I confess. I am a tree lover. Call me a tree hugger if you wish but I simply think that trees are amazing parts of the natural world. And they are a testament to the intricate design underlying our existence. So imagine my horror when driving into my neighborhood I noticed that two of my neighbors had hired professional tree killers (i.e., tree service corporations) to cut down seven beautiful trees- three tall southern pines and four beautiful dogwoods. Together, these trees probably represented at least 250 years of existence if not more. Obviously, none of these trees grew overnight. They each took years and years to grow weathering many suns, moons, and storms. And yet, in just a few minutes, they were gone never to grace our presence and most likely never to be remembered again. Clearly, my neighbors were within their legal rights to do as they wished within their property. After all, property rights have been a bedrock institution since the earliest days of the American colonies and the United States. Yet, I continually asked myself whether or not this was the morally right thing to do. If the trees presented a danger to life, limb, and property, then it would be perfectly understandable to remove them. But would the decision to remove them be justifiable simply on the basis of aesthetics and personal rights-based preferences? Alas, a moral conundrum presented itself and raised the important and timeless questions of when and why to conserve, preserve, and change.
The most recent Lehrman American Studies Center Summer Institute at Princeton University took up these important questions as they related to American statesmanship and the principles of the founding. Lehrman Fellows were asked to consider and discuss whether or not there exist timeless principles of statesmanship and political foundations, principles that should be conserved and passed down to posterity. And there was a lot of discussion about change. If such principles do indeed exist (and they do!), how are they related to the constantly changing sociopolitical landscape of America? What should be the relationship between these principles and each generation’s desire for progress, development, and, in a very popular contemporary slogan, “change we can believe in?” This is in essence the enduring and important task of statesmanship- advancing Truth amidst a world of becoming.
As university and college professors, we face the important task of communicating not only timeless principles but also our disciplines’ subject matter amidst continual changing circumstances. We must advance timeless truths in relevant and effective ways to persuade the mind, imagination, and ultimately, heart of our students. It is in all of these areas that The Lehrman American Studies Center is of such great benefit. Its programs facilitate a sincere search for knowledge, a fruitful pedagogy and a flourishing scholarly community.
As we continue in the noble task of education and intellectual discovery, may we avail ourselves of The Lehrman American Studies Center’s resources and of each others’ experiences and contributions. And, hopefully, we will be able to pass along the requisite virtues for good citizenship and a life of flourishing and maybe save some trees along the way.