The Past Illuminates the Present

We live in dangerous times. But we are hardly the first to do so. The questions that engage us (or that should engage us) have been the subject of books and essays by great minds for centuries. Too few of us are familiar with those works.

The Past Illuminates the Present__________________________ 

 

We live in dangerous times. But we are hardly the first to do so. The questions that engage us (or that should engage us) have been the subject of books and essays by great minds for centuries. Too few of us are familiar with those works.

 

That lack of familiarity, coupled with a belief in the importance of preserving what great minds have written on the subjects of liberty, security, and the proper role of the state, preoccupies the folks at the Remnant Trust. The Trust acquires first editions of important works on these subjects, which it calls the “Wisdom of the Ages,” and makes those originals available through exhibits on college campuses and elsewhere. It also distributes reprints faithful to the originals—that is, copies that have not been expurgated, modernized or condensed. This year, however, something new is being tried.

 

Brian Bex, the Trust’s Director, is bringing the Wisdom of the Ages into the IUPUI classroom. In “The Classic Confrontation: Public Policy Then and Now,” Brian and I will share Emerson, Bentham, Thoreau, Spencer and many others with students who seldom see their original words. And they will see the original words; in addition to reprints, first editions will be brought into the classroom where students can leaf through them and touch a piece of history. It won’t all be history, however. Students will compare these seminal works with selections from influential contemporary political philosophers: Rawls, Nussbaum, Galston and others.

 

What do we hope to accomplish with this experiment? As the course syllabus puts it,

 

While many of the issues citizens will face in the 21st Century will take new forms, the essential question of public policy remains the relationship of the individual to his community, the amount of authority to be vested in governing institutions, and the ends for which that authority can or should be used.  This course will consider what writers and thinkers, contemporary and past, have had to say about those very foundational issues.

 

While the selections certainly reflect differing opinions on a range of issues, it is fair to say that they also represent a significant underlying consensus on the essential components of a just society:  individual liberties, representative government, vigorous and informed public debate, and democratic deliberation. They  uniformly advocate what academicians call “transparency”—the right of the people to be informed about the activities of their government.

 

Virtually all would agree with the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, which recently ruled that the Bush  Administration cannot continue its practice of holding hundreds of deportation hearings in secret, because those being deported “might” have links to terrorism. “Democracies die behind closed doors” wrote Judge Damon Keith. “When the government begins closing doors, it selectively controls information rightfully belonging to the people. Selective information is misinformation.” The case joins a series of recent decisions finding the Administration guilty of abusing its powers.

 

Lord Acton was right: power corrupts. Americans are not well served by a government that discounts the Wisdom of the Ages.