Boren Strives for Dialogue Through New Book

Contributing Editor

COOPERATIVE EFFORT: University of Oklahoma President and past Oklahoma Governor and Senator David Boren, right, with Noble Foundation President Michael Cawley. They are discussing the Medicago Genome Initiative, a cooperative effort between the University and the Foundation. Boren is also urging greater dialogue in the political arena through his new book, “A Letter to America.???

Courtesy Noble Foundation

David Boren has had the opportunity to view America from many different perspectives. He has been a Rhodes Scholar. He has been an Oklahoma state representative. He has been Oklahoma’s governor. He served 16 years in the United States Senate. He resigned from the Senate to become the president of the University of Oklahoma. He has obviously had a wider view of the American landscape than most of us will ever have.

As both an educator and a politician, he would be expected to have opinions, and he does. He has written many of them down in “A Letter to America,” a remarkable book in which a widely-traveled, highly educated man takes a step back and looks at the country as a whole.

He still sees America as a land of opportunity but fears trends in both the political and academic world are lessening our ability to face up to some very real problems. “As Americans,” he notes in his introduction, “we don’t talk with each other often enough about things that really matter.”

He frets about the lack of knowledge of American history among today’s students. He worries that unless we know where we are and how we got here, the sense of community and common experience fades. “Many Americans,” he notes, “are immigrants or children of immigrants, are of varied races, adhere to different religions, and have richly diverse cultural backgrounds. What makes us Americans is our common set of values and a shared commitment to the political institutions that preserve them.”

Yet, he says, when 50 percent of the American people believe the President of the United States can suspend the Constitution whenever he wishes, it is clear that the schools are doing an inadequate job of teaching the values that make America what it is to future generations. When U.S. News and World Report surveyed the top liberal arts colleges, it found none of them demanded a course in American history for a person to graduate.

“We cannot preserve and protect the Constitution unless we know what it says and why it was drafted the way it was,” Boren writes.
Political dialogue is another matter Boren would like to see return to some degree of civility. Political talk shows abound on radio and television, but often they dissolve into partisan shouting matches producing considerable more heat than light. When he became a Senator, Boren says, he was sworn in with a dozen or so newcomers both Republican and Democrat, and despite their party differences, they became such friends they used to have potluck dinners at each other’s houses.

Now the party caucuses, he warns, are not so concerned with solving the nation’s problems as with making the other party look bad.

Political campaigns, he notes, have become so outrageously expensive that in order to fund them, politicians are forced to spend inordinate amounts of time raising money for the next race. When voters feel politicians don’t care about them, only the rich donors, there is ample reason for that feeling and the cynicism that follows it. When Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter squared off for the presidential campaign of 1976 they spent $67 million total. Four years ago George W. Bush and John Kerry spent $718 million.

Boren offers no sure-fire solution to this or any other problems. That is not the purpose of the book. What it tries to do, and succeeds in doing, is to start the reader thinking about problems that matter. News surrounding entertainment celebrities, sports figures or political icons caught in compromising positions, Boren writes, captivates Americans. Substantive arguments have given way to the 30-second sound bite. This is what he wants to change.

It is doubtful that all readers of will buy all of Boren’s arguments in “A Letter to America.”

It is doubtful that is his motive in the book.

But what readers will do is to start thinking about some serious problems being avoided in the hurly-burly of the latest sports championship race or celebrity scandal.

There are serious questions that have to be answered.
David Boren would like to start a serious dialogue, though low-voiced, about them.

If he manages to do that, “A Letter to America” will be an outstanding success.

“A Letter to America” by David Boren, University of Oklahoma Press, $14.95.

Updated 04-25-2008

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