A neighbor of mine, age 15, left the picnic on the Fourth of July expecting to set off fireworks in the family. He had a declaration of his own: "I'm off to play one of those violent video games the Supreme Court says are protected by my First Amendment rights."
He got a groan or two (probably less than he had hoped for), but one of the grown-ups expressed the hopeful view: "Well, at least the Bill of Rights has got his attention." Between the parades and the pyrotechnics that light up night skies above purple mountain majesties and fruited plain, we usually pay scant attention to the truths and values that bind us together as a nation.
When I wrote of the lack of learning of the nation's history by most of our schoolchildren, someone sent me a book titled, "What So Proudly We Hail: the American Soul in Story, Speech and Song." It contains documents that were once our common heritage but have been all but lost along the way.
Amy and Leon Kass and Diane Schaub have high hopes for their book: "Its ultimate goal, stated without apology, is to produce better patriots and better citizens, men and women knowingly and thoughtfully attached to our country, devoted to its ideals and eager to live an active civic life." They worry about the effect of cynicism and apathy of Americans watching politicians strut across the public stage. Many of us no longer thrive in the robust civic engagement flowing from a sense of who we are and how we got that way.
We've always had to endure endless backbiting and mudslinging of seekers of office, but our sense of the American character, our national identity, was once secure in the schools, expressed in ways as simple as requiring one and all to memorize Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address." (Do any teachers do that anymore?)
With the omniscient technology of the social media, which emphasizes spontaneity, fragmentation and the flaws of public officials, we're losing sight of the "specialness" of a nation dedicated to "a government of the people, by the people, for the people."
President Calvin Coolidge succinctly summed up the American experience on the occasion of the nation's sesquicentennial in 1926: "Governments don't make ideals, but ideals make governments."