That process shouldn’t be one-sided, either.

From a societal standpoint, making well-reasoned arguments works only if we sincerely listen to other sides. Only then can we successfully seek the consensus and compromises necessary to move civics from concept to reality.

If that’s done well, then we can act together to best govern and move our city, state and country toward the demands and opportunities of both today and the future.

Andre Jackson
for the Editorial Board

Don’t pick others to think for you

By Peter Morici

America is at risk.

Too often, Americans let others do their thinking for them, and this is eroding the prosperity and tolerance that bound together people from disparate origins into a single nation. It is threatening the foundations of our democracy.

The behavior and rhetoric of congressmen, politicians at all levels and activists across the country reveal citizens are increasingly divided into competing ideological camps. Too frequently, these embrace inaccurate and harmful generalizations about whole classes of people and institutions — immigrants increase crime or big business abuses the public interest — and about critical challenges of the day — bigger government subsidies are essential for resolving the health care crisis, or only more competition can provide affordable, high-quality care.

Too many Americans pick a camp, sign up for an ideology and put their brains on autopilot. Rather than weighing facts on issues, they twist information to fit the talking points of the tea party, the AFL-CIO or whatever large movement they hew toward, and together those groups and followers form much of the liberal and conservative bases of the Democratic and Republican parties.

This breeds terrible intolerance and great danger. Too often, conservatives act as if liberals are not merely wrong but stupid, and too many liberals judge conservatives as not only misguided but evil.

Mutually assured contempt frustrates compromise. Even worse, shouting, slogans and attack ads displace open-minded dialogue, and thwart the search for creative solutions to problems, when neither liberal nor conservative prescriptions are adequate.

For example, banking needs a lot of fixing — Main Street banks are not making enough loans to finance a growing economy, and Dodd-Frank reforms have not tamed the Wall Street casinos that nearly destroyed American capitalism. However, neither more regulation — JPMorgan had 110 embedded regulators when it lost $2 billion dollars trading this year — nor letting market forces discipline banks — that’s how they wrote all those bad mortgages — will fix what’s broken.

Yet President Barack Obama wants more bureaucrats, and Mitt Romney wants to scrap Dodd-Frank altogether.

On health care, Germany spends half of what the United States does and gets better outcomes without a British-style public health service or a free-market solution. It regulates health care in ways that neither Obama nor Romney is willing to consider, given their own ideological predilections and the predispositions of their respective party bases.

Worthy small business cannot get credit, health care gets ever more expensive, and America gets less prosperous and more like too much of Europe with each passing day.

Opportunity is essential to America. It’s why so many of our antecedents risked everything to come here — and without it, the incentive for hard work and enterprise is lost.

Thoughtless adherence to ideologies encourages public incivility and private intolerance. History teaches that those engender persecution, autocratic conduct and eventually authoritarian government.

A free people are free to think, but a people that chooses not to think cannot long be free.

Peter Morici is an economist and professor at the Smith School of Business, University of Maryland.

Liberal arts build truly open minds

By James W. Wagner

A few days after we’ve celebrated America’s determination to “let freedom ring,” it is still worth emphasizing the source of true freedom — an authentic self.

Simply defined, an authentic self exercises independent thought, examines closely held values, and acts with good judgment. Such selves are not necessarily rare, but they do require nurturing. A free society depends on them.

In a time of political polarization, psychologists note that we tend to favor facts that justify what we already believe — often the positions of our political parties or social groups. We give up our freedom to think for ourselves and surrender to what I call the “tyranny of membership.” It is tempting to bend personal convictions and values to those of the group.

To be fair, this is probably one way our species has strengthened social bonds and thus survived. But as an educator who seeks the full potential of men and women, I want more. Real education prepares individuals not only for success within the tribe but also for service to it, by honing judgment and shaping character. 
 America is heir to a great tradition whose aim is the education of authentic selves on which civil society depends — the tradition of the liberal arts.

The word “liberal” here carries no political freight. It comes from the Latin “artes liberales,” meaning those subjects that were thought necessary for free citizens to study. In their various formulations, the liberal arts brought together sciences (mathematics, geometry, astronomy, music) and linguistic arts (grammar, logic and rhetoric) as pathways for students to understand the world. Just as importantly, these “freeing arts” provided the means for understanding oneself and for acting freely. How so?

Among other things, they fostered critical thinking, the ability to look at reality and ask hard questions about it. They spurred creativity and imagination. They provided a sense of history, so that individuals could view themselves as part of humanity, in all its bewildering scope, variety and interest. And they led students, in the end, to develop authentic identity — a sense of oneself as a questioning, creative person in a particular community.

American colleges and universities are strong in the liberal arts. Other countries are taking note. Yes, we admit thousands of students from abroad to study engineering, medicine and business. Increasingly, though, students from around the world are attracted to the liberal arts.

At Emory, a Korean student might come to study business but change his major to film studies to become that country’s next great film director. An Indian student might arrive as a pre-med major and leave as a teacher, to instill creative learning in the next generation in Mumbai. A Chinese student might discover her own voice and use it to promote a kind of innovation and competitiveness espoused by her government but not yet developed in Chinese universities.

Countless international students seek out America’s liberal arts to escape their own hidebound systems — to transcend constraints, to hone their best judgment, and thus to attain liberty and build free societies. By educating both American and international students for authentic identity through the liberal arts, we truly can let freedom ring.

James W. Wagner is president of Emory University.


17 comments Add your comment

middleground

July 8th, 2012
9:48 pm

Not Hopeful. Well said. Hope the AJC prints that.

Dareekia

July 8th, 2012
8:53 pm

The “there is no Plan B” whine from the pro-TSPLOST people is such a crock. There’s always another, sometimes even a better, way to get things done.

If TSPLOST doesn’t pass GDOT and the counties may actually have to undertake such mind bending challenges as synchronizing the traffic signals to get traffic moving.

Not hopeful

July 8th, 2012
8:48 pm

I’m willing to tender the hypothesis that the almost 40 years of minimum competency testing, with only the latest iteration being No Child Left Ahead (and, for that matter, Race to the Bottom), with required scripted factoid recognition “standards” (not to be confused with curriculum) has left many members of our populace ill-equipped to address the complexities of today’s society and hence only too willing to swallow the sound-bite lies of the all too many politicians bilking the system for every ounce of power – however ill-gotten – they can grab – with the LAST thing on their minds being “for the good of society.”

While the so-called Common Core (hopefully a real curriculum, not just the haphazard “standards” we now live with) seems to be attempting to turn the tide toward providing kids “critical thinking” (use your label of choice here) skills, they are likely to be hijacked by the minimum-competency/four-choice bubble test raised test folk at what’s known as PAARC, whose primary goal seems to be to tell teachers HOW to teach rather than build better tests with which to actually measure said critical thinking skills.

Unless these travesties are finally addressed, I’m afraid I don’t see much hope for a college education being much help in combating the disinegration of America we’ve been watching.

On transportation, the legislature’s T-Splost pointedly leaves Georgia still the ONLY state failing to support its key city’s mass transit system. We could fantasize that the bigots who continue to make that choice might eventually be replaced, but not until Atlanta – and Georgia – become just another declining economic has-been. T-Splost might postpose or slow the disinegration, but my guess is that with the people we manage to elect to represent us, we’re still a day late and a dollar short.

middleground

July 8th, 2012
8:11 pm

Of course Emory imports students, the APS cheated Ga kids out of learning enough to attend Emory.
And the same folks, The Chamber of Commerce and polticians, who would cheat children now want to cheat you with TSPLOST. Do not believe their lies.
TSPLOST is a con job from a one party run state who will graft as much as they can from the funding.
One fact not reported: The project list contain projected costs of each. Those numbers are a guess.
This is a regressive tax that hurts the widows and ederly and young just starting out. If you vote yes you are hurting them. Just move state workers out of Atlanta and the problem is quickly solved.

Rick

July 8th, 2012
4:57 pm

Tsplost is just another opportunity for our career politicians to spend our money however they want under the guise of transportation. Atlanta roads have been under construction since I was a kid. I am old now. The tollway on 400 is a great example of what is going to happen. Say hello to higher taxes. If people get tired of the congestion maybe they will leave or better yet build a infrastructure of jobs that don’t require roads being used or adjust there hours of business. There is most certainly a better answer than raising taxes.

Mary Elizabeth

July 8th, 2012
12:16 pm

The bottom line is that Georgians are either going to support moving forward in the coming decades in their transportation infrastructure, or they are not. A vote against T- SPLOST is a vote to stay the same. The problem with that is that nothing stays the same, especially not transportation delivery, with the population in Georgia projected to increase by 46% by the year 2030.

According to the report from Georgia’s Office of Planning and Budget, released March 12, 2010, “Over the next two decades, between 2010 and 2030, the state’s population is projected
to grow by an additional 4.6 million people. According to the current projection,
Georgia’s population will increase 46%, from 10.1 to 14.7 million people by the year
2030.”

Professor Morici writes, “A free people are free to think, but a people that chooses not to think cannot be free.” This is correct, of course, but I would further state that it is important for citizens not only to think and analyze with facts and figures, beyond ideology, but also to think with multilayered dimensions, beyond simply facts and figures.

This is why I especially appreciated the editorial by Emory University’s president, James W. Wagner. President Wagner states that “America is heir to a great tradition whose aim is the education of authentic selves on which civil society depends – the tradition of the liberal arts. . . Among other things, they (liberal arts) fostered critical thinking, the ability to look at reality and ask hard questions about it. They spurred creativity and imagination. They provided a sense of history, so that individuals could view themselves as part of humanity, in all its bewildering scope, variety and interests. And they led students, in the end, to develop authentic identity – a sense of oneself as a questioning, creative person in a particular community.”

A liberal arts education, through its emphasis upon “creativity and imagination” as well as a “sense of history” helps to foster the quality of one’s thinking which should be complex and multilayered, not simply one-dimensional with facts and figures, either pro or con. For example, if citizens cannot imagine, in full dimensions, what Georgia will become in 2030, with a greatly increased population, without a state-of-the-art transportation system, they will have poorly served not only themselves and their immediate families, but also those increased numbers of Georgians who will reside in this state twenty years from today.

Retired Vet

July 8th, 2012
11:02 am

Chuck Allison

July 6th, 2012
10:53 pm

Also, the engineer makes it work; the artisan makes it approachable and desireable.