“A Great Amnesia” in Harper’s Magazine

Excerpt from Harper’s Magazine, May, 2008 (from an essay by Marilynne Robinson)

One of the Lincoln-Douglas debates was held on the lawn of Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, one of the oldest and most important of the abolitionist schools. Thousands of people stood in the open air to hear a very lengthy, unamplified debate. Lincoln’s own few months of education might not have been unusual in that crowd. But no one now would dare speak to any crowd as substantively and respectfully as he spoke to them, and no one now would expect the patient attention they gave to Douglas and to him. Lincoln was well prepared by his own history to know that intelligence, eloquence, intuition, and sensitivity could emerge despite obstacles, and that they could be quietly present where no one might expect them.

We have not learned what we should have learned from the best experiments in democracy that have taken place among us. If I had not gone from Western Massachusetts to Iowa, and if I had not been struck by the anomalous presence of what might be New England schools surrounded by what might be New England villages, and if I had not wondered why these colleges should be the oldest things on the landscape and why there should be so many of them, I would never have learned that aspirations for American democracy had once been so generous and at the same time so high. I would not have known because it is not a story we tell ourselves. We praise democracy most of the time, but we practice it as if we had accepted every argument against it, as if we believed it must depress the level of culture and of public life.