Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Unstinting openhandedness

I've been reading a review of the book When I Was a Child I Read Books by Marilynne Robinson. The review is in March/April 2012 edition of The Washington Monthly and written by Benjamin Dueholm. To clarify: I've read the review, not the book.

The book discusses how Calvinism has affected American life. As part of the Protestant Reformation John Calvin started a strain of Christianity. We remember him most because of the sternness of the New England Puritans. But there was a much more important idea -- "society as a whole may be good and just." This came from the Old Testament and its many commandments of generosity towards freed slaves, widows, orphans, landless, and foreigners. That developed into "unstinting openhandedness" and today's liberalism. A quote that caught my attention:
Robinson invokes the idea of freedom as a mutual gift: “Western society at its best expresses the serene sort of courage that allows us to grant one another real safety, real autonomy, the means to think and act as judgment and conscience dictate.” This “great mutual courtesy”— the modesty of metaphor here is typical of Robinson’s work—relies on mutual education, respect, and trust. “We were centuries in building these courtesies,” she goes on, noting that they are under fierce attack in the name of economic and security threats. “Without them ‘Western civilization’ would be an empty phrase.”

Education in particular is both central to this great mutual courtesy and, perhaps not coincidentally, a major target of the austerity disciples. For Robinson, education is the *sine qua non* of the American democratic experiment, “our most distinctive achievement.” Our fragile and historically rare commitment to educating everyone for free is not only the epitome of our egalitarian ideals (however poorly realized), it is also the cause of our culture’s excellence and dynamism.

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