Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts 2018 Annual Dinner Remarks: Civic Education and Civility in the Public Square

2018 Annual Dinner Remarks: Civic Education and Civility in the Public Square

2018 Annual Dinner Remarks: Civic Education and Civility in the Public Square

These are remarks by Alan Luxenberg at the Annual Dinner of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, Nov. 7, 2018. Luxenberg is President of FPRI and founder of FPRI’s Marvin Wachman Center for Civic and International Literacy.

Last month, our old friend and supporter Pina Templeton, widow of our former Vice Chairman, the late Jack Templeton, sponsored a program at the Union League on the occasion of the unveiling of a painting she commissioned depicting the late House speaker Tip O’Neill kneeling in prayer by the bedside of then-President Ronald Reagan, lying in the hospital days after the attempted assassination. As it turns out, O’Neill was the first public figure allowed in to visit the president, a decision made by the president’s aides to demonstrate national unity in the face of a near tragedy. Pina’s goal in sponsoring the painting and the ceremony surrounding it was to promote a return to civility, as symbolized by the painting. That might have been a modest goal in another time but in today’s environment, it’s actually quite an ambitious goal – especially on this day, the day after Election Day. Hopefully, her goal is not unachievable.

I mention this because the Foreign Policy Research Institute is studiously nonpartisan. Our aim is to bring the insights of scholarship to bear on the foreign policy and national security challenges facing the United States. The 100-plus scholars affiliated with us represent diverse points of view but have one common objective: to serve the national interests of the United States of America and to promote the values embodied in our Constitution. How to best do that is of course subject to debate.

Our scholars also have a common temperament, best described by the French diplomat from another era, Talleyrand, who said “above all, no zeal.” In other words, our aim is to engage in dispassionate analysis rather than polemic. We aspire to shed light rather than heat.

This diversity in our scholars is also reflected in our audience.

I often give our speakers a bit of background about our audience. I tell them that roughly half are Democrats, and half are Republicans. Hence, I warn them, that no matter what they say they are likely to provoke profound disagreement with someone — but disagreement does not ever have to be disagreeable.

I tell our prospective supporters, which hopefully include some of you, that you should support us only if you have the stomach to hear points of view that you do not always agree with. Our 50-plus programs a year in Philadelphia, Princeton, Haverford, NYC, Miami, and Washington DC, and our 300-plus publications a year, and the research that is the foundation for all our programs and publications, are not designed to make you comfortable; they are designed to make you think. 

This is very much in line with the view of Robert Strausz-Hupe, who founded FPRI in 1955 on the premise that “a nation must think before it acts.” It was good advice then; it remains good advice today. 

He also bequeathed to the Institute a geopolitical perspective, which means we study contemporary international affairs through the lens of history, geography and culture — or, as my colleague James Kurth puts it, we study “the realities and mentalities of the localities.” 

It was also Strausz-Hupe’s view that executing a coherent foreign policy was impossible in the absence of an informed citizenry. Hence, an important function of FPRI is education — that is to say, fostering civic and international literacy. These are challenging times. I don’t think a week goes by without someone lamenting the lack of civic education in the United States today.

As recently as this past weekend, Supreme Court Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Neil Gorsuch appeared together publicly to address the decline of civility in the public square, attributing the country’s intensifying polarization to the elimination of civics curriculums in public education.  “Only about 25 percent of Americans can name the three branches of government,” Justice Gorsuch told CBS, adding “A third of them can’t name any branch of government. And 10 percent,” he said, “believe that Judge Judy is one of our colleagues.”

We at FPRI accept the challenge and responsibility to do our part to educate and illuminate—from our publications and lectures to our teacher seminars, video primers, and student simulations. Knowledge is too precious to be hoarded in specialized silos. It must be shared, for the benefit of all.

Ultimately, FPRI serves as a bridge – a bridge between the academic community and the policy community, and a bridge between those two communities, on the one hand, and the larger community of citizens who make up our city and our country, on the other.

In my view, the mission and method bequeathed to us by Strausz-Hupe are more essential now than ever before. I hope all of you will help us achieve the lofty goals I’ve spoken of tonight, and I thank you for joining us on this special occasion.