Teaching high school students about ancient cultures gives one an interesting perspective on humanity. You start to track similarities and differences. You also see that, rather than all characteristics being universal, those different characteristics that have been seen in people throughout time show up in various individuals: one student may show the ambition of Julius Caesar, while another the inquisitiveness of Aristotle, and another the sense of entitlement of Achilles. You also realize that none of these virtues and vices are distinct to modern American culture.
One would hope to see a development in human behavior. There have definitely been periods of advancement. We no longer feel the need to placate angry gods through human sacrifice, thankfully, though some might feel the need to placate an angry God in other ways. Generally speaking, we seem to have moved beyond the notion that it is acceptable to legally own our neighbor. It remains to be seen whether we will move beyond the impulse to objectify them in more subtle ways.
In history, there are few absolutes, meaning that there are not many principles that dictate human behavior or destiny without exceptions. I’m not sure of the absolute nature of this principle, but I will say that I have noticed a pattern: those that do not govern themselves responsibly open themselves to being governed. Our high school students learn this on occasion. We the staff feel very little need to interfere when they are governing themselves with responsibility. It is a terrible oversimplification, but there is a kernel of truth in the fact that the citizens of the Roman Republic yielded responsible self-government not by simply allowing a dictator to gain power, but by not responsibly governing themselves. We have all heard the maxim that “Nature abhors a vacuum,” and there is no more powerful vacuum created than when the only governing principle is “Do as I will.” Autonomy is not the ability to keep others from exercising authority over you. Autonomy is the ability to live so that there isn’t a need for someone to make the attempt.
I’m not one to sound the alarm at every potential slippery slope, but I have noticed that our culture has been gradually sliding towards the belief that freedom means “I do what I want.” Political affiliation only seems to make any difference when it comes to what form your sense of license takes. What does this mean for our future? Anyone who believes that this question is anything beyond speculation is selling something. We at Ambleside, though, see it as part of our mission to mentor students into responsibility and maturity, which is the furthest thing from “I do what I want.”