The Opportunity of the American Promise

A few years before he retired from the Army, Carl attended the National War College in Washington, DC. It was an amazing educational opportunity, attending classes under a premier faculty and studying shoulder-to-shoulder with members of all the military branches of the US and many of our allies and other international militaries. Equally importantly, the student body included representatives from all the branches and departments of our nation’s government. It was a truly rewarding year.

One of the things that the faculty reinforces to students at NWC is the old adage that “where you stand depends on where you sit.” Most students had probably heard that one before…it is an old adage, after all. What the faculty at NWC did, however, was to require in students’ discussions of policy and history that they look at things from others’ perspectives and indeed “sit” in a different chair, as it were.

That changes one’s context, of course. We begin to see why others might have a different take on history or why a proposed policy was really bad rather than good, no matter how well intended or timely it initially was. Such an exercise in context comes about from a sincere interest in helping us understand each other…helping us to “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes” or see through their eyes.

Too many Americans, and far too many of our elected and policy-making officials have forgotten how to do that, if indeed they ever learned. They choose to dismiss the American Promise of opportunity for all by focusing only on themselves or very narrow constituencies. All too many leaders choose to forsake an important function of leadership: develop and encourage followers to recognize and learn from opportunity. These kinds of “leaders” have chosen to keep opportunities to themselves rather than expand opportunity.

Perhaps the problem is that many Americans have forgotten what the word opportunity really means. The online version of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines it as “a favorable juncture of circumstances” or “a good chance for advancement or progress.” Unfortunately, many politicians and leaders tend to add the prefix of “photo” to the word opportunity and miss its real meaning completely.

Opportunity, a word we emphasized in the previous post, is the crux of the American Promise. America itself is a “favorable juncture of circumstances” with its rich body of natural resources, ideal geographical setting and innate essence that just inspires people to do great things and build amazing communities. From its very beginnings, America offered a “good chance for advancement” for both those who wanted community and those who sought to explore the wondrous wilderness in solitude. America offered then, just as it could now, almost limitless opportunity.

Opportunity in America has served as the engine that energized the imagination, spurred creativity and attracted some of the very brightest people on the planet to want to live here. It’s at the heart of the American narrative. However, for us to maximize the power of the national narrative of opportunity, we must be open to extending opportunity to all. We must come to understand that opportunity increases for all when we seek to share it.

The reality, however, is that while we have gained through opportunity, we have also lost ground seeking to withhold opportunity in America. Undoubtedly, there is less systemic discrimination in our nation than there was decades ago, yet problems persist as too many of us rationalize that we must discriminate to hold on to personal gains we achieved by protecting our own “hard-earned” opportunities.

That “hard-earned” stuff comes from the “American Dream,” not the American Promise. Working hard is important, but all of us who have had the privilege of working hard first had the blessing of opportunity before we could even think about hard work creating a benefit. When we mistake benefitting from working hard with holding opportunity too closely to ourselves, we show we really don’t understand opportunity or the Promise of America. Opportunity grows best for all when shared among all, not just individuals who think they earned something because they’re somehow special or work harder than others. Opportunity is the engine, hard work is the output.

This also means that America is not really a world of “winner take all”…it never has been: that’s a fictitious narrative that political entities and pundits seek to exploit. America is now and always has been a nation of community seeking the welfare of the public, with respect for individual rights, even as it has become ever more diverse in its 235-plus years. Since the beginning, our nation embraced public works to enhance our lives, such as public roads and waterways, land grant colleges and the protection of individual rights. These enhancements strengthened the American Promise of opportunity.

Institutional remedies, such as misguided political efforts to redefine equal opportunity as equal results, have clouded and confused the American Promise, no doubt. It was gratifying to see President Obama reflect more on opportunity than equality in his 2014 State of the Union speech, but of course that may have less impact than it should because it’s viewed as politics. Perhaps both political parties can find a way to achieve some agreement on equality of opportunity being a better way forward for America than “income inequality.” It would be a favorable step forward anyway, and more consistent with our Founders’ vision for America.

We’re going to keep emphasizing opportunity as the essence of Fulfilling the American Promise in the Connected Age because it’s still the engine of our success. We’ll talk a lot more about opportunity in the connected age, as well. We hope to sway more people to “sit” in someone else’s “chair” and understand why opportunity is about more than just themselves, even if that chair is somewhere else in cyberspace. We’d like to demonstrate that opportunity is best savored when everyone has access to it…to show how opportunity is only constrained from growth when people decide to limit it.

America does not limit opportunity, but too many of its people do…let’s help stop that nonsense, perhaps even by “sitting in a different chair.” Please keep tuning in as we, and hopefully you, make a few modest proposals in future blog posts.

Originally posted by Carl W. Hunt and Charles E. Hunt, 2/8/2014

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