One of our missions in higher education is to prepare the next wave of citizens — hence the title of this blog. TJ and friends were aware they were making a high-risk bet on the everyman when they gave us a national democracy, and counted on robust formal education to prove them right.
As we think about changes in our civic mission since the 18th century, it’s worth remembering that the very idea of the nation-state hadn’t taken off until just a few centuries before our revolution. Until around 1500, most of the world lived in villages, city-states, or tiny kingdoms. With notable exceptions (e.g. China), few had the civil-bureaucratic skillset to play on a larger stage. That changed around the time the old world discovered the new, when developments like the printing press, large standing armies, and the public finance of exploration made consolidation look smart. And even then Europe itself hosted some prominent laggards; Germany didn’t finish until 1871.
Given nationalism’s relative recency, and given its lengthy, sputtering roll-out, we shouldn’t assume the game is over. What’s next? Or, like the man sang, Imagine there’s no countries.
I think it could happen sooner than we think, at least in many ways.
National borders have lost much of their relevance within living memory. Communication is the obvious example; we still print stamps one country at a time, but wonder if we need a post office. Commerce and human migration are another, poignant case: cultural distinction is starting to feel like biodiversity, as we all sort of mix into ubiquity.
There are detours and setbacks — Greece may leave the Euro, for example — but we saw that with the consolidation into nations, too. The trajectory of history, the one we’re supposed to be pointing our students to meet, seems headed toward something different from the civic paradigms we grew up in: more murky, collective, and dynamic than humans have seen before.
In such a context, the best recourse seems a return to core principles: behave ethically, cultivate versatility, pitch in where appropriate. Hang on tight.