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When my husband and I were learning how to train horses, we attended several workshops with the famous trainer John Lyons. “No independent thought!” he warned. “You should allow your horse to have no independent thought.” However, I later learned about the Native American plains people who relied on their horses as full partners in peace and war. A partner thinks independently but shares the same goals. Warriors sometimes took their war ponies into their shelters on winter nights, because their horses were that vital to survival.
Many people are happier and feel more fulfilled being like the horses with no independent thought. They want to find a leader–a cause–that excuses them from wrestling with the difficult questions of living. They want life to be like computer programming—a series of yes or no answers. Many people here and abroad are happier with simple answers. They want to follow nobly. They can turn on family and friends. They can turn on people who seem to be different from them in color or religion or customs. They can destroy innocent lives because that’s what they’ve been told to do. Describe cruelty in glorious terms, and they’re on board. They feel right in a right-versus-wrong world.
Some believe our educational system simplified itself into teaching obedience above all. Huge classes in gigantic schools made efficiency important. Examining long term results is an expensive and daunting task. Instead, schools are judged not by the quality of the citizens they produce—the innovations in the arts, science, social programs, etc. their graduates accomplish–but by the quantity of students they graduate. Students are taught to please their instructors, to match the answers the computer expects, to fit in. Are Americans less inventive than they were decades ago? Are they losing their ability to come up with solutions from beyond the box? Some fear we’re losing our Yankee-style edge.
When Barack Obama was elected President, the world gaped and cheered. The U.S.A. had done what no other advanced country in the world had dared to do. It had reached beyond racial lines looking for a leader. The U.S. struggles with issues of blind prejudice—not always well, but we don’t give up. We keep struggling. We have learned not to turn from the ugly problems, because neglect doesn’t make them go away. We want to know why a young American grows up believing that killing innocents will make his world better. We want to know how we can ensure a satisfying life for more of our people in our rich society.
The strength of the U.S.A. lies in our obstinate refusal to simply follow. Right or wrong, we keep asking questions. We keep coloring outside the lines. When I asked a few college students, “From whom did we declare our independence?” one girl offered timidly, “Korea?” We have more work to do to remain free and brave. We have to earn our independence every day not merely in war, but also in education, social and environmental programs, diverse interpretations of spirituality, and in the preparation and care of our citizens. Like it or not, we are