by: Thomas H. Little, Ph.D. and SLLF Director of Curriculum Development and Research

“We ain’t what we oughta be. We ain’t what we want to be. We ain’t what we gonna be. But, thank God, we ain’t what we was.” Martin Luther King, Jr.

A few years ago, country singer Alan Jackson released a seemingly autobiographical song entitled “Work in Progress” that could likely serve as an anthem to husbands everywhere! As I enjoyed SLLF’s latest program, “Framing America’s Future,” our first in-person gathering in over a year and a half, I was reminded of that song and the quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. Although America is approaching its 250th birthday, we as a nation have always been and will always be a work in progress, striving to be “what we oughta be.” Each of the program sessions reminded me that we are indeed a work in progress.

We began the program with the National Constitution Center’s “Freedom Rising.” Combining inspiring visuals and narrative, the presentation reminds us of the common history that binds us as well as the promising future that lies ahead, and of our combined responsibility to protect that history and create that future.

Next, Pulitzer Prize winning author Rick Atkinson regaled us with stories of the birth of our nation and the battles, both physical and rhetorical, that led to the creation of a new nation governed by, for and of the people. He reminded us that a greater proportion of the nation’s population died during America’s battle for independence than in any other conflict apart from the American Civil War. The nation that we inherit today, though imperfect, was bought at the cost of much blood and treasure of those who pledged their “lives, liberty and sacred honor” to the cause. It is up to us to protect and honor that inheritance.

Then, Jeffrey Rosen, the President and CEO of the National Constitution Center, reminded us that two centuries earlier and just 300 yards from where we were gathered, 56 men wrote the document that still governs our nation today. Because we hold the US Constitution in such reverence, it is easy to think that somehow it was written by divine providence, However, we know from historical records that the final document was the result of heated debates, multiple revisions and difficult compromises, and the realization that some of these compromises left significant problems, like slavery and women’s rights, unresolved. We can learn more about those compromises from the interactive National Constitution Center website and perhaps better understand the significance of compromise today.

On Saturday morning, we shifted our focus from the actions of past leaders to the opportunities and obligations of today’s leaders. The day began with an inspiring performance by poet, literary performer and educator Regie Gibson. With his performance of “Call Me American,” Gibson reminded us that regardless of where we came from and our ethnic backgrounds, we are all Americans with much more that unites us than divides us. It is up to each of us to reach out and find that common humanity that unites us all.

Then, we turned to pollster Kristen Soltis Anderson who offered insights into American’s attitudes on a variety of issues with “Polarization: What is It and How Can We Overcome It.” She showed us data suggesting that our differences on issue positions are not that different from the past, but what has changed is our attitude toward the other party, “Our polarization happens not because we disagree on everything. It happens because we view the other party as a threat.” So, it is up to responsible leaders to “turn down the temperature” by reminding their constituents that good people can disagree. Further, while voters talk of a desire to “fight,” a majority still prefer efforts to work across partisan and ideological lines. In other words, even in the midst of these divisions, we can continue to progress as a nation and a people with the efforts of responsible leaders.

Finally, to wrap up our discussion of the future of America, Dr. Jared Harris took us back 2,400 years to examine Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave.” Dr. Harris led a spirited discussion about the limits and obligations of leadership. Are we all defined and limited by our own ideological chains and experiential caves? How can we better understand the things that bind our constituents and opponents? What obligations do leaders have to “enlighten” those trapped by their own limited perspectives? If we as a nation are to continue to move forward, we need leaders who are willing to stand up for truth, especially in this age of misinformation, and try to lead their constituents (and perhaps themselves) out of their ideological and partisan caves.

So how do we do this? How do we overcome the differences and divisions that seem to paralyze our nation and our states so we can continue to move forward as that “work in progress?” Perhaps the answer to that question is best summed up by one program participant who, when asked to respond to the question about specific actions he would take to move us forward, reminded us that beyond being Democrats or Republicans, liberals or conservatives, we are all Americans and more significantly, all human beings. To move forward, we must recognize and honor the humanity in all of us, regardless of race, party or ideology. If we can do that, we will be getting very close to being “what we oughta be!”