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Giving thanks for American resilience

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By David Ignatius
Thursday, November 25, 2010

CAMBRIDGE, MASS.

Thanksgiving is America's favorite holiday because it's a time when we put aside our cares, much as the struggling Pilgrims did nearly four centuries ago, and eat a gut-busting meal without worrying about the "out years." It's a holiday for a bold but improvident nation, which sums us up today as it did at the first Thanksgiving in 1621.

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But even though Thanksgiving is about optimism - our national secular religion that the "pie," metaphorically, will keep getting bigger - I would wager that around the groaning table this year, you'll hear revelers worrying about national decline. Certainly I've heard it a lot lately, from departing Obama administration officials, global leaders, and my family and friends. There's a sense that something is torn in the national quilt, and nobody quite knows how to mend it.

I'm as prone to "declinism" as the next over-mortgaged middle-aged guy. But this Thanksgiving, let me offer some reasons why we should temper a proper concern about this future with some hope that the American essentials are still in place. These thoughts are prompted by a visit this week to give a seminar at Harvard University, where I was an undergraduate 40 years ago.

First, I think about the very existence of Harvard. It was founded in 1636, just 15 years after that desperate first Thanksgiving. It said something about the people who created our nation that they gave education such a prominent role: Even in the wilderness of the new nation, knowledge and reason were to be the guides.

It's fashionable with the Sarah Palin set to attack Harvard and treat its graduates as elitists. But if you spend any time on campus, you see students from all over the world - an astonishing number these days with roots in Asia - whose chief assets are brainpower and hard work. You can't "fix" a Harvard degree the way you can most things in life. The reality of the place is brute meritocracy.

That's why students from other countries want to come to American universities so desperately - not just Harvard but hundreds of other fine schools that put learning first. This is a universal human dream - that brains, not brawn, will rule - and the fact that America has the world's finest institutions of higher education may be our greatest single national asset. So be careful, Sarah Palin, when you trash the Ivy League. This is a national-security issue.

Pondering the prospect of American decline in the year 2010, I think back to when I was an undergraduate. Now that was a traumatized country. Consider:

l America was losing the war in Vietnam to a peasant army of guerrillas. The number of American troops had peaked, not at the current level in Afghanistan of about 100,000, but at 500,000. And the number of Americans who died in Vietnam was a horrifying 58,000.

l Our economy was beginning the "great inflation," a long period of economic trouble that lasted nearly 15 years and produced dismally bad policies such as wage-price controls. On my first mortgage, the interest rate was about triple what someone would pay today.

l The country was traumatized by social movements whose reverberations are still echoing. That was the triumph of the '60s - that they loosed these movements for the liberation of women, gay men and lesbians, blacks and Hispanics. We all benefit from the new freedoms that were embraced in those years. But at the time, it felt to many people like decline.

The president of Harvard when I entered was a man named Nathan Marsh Pusey. It was his unlucky task to preside over a university that, like the nation, was coming apart at the seams. I was more antiwar than most, and I gave my professors more than my share of trouble.

Pusey was a Harvard man, an austere intellectual who had his eyes on that shining city on the hill. Toward the end of his tenure, he said of the turbulence we saw all around us that it should give us "a restraining awareness of the dubiety of all human ends." I wasn't sure what he meant then, but year by year I have become more convinced he was right.

So Happy Thanksgiving. It's part of the American character to worry about hardship and decline. But our history tells us that - if we keep our wits and hold tight to sweet reason, freedom and creativity - we always seem to prove the naysayers wrong.

davidignatius@washpost.com


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