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  • Writer's pictureKevin Graham

Collapse of an empire?

“Why just us?... Maybe the decision about what’s best for everyone should be left to… well, everyone.” (Samwell Tarly, Game of Thrones, final episode, May 19, 2019)

I shake my head a lot watching the news of the world these days. In response, my wife shakes her head watching me shake my head. “Why,” she asks, “do you waste so much time watching the same thing over and over?” She feels the same way about ‘Dirty Harry’ and ‘Die Hard’ so I can readily dismiss her objections as coming from someone who just doesn’t get it. The anticipation of a happy ending and the ‘good guys’ pulling one out of the fire is a classic motivator for action movies as a spectator sport.

Lately, however, even I have been wondering why I do what I do. Why do I listen to unending debates about corruption, obstruction, and constitutional crisis? Why am I working my way through every page and footnote of The Mueller Report? I’m a Canadian, after all. Why should I care? Am I just curiously watching my neighbour’s house burn down? Or am I a vigilant Canadian mouse, sleeping next to an elephant, mindful that any sudden moves by the beast could mean ‘game over’ for me?

Do I actually have hope for some singularly great heroic character to come riding in on a stallion, rescuing Western society from its sorry circumstance? In truth, I do not.

In truth, I fear that I may be witnessing the collapse of an empire right before my eyes. I’m told by some that such a notion is silly in the extreme. “What we’re now seeing is no more than a blip, an aberration, an anomaly, and one that will pass soon as we find ourselves back on the right path.”

I suspect that this is not the case. Here’s why.

As I consider challenging situations, my late father’s words come to mind. “Let’s back up a few steps and take a look at the big picture” he would say. What is the big picture? Is it the economy? Is it health care? Is it education? Is it immigration? Is it women’s rights? Is it all of these and more? Am I standing too close or too far away to understand what I’m looking at?

Stepping back for the sake of the recommended exercise, the big picture I see is a journey through time. It is a great experiment, playing out over centuries on threads around the world. It is not restricted to one, or two, or even a half-dozen nations. It’s happening everywhere, and it resides at many different stages depending on where you are and who you are and what you believe.

How you see this journey hinges mostly on your view of human nature. Are you an “all for one and one for all” type… or are you more of an “all for one, and I’m that one” type? How you define success will be key to identifying your place along this spectrum.

……….

Over the past twenty years, I’ve conducted more than 400 constituent surveys for over 100 independent schools across North America. The most important learning for me over these decades bears directly on my view of the world and on my view of the great experiment.

We ask a lot of questions in our surveys. Surveys of students, teachers, parents, and alumni range in length from 100-150 questions. That’s a lot of questions, to be sure. When I visit schools to present results, I’m sometimes asked to boil it all down into one 30 second elevator ride. Nobody wants me to come back with 100 recommendations. What’s the one thing that will make the greatest difference? How can we be a better school? How can we make the student experience a great experience?

Here’s my best answer, based on consistent findings across every single survey I’ve conducted.

We are, first and foremost, social creatures. Our success is founded in our relationships with others. As a microcosm for society at large, schools are a learning and testing ground for our children as they explore for a sense of place, a sense of purpose… a sense of belonging. The school that can help my children learn to find and forge a place for themselves will get my stamp of approval every time. Exploration in a safe environment is good preparation for the not-so-safe environment that awaits.

Regularly, I speak about the importance of engagement to success in the student experience. “Engagement is Everything!” is my favourite topic for presentation to students. Make a friend; find a trusted adult; and get engaged. It’s really that simple. Participation in a community is critical to becoming a net contributor to that community, and as a direct result, to deriving personal value from that community. This seems simple on the face of it, but again, I ask: Why is it so? The data tells me repeatedly that those students who participate, those who engage, and those who connect with others feel a much stronger sense of belonging. We all need to belong to something larger than ourselves. The data tells me that those who acquire this sense of belonging will also report dramatically higher ratings for almost every other measure of the student experience. Much good flows from participation, and in corresponding fashion, from developing a healthy sense of belonging.

This finding is by no means restricted to students. The same connection points apply to teachers, parents, and alumni. Every single time. It’s no great leap to conclude that the community as a whole will thrive when everyone can feel a sense of belonging. Universal participation, engagement, purpose, place, and belonging represent, in my view, the most important contributing factors to success in any effort to nurture both the individual and the community.

……….

The same notions apply, of course, to the general case across society. There are many descriptions of the so-called great experiment of America. Many interpret current participation levels in representative democracy as something the founders envisioned for this great experiment. Clearly, most modern-day commentators have done little reading of the founding fathers. In truth, Samwell Tarly’s suggestion would have been greeted with the same round of laughter in 1789 with which it was met in this week’s final episode of Game of Thrones.

