Having just passed one of the more enjoyable Fourth of Julys in recent memory, with 360-degree fireworks—and I am a sucker for fireworks—and some fine reunions with summer neighbors, I got to thinking what it is that makes this holiday so special for me.
Sure, there are recollections of cousins and cookouts, and those are wonderful. But I’m a child of the late 60s (that is, I was 18 in the Year of the Assassin, 1968), and generally speaking displays of unadulterated patriotism trigger a reflex of at least mild skepticism; they tend to make me want to listen to more Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
But not the Fourth. For me the Fourth is a day about things that get me viscerally.
The first is the sheer nerve of the Continental Congress and those who assembled enough proto-state apparatus not only to start a war against the most powerful empire on earth but also to cook up a document listing their both their grievances and their claims whose principles and language still ring down the ages. Those guys (and guys they were) were nothing if not gutsy, and I admit to getting misty at the closing, when they “mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honour.” They really meant it.
There’s something amazingly human and special about people working together, people sticking up for one another and committing themselves to action on behalf of a cause; watching fire trucks speed to the scene of a fire gives me goosebumps, the same goosebumps I used to get as a coach in those moments when my team came together in that special way that transcended what was possible. The same goosebumps I get at the late scene (spoiler alert) in Finding Forrester when Forrester stands up for Jamal and the doubters and skeptics are vanquished. The same goosebumps I get in the last minutes of opening faculty meetings when the vibe is just right and the year ahead looks so exciting.
Clearly I’m not just a sucker for fireworks. I’m a sucker for the collective will and collective effort, for group feeling (I’ve referenced Ibn Khaldun and the concept of asabiya here before). It’s not just because it’s nice not to work alone; it’s because it’s wonderful to imagine a world of common effort and common purpose. Maybe in 2012 it’s all the more wonderful because our political life, at least, is so fractured. Maybe it’s also because working as an independent school teacher in the 21st century I am experiencing that group feeling more and more with each passing year; times have changed since I entered this profession.
Another thing I like about the Fourth of July is that it is the foundation, in a roundabout way, of the liberties that independent schools have been given to develop as we will, to respond to the needs of our students not in lockstep but free from “abuses and usurpations”—and I wonder, as I read those words in the Declaration, how many public school teachers might feel inclined to draw up a Declaration-esque bill of particulars against the politicians and ideologues who have spent the past couple of decades building constraints around public education.
The last thing I love about the Fourth and the Declaration of Independence, as I read it, is that the day and the document proclaim a hopeful vision of what life can and should be, a vision based on the idea that people given the opportunity to enjoy “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” are likely to create something good, something positive.
While the signers of the Declaration weren’t all raving devotees of Rousseau, there is a Rousseau-ishness about their impulses that is echoed in the impulse governing most happy and effective schools: the belief that kids, given the freedom to create their environment and make decisions about their own lives and their own world, will generally do the right things and try to do them well. The founders had an ideal, an ideal less concrete and specific than lofty and optimistic, and I think that in independent schools we can find such idealism embedded not just in our missions but in the yearly goals of our teachers and above all in the yearnings of our students, both daily and deep.
I’ve been called a cockeyed optimist and a Romantic, and I guess I am. I want to believe in a better future and a better world, and somehow the Fourth of July, pageantry and all, brings that out in me.