Keith Boyea's Blog

Notes & Commentary on National Security, Current Affairs and Bourbon

American Pride in the 21st Century

Thesis: In contemporary America, what we take pride in reflects our misplaced priorities.

(This post didn’t quite come together like I wanted, but there might be a decent argument in here somewhere.)

Within living memory, Americans have a lot to feel prideful of: Turning back fascism in WWII, the scientific and technical achievements of the space race, the expansion of Civil Rights, the GI Bill and the expansion of educational opportunities, and the peaceful defeat of communism are just a few examples.  Contemporary America, however, feels pride about things, that I’ll argue, aren’t nearly on the level of those accomplishments.  The two examples I’m going to highlight here are sports* and the military.

* As far as sports go, I’m living in a glass house.  I’m a sports fan.

The best place to start is the proliferation of world-class athletic facilities at our nation’s universities.  My alma mater, the Air Force Academy, just erected a multimillion dollar indoor practice facility, because the existing indoor practice facility wasn’t “big enough.”  Universities compete for the best athletes by having the best facilities because having the best athletes means making more money which is used to construct better facilities to get better athletes.

You can see the misplaced emphasis already: The primary way most of our Universities exist in our consciousness is through their athletic programs.  It doesn’t matter that Texas A&M has a world-class agriculture program, it only matters that Texas A&M has the biggest, baddest weight room in the SEC.  And I’m not picking on Texas A&M, as I mentioned above, my own alma mater has indulged in the same thing.

The thing is, we all take pride in all of this.  We want our school’s athletic teams to be the best so we can be proud that we went to the school with the best athletic team.  But the pride is misplaced–the point of college isn’t to have great athletic teams and facilities, it is to learn.  Proper pride taken from that point of view can’t be measured in wins and losses.

It is disheartening for me to see this attitude trickling down into the High School ranks.  My high school recently built a new weight room, even though the existing weight room was perfectly functional.  The old weight room is now being used as a library, which I suppose is good, buy why not build a new library?  The pride flows the same way–it only matters that the team wins, not that the students learn anything.  (If you aren’t concerned with where high school sports are going, read this New Yorker article.  It’s behind a pay wall now, but I recommend it.)

In both the college and high school examples, the pride reflects the misplaced priority.  We have prioritized sports, a basically meaningless activity, over learning, education, and instruction.  I’m not sure which way the causation flows, but it doesn’t make me feel better either way.

This connection may be a stretch, but all of this reminds me of the way we, as Americans, take so much pride in our military.  There isn’t an institution in our country that is lauded quite like the military.  I experienced it personally when I was in the Air Force.  Most of the adulation is earned–Our military does amazing things and is full of exemplary people.  But it is worth thinking about what exactly we are celebrating.

Back in the 90s, when the Republicans were against nation building because there was a Democratic president, the GOP used to run around saying that the military existed to “kill people and break things.”  The implication was that the military shouldn’t be tasked with nation building.  But the sentiment is close to the truth.  The military kills people and breaks things. It now has the capability to kill people and break things without risking American life (drones).

If the idea isn’t clear here is what I’m saying: Americans take a lot of pride in the ability of our military to kill people and break things.  I am uncomfortable with being hyper prideful of such a thing.  (There’s some nuance and balance available here.) I think we are making the same mistake our Universities are making–we are prideful of the wrong things.

I think the best example of the mistake are President Obama’s words announcing the death of Osama bin Laden.  In announcing the killing of bin Laden, he said, “But tonight, we are once again reminded that America can do whatever we set our mind to.” I want to move the country towards a place when the best example of our national ingenuity isn’t the killing of a terrorist asshole.

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Written by keithboyea

January 3, 2012 at 6:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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