Estimates vary, given poor data collection of the day, but here’s what I’ve found. All of these numbers are debatable (and published estimates do vary), but I include them here only to compare roughly with more recent experience.

In 1790, the first U.S. Census shows a total population of 3,929,214. George Washington thought this was a meaningfully low estimate, but it’s the best we’ve got so let’s start there. The number of votes cast in the first presidential election in 1789 was 43,782, estimated by some to represent just 11.6% of the number of eligible voters, which (backing out the calculation) would be 377,431. So… the number of votes cast was only 1.1% of the total population. Using these numbers, eligible voters were 9.6% of the population.

In 2016, the population of the United States was 323.4 million. The number of votes cast in that year’s presidential election was 138.8 million, 42.9% of the total population, and 60.2% of the voting eligible population, at 230.6 million.

The rise in votes cast as a percentage of total population from 1.1% to 42.9% is a significant positive answer to Samwell Tarly’s challenge. The corresponding gain in eligible voters, from 9.6% to 71.3% of total population is no less significant.

Participation as we consider it today did not exist in 1789, but the battle is not yet over. Participation as we consider it today is still kicking and screaming into existence, with naysayers pushing back every step of the way.

The expansion of voting rights, as just one example, to include women, people of colour, Catholics, Jews, indigenous people, those of Asian descent… none of this was envisioned by the founding fathers. Control of government and, in turn, of the economy at large was narrowly restricted to white, male, protestant landowners, representing less than 10% of the population. With only 1% of the population participating in the first presidential election, concentration of power and wealth as we see it today is not a new condition. It was the original condition.

In my view, the great experiment, not just in the United States, but in Canada and in every other Western nation, broadly considered, is more one of participation, place, and belonging. Insofar as representative democracy can be a meaningful enabler of participation, place, and belonging, the great experiment is well served. The very real successes of this experiment, so far, are found in its unprecedented breadth of participation. It is important, however, to temper any celebrations with the recognition that such participation is far from universal. Life is a journey, and there remains a very great distance to be traveled. Moreover, to the extent that participation in this democracy is methodically and deliberately thwarted by forces of corruption, a lust for power, and the lobby of special interests, the journey of this great experiment will be stalled.

Declaring this great experiment a success story, then, would be premature at best. I would refer would-be celebrants to Bryan Stevenson’s excellent book, “Just Mercy”, recommended to me recently by a Head of School out West. Be prepared to finish this book in a very angry state. It’s not just a history of disenfranchisement. It’s a description of the here and now. As long as entire populations are structurally disenfranchised, our journey remains incomplete.

I’m not just talking about voting rights here. I’m also talking about full participation in the economy and in society, including by way of universal access to health care and education. A healthy and educated individual is better poised to become a net contributor to society, one of my key metrics for success. Poverty will diminish and prison populations will drop with improvements in health and education, as just two related examples. The economy and society as a whole will be net beneficiaries of full participation. Such programs are an investment, not a cost. Participation brings with it a sense of belonging. Belonging brings with it shared purpose and a stronger community.

The catch here, of course, is in your view of human nature. If we take the short-sighted, self-oriented, unregulated free market approach, my view of things will never come to be. An unregulated free market can only lead to increasingly concentrated power and wealth, which in turn, will lead to no free market at all. Ten per cent, as contemplated by the founding fathers, over time, becomes one per cent. Moral authority comes not with concentration of power and wealth, I say, but with the enabling of full participation.

‘Zero-sum’ apologists will undertake at every turn to abate or reverse broad participation in economic and political terms. These people will not hesitate to employ fear and hatred of ‘those not like us’ as tools by which to obtain and retain power. Winning at all costs is a mantra held in pride, not shame. It will be a shame, indeed, if current directions are not reversed in favour of full participation.

Zero-sum gamers are not the problem. They are merely a reflection of the problem. The problem is both structural and attitudinal. Structurally, when we create and fortify an unregulated environment that enables control by wealthy special interests, we ask only for trouble. When we subordinate the rights of the collective to the rights of the individual, the individual and the collective can only suffer.

When we develop and sustain environments, however, in which our children can learn that success in life will be linked to participating and establishing a place of belonging as net contributors to something larger than themselves… there remains hope.

Is an empire on the verge of collapse? The great experiment may not be crumbling, but it certainly is stumbling, as I see it. Time judges all.

With respect,

Kevin Graham

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