Yesterday our nation marked its 241st birthday, as usual celebrated by fireworks and barbecues. This year the origin of the United States of America carries special meaning for me, as it was the scholarly approach to the Declaration of Independence by a remarkable professor that simultaneously strengthened my patriotism and launched me on an academic career.
That event in my life a half a century ago would not be worth mentioning, aside from the fact that Prof. Robert Sasseen passed away last month at the age of 85. But within the context of America’s continuing crisis of identity and the downward spiral of its colleges and universities, it provides a lesson on how these parallel developments can be understood and benefited from.
Higher education in the 1960s was tempestuous and even dangerous. But long before, professors of political science and history had been teaching that our country was founded by men who professed dedication to rule by the people and equal rights, but betrayed their fellow citizens with a hypocritical Declaration and a flawed Constitution. The effects of that teaching have been both harmful and profound.
Thus, in my American government course at San Jose State College in 1961, the textbook took dutiful note of the founding era, but directed students’ attention far more to constitutional and extra-constitutional changes that had taken place in the years following, described as “progress” toward a more professional and caring regime. While no overt hostility was on display toward the founding, the tone of condescension was obvious.
It was not surprising, then, in the midst of long-overdue demands for equal rights and passionate debate about the war in Southeast Asia, that the principles and policies which characterized the founding generation should be roundly ignored in favor of nostrums such as “participatory democracy” and tactics such as violence in the streets. Without the political prudence that had guided the nation through past trials, counterproductive and even seditious approaches to political problems were inevitable.
Having come to regard my college education as largely something to be endured in order to obtain a worthwhile profession (which at first was journalism), I had little expectation that any force existed within the academy that would fight back against the madness or defend the country’s heritage. Fortunately, I was wrong.
The first lecture in Prof. Sasseen’s course in American political thought was devoted to the Declaration of Independence, which he commenced by reading the entire document and followed up with explication, analysis and even critique. I was both pleased and astonished. That document proclaimed to the world on July 4, 1776 did not belong to the long-ago and irrelevant past, he showed, but was still central to understanding our nation’s journey.
As I got to know Prof. Sasseen better, I learned that he was “no liberal” but in fact the beneficiary of a Roman Catholic education at the University of Notre Dame and a classical liberal education at the University of Chicago. Therefore, he saw the world very differently from nearly all of his social science colleagues. Indeed, attempts to politicize San Jose State and to practice “civil” disobedience, brought forth his firm and reasoned opposition.
Even after publicly criticizing the college administration for temporizing with the leftists advocating these unworthy causes, he was actually appointed a faculty watchdog and eventually became the college dean! After several years in that position, it was the good fortune of the University of Dallas, a Jesuit school, to have him as its president from 1981 to 1995. In retirement, he taught a few courses and even took some, before he removed to Salem, Oregon, where he spent his remaining years.
Political philosopher Leo Strauss, both Prof. Sasseen’s teacher and mine, once wrote that he looked forward to finding in his classroom the “puppies of the human race,” meaning those who love learning about the greatest things, a hope I shared during my 33 years of teaching at Barstow Community College. But that clearly goes both ways, as I discovered in the spring of 1967.
There are multiple reasons for despair about our current political situation, of course. But as another of my teachers, Prof. Harry Jaffa at the Claremont Graduate School, maintained, there are also many reasons for hope. For while people who misunderstand their rights and duties as American citizens are numerous, God in his mercy does not fail to send many people who clearly grasp those rights and duties.
Higher education informed much of what America’s founders said and did two centuries ago, and it can do so now. But it wasn’t easy then and it isn’t now. As John Kennedy said in a different context, we do what we need to do not because it is easy, but because it is hard.
Richard Reeb taught political science, philosophy and journalism at Barstow Community College from 1970 to 2003. He is the author of "Taking Journalism Seriously: 'Objectivity' as a Partisan Cause" (University Press of America, 1999). He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org