In 2008, I wrote a book called “Simply Success” in which I shared tips and secrets I learned co-founding and building America’s largest direct marketer of office supplies. I wrote, “the culture of a company is the most powerful driving force within that company, just as it is with individuals and with nations.”
You don’t need to be a titan of business to appreciate the importance of culture. America’s Founders understood it intuitively. They drafted a mission statement – the Declaration of Independence – that remains one of the most important documents in the history of human freedom. Then, they created a Constitution; a “strategic plan” to realize that mission. And over the past 243 years we have come closer and closer to realizing it. Slavery was abolished. Women got the vote. We ended Jim Crow. We grew and prospered. We became a country in which people were able to achieve great success and live out their dreams because we stayed focused on that mission and had a good strategic plan to achieve it. But none of it would have been possible without a culture celebrating freedom of the individual, personal responsibility, hard work, and earned achievement.
But today, all of that is being threatened from within. Politicians promise a lot of “free” stuff with no identifiable way to pay for it. Some of them openly admit they don’t care about cost and that their only concern is “return on investment” (which doesn’t make sense because, as those of us who’ve run businesses know, one can’t calculate ROI with knowing the investment). People who call themselves socialists roam the halls of Congress. They want to buy our votes with talk of giveaways and income inequality and neo-Marxist class division.
But politicians generally respond to, rather than set, cultural trends. Thus, it stands to reason that the socialist pronouncements of leading politicians suggest a much more troubling cultural rot running well beneath the surface.
In recent decades, the engines of our culture and the institutions that guide, direct, and restrain them have failed to adapt to the contemporary reality of historically unsurpassed wealth and freedom. During this time, we’ve emphasized teaching kids the “what” of these realities – for example, vitally important STEM education – without sufficiently teaching the “how”: the set of underlying values that allowed us to achieve them. Today, American civics and history are not taught in many of our K-12 schools or in many of our universities. In many universities, someone can graduate as a history major without taking a single course in American history.
Two recent developments give me hope for a better future.
First, educators and the college market now seem to understand the importance of teaching American civics at the secondary school level. While 30 states still require only a semester of civics education as a requirement for graduation from high school – and, appallingly, eleven states still have no civics requirement at all – nine states and the District of Columbia have now moved to a full year civics requirement. Furthermore, the College Board, which administers the SAT test for college entrance, has been adapting both its college entrance exam and its Advanced Placement courses to focus more heavily on knowledge and understanding of the Constitution because they view it as necessary to success in college and life.
Second, a new and soon to be published book by Professor Wilfred M. McClay at the University of Oklahoma, “Land of Hope, An Invitation To The great American Story,” will be a great resource for high school teachers and students. Professor McClay weaves our founding principles and American political thought into the wonderful story of our history, warts and all. When textbooks and policies change, we’ll also need people who can passionately teach these principles to our kids. That’s why, 14 years ago, I founded the Jack Miller Center to build a cadre of professors across the county focused on improving teaching and researching and struggling with our founding ideas on campus. Today, we work with over 900 professors on 300 campuses. And it’s why the next step is giving our high schools the resources and training they need to step up to the plate.
But it all starts with culture. The policies and textbooks and higher education market don’t change unless culture demands it. Unless you and I demand it. Unless we get our friends and neighbors, the sovereign citizens of the United States, to demand it.
Re-introducing generations of students to our founding principles and texts won’t be easy. It will take a lot of hard work. But it can be done. The great project has already started. And our every effort is worthwhile when considering that the stakes are no less than preserving our great Republic.
Mr. Miller is the co-founder and former CEO of Quill Corp. Today, he is co-chair of Millbrook Properties, and the founder and Chairman of the Jack Miller Center. You can follow him on Twitter @JackMillerJMC.