Life, Liberty, etc. _______________________________ Published 12/10/01 in the Connecticut Law Tribune
The Making of An American By Martha A. Dean ________________________________ Being American is more than being born on a certain piece of real estate. It means adopting American values. Rather than focusing blame on schools or popular culture for the deficits widely recognized in this area, it is time to consider what parents are teaching children -directly and indirectly -- at home. It can be difficult being part of a family that sets standards out of sync with mass culture -- standards based on character and substantive achievement. Even so, there are families that see this as their goal and that manage to achieve it despite the challenges. The values we choose are much more than personal attributes. They dictate the moral and legal means we select to achieve society’s broader goals. Consider the values reflected in an advertisement for prosthetics taped to my office wall. In it an older man in his outdoors clothes, leans on a tall walking stick. He has a sparkle to his grin. Bicycling shorts reveal a mechanical leg (his own leg lost in an accident at age fourteen). The ad reads: “The hat and shirt have canoed 400 miles of Maine’s rivers and lakes. The shorts have bicycled 2400 miles through Ireland, Scotland, New York, Vermont and New Hampshire. The boots and staff have hiked England’s Pennine Way (175 miles). Along the way, Bob managed to found seven companies, and be father to five children. If you ask Bob what his greatest accomplishment has been, though, he’ll tell you it was convincing Nancy to marry him 50 years ago.” The ad concludes in large, bold letters: “It’s the ABILITY, Not the DISABILITY.” This man is my father. It is said that a family is a microcosm of civilization and the most important civilizing influence in human lives. Certainly this was true in ours. To be part of the family, we had to live up to what that meant. We were taught: “Deans leave things better when they leave them than when they find them.” “Deans solve problems.” “Deans don’t whine.” “Deans give back in recognition of all they have been given in life.” Historically, similar lessons were an integral part of the teachings of virtually every American family. When my older brother was struggling in high school with what he wanted to be, my father’s only words of advice were: “It doesn’t matter what you decide upon -- truck driver, or anything else -- what matters is that you dedicate yourself to becoming the very best that you can be.” This did not necessarily mean being better than anyone else, he said, but being the best that my brother was capable of. Coming from a man who, in his twenties, was one of the youngest professors ever at MIT, this was astounding advice. There was no pressure to achieve in the eyes of others. Instead, we were encouraged to set high expectations for ourselves, and then to strive to achieve our personal goals. When choosing courses during my first year of college, I asked my father how to decide. His simple advice was to select courses that teach you how to think -- not what to think -- and that are taught by the best professors, no matter how difficult or what the likely outcome for a grade. Your major course of study should be in an area that requires the guidance of professors,
he recommended, leaving studies such as history (to which I was drawn) for study throughout life. The things we like and are naturally interested in, he said, we will always study on our own. Neither my father nor my mother inquired about our grades or pushed us to achieve high grades, which showed at times on our report cards. It was at the age of six that the compelling and empowering quality of my father’s teachings was most vividly revealed. Sitting on my parents’ bed with my eldest sister, I again begged for a horse. My father looked directly at me, and with a twinkle said: “We are not going to give you a horse -- but I will teach you how to get one for yourself.” Over the following weeks, he showed me how to start a business using a push lawnmower and how to save money. He encouraged me to read everything I could on horses, in addition to learning to ride. Five years later, at the age of eleven, I had enough money -- but nowhere to keep the horse. My father helped me to find an old barn and a field within a bike-ride of our home, and to negotiate the $1 per year lease with the property’s owner, a church. But the lesson of the horse also taught me that even wise and well-intentioned people, such as my father, are sometimes fallible. On my first day in the saddle, a brisk April wind whipped the frisky horse high into the air. Returning from a trip, my father was outraged to find that the horse had bucked me off and caused three compressed vertebrae. To my astonishment, he insisted that it be sold. It was then that my mother stepped in to complete the lesson my father had begun. “If we had given her the horse,” she said quietly to my father, as they sat by my hospital bed, “we could take it away. But she bought it herself, and it is now her decision whether to keep it.” In the years that followed, that spunky horse and I went on to many victories, both public and private. It was in this way that my parents taught their children the meaning of being American: how to reap the rewards that flow from responsibility, effort, perseverance, skill -- and a belief that anything is possible. Whether we choose to teach these values in the home dictates the quality of the broader culture we achieve.