America is propelled forward by its sustaining myths

December 2, 2008 by

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After being an enthusiastic supporter of Hillary Clinton, it took me a while to come around to Barack Obama. I would have felt better if he had completed a full term in the Senate and had a more of track record by which I could assess his ability to lead. By the third debate and Colin Powell’s reasoned endorsement, I felt certain that pulling the old-fashioned NY voting-booth lever for Obama was going to be more than merely preferring a Democrat over a Republican in this year’s election.

As a pragmatist, I am mostly taking a wait-and-see attitude for final confirmation of my vote. However, based on Senator Obama’s victory speech, I have no doubts that at least the national conversation will be elevated by his inspiring rhetorical skill.

Obama’s election night speech, the words and the spectacle, confirmed for me the mythic vision of America I was educated on, an America which sees liberty and diversity as powerful guiding metaphors for the shaping of national, communal, corporate and individual agendas. For me, the beauty of America is that we all have hyphenated identities, and Obama’s election symbolizes how far we have come in making this the operating principle of our society. Sure, there is more work to do and as Senator Obama said that night:

And to all those who have wondered if America’s beacon still burns as bright – tonight we proved once more that the true strength of our nation comes not from our the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity, and unyielding hope. For that is the true genius of America – that America can change. Our union can be perfected. And what we have already achieved gives us hope for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.

In my educational work, I have been pushing an approach that says contemporary students will be more engaged in and more strongly committed to making the world a better place if critical thinking is a foundational principle of their education from the very beginning. As I reflected on election night 2008 and on my American upbringing, I was reminded of how important it is to teach and, even preach, about ideal vision, what some call myth, knowing full well reality exposes imperfect and conflicting applications of that vision. Without ideal vision, waves of immigrants would not have had the audacity to demand better treatment soon after arriving on American soil nor would the grandchildren of slaves have marched in confident protest during the civil rights era. Their struggles and our future rest on the conviction in another American ideal articulated by the president-elect: “Our union can be perfected.” And in the 21st century this conviction will best be tested within a global dialogue.

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