David Brooks, writing eloquently in mused on the idea of big loves and little loves in a recent Memorial Day column. It resonated powerfully for me during this five-week period between that holiday and the Fourth of July, when we have an opportunity to pay homage to those who founded this nation and those who have given their full measure in defense of the American ideal.
This seems especially important in this presidential election year where cynicism and idealism seem literally to be at war.
“Little loves,” Brooks wrote, “like for one’s children, one’s neighborhood or one’s garden, animate, nurture and care. The big loves, like for America or the cause of global human rights, inspire courage and greatness.”
He laments that big love is “almost a foreign language” in America and concludes that, “Before the country can achieve great things it has to relearn the ability to desire big things. It has to be willing to love again, even amid disappointments—to love things that are awesome, heroic and sublime.”
Thomas Jefferson’s Bill for the General Diffusion of Knowledge audaciously sought to lay out a schema for the educational benefit of the citizens of the Commonwealth of Virginia. Jefferson failed in his lifetime to see free, public schools established; the only portion of his educational dream realized was the establishment of the University of Virginia. His failure to get others to share his big love for education haunted him through the final days of his life, but he persevered, planting seeds that did one day bear fruit.
If we are to regain our collective ability to embrace big loves, education is imperative. The education of our citizenry is even more essential in our 21st century knowledge-based economy than it was in the agrarian age of our founding as a nation.
So many of the innovations and breakthroughs that have lengthened human life and enhanced our individual and collective human capacity come from the curious and disciplined minds and hands of our best-educated persons.
Our universities remain the envy of the world because of the diversity of our constellation of independent and publicly supported institutions. They ultimately are about preserving an understanding of our past with improved understanding of the human condition through the expansion of knowledge that can be passed on to future generations. Future progress and preservation of the American experiment in democracy depend on our ability to engage the benefits of the big love of education as broadly as possible across our entire population.
It is also critical to the economic well-being of our citizens. It creates the fuel for our collective ability to lift others—as those who are earning more pay more in taxes—and to become engaged citizens serving local and regional governmental bodies, volunteering in schools, religious organizations and serving in civic groups. Simply put, a rising tide lifts all boats. We need all the educated, productive citizens we can have so we have the ability to care for those less fortunate.
Let us all find ways to feel again the big love of country and the big love for education that are essential to producing the educated citizens who will make the American democracy experiment work.
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