There’s a good bit of discussion these days about immigration and border policy. While good policy is crucial, so is the question of “why” people immigrate to the United States in the first place.
Historians estimate that between 1815 and 1915, more than 30 million people came to the United States in one of the largest population movements in human history. In the 20th century, millions came from around the world to escape socialist and communist tyranny, not to mention forced population movements in places like the Soviet Union.
A recent report from the Center for Immigration Studies states that 61 million legal and illegal immigrants currently reside in the United States, representing the most recent chapter of this remarkable and often contentious history.
What many Americans seem to miss, especially on our college and university campuses, is why so many millions of people have risked life and limb to join us in this truly exceptional spot on the planet.
A student newspaper, the Stanford Review, recently argued that the reinstatement of a required course on Western Civilization removed from the university’s curriculum in 1988 is one way to fix this lack of understanding. The student petition simply states that American citizens ought to know the roots of their nation’s political culture — both the good and the bad of it.
Their petition begins with a reference to President Obama’s 2014 statement on immigration reform. While his actual policies are more than a little befuddling, the president’s stated reasons to encourage new citizens were decidedly helpful. He said, “What makes us Americans is our shared commitment to an ideal — that all of us are created equal, and all of us have a chance to make of our lives what we will.”
While he left out “inalienable rights” and “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” as well as an explicit affirmation of a Creator (though he does say “created”), he also made no promises of “equal outcomes” or of a “nanny state” to look after new citizens. Rather, Mr. Obama acknowledged our God-given equality, as well as our right to pursue the dictates of our conscience.
From there, the Stanford petition makes its argument for a university course that might give us reason to believe that tens of millions of immigrants, voting with their feet, can’t be wrong.
It is an important fact, of course, that it was in our Western Civilization that the university system took its most profound shape. So we might say that every university in America ought to, at the very least, acknowledge the culture from which it arose.
However, more important is the fact that with a strong course like this, the students of Stanford would be introduced to non-European thinkers, such as Moses, Jesus and Augustine of Hippo. They would hear from Europeans, such as Aristotle and Locke, whose thoughts on political science deeply shaped the form of government enjoyed by the citizens of our nation — and the students of Stanford University.
Students would come to grips with the historians and philosophers who shaped our understanding of rights, of liberty, and of the inherent worth of the individual. Their conviction that one has a right to choose one’s leaders and so much else taken for granted by Stanford students will be found in the study of Western Civilization.
To be sure, students would also face moments in that history when these ideals had not existed, were in their infant form or were subject to the inconsistencies and hypocrisies that are part of any human endeavor. But they would also learn of the abolition of such things as slavery, through the work of the American Founding Fathers in the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, in the work of the English, evangelical reformer William Wilberforce, or of course, of Abraham Lincoln and all of the history he learned in preparation for the struggles of 1860-1865.
An ignorance of these things results in a lack of appreciation for what our ancestors have passed along to us. We become convinced that the arrogance of the modern world is all that need be considered. More than that, however, we lose sight of why the United States, as a recipient of the good that Western Civilization has to offer, was and still is a magnet for millions of pilgrims who, for more than 240 years, have been united by the desire to flee slavery and totalitarian governments in the search for a better life.
Thomas Jefferson, in his First Inaugural Address, spoke of what he called “the essential principles of our government.” These, he said, “form the bright constellation which has gone before us and guided our steps through an age of revolution and reformation. The wisdom of our sages and blood of our heroes have been devoted to their attainment. They should be the creed of our political faith, the text of civil instruction, the touchstone by which to try the services of those we trust; and should we wander from them in moments of error or of alarm, let us hasten to retrace our steps and to regain the road which alone leads to peace, liberty, and safety.”
A course teaching such things at Stanford University — and at all American colleges and schools — can help us understand the motivations of our new citizens, as well as those convictions that unite all of us who are blessed to be citizens of this great nation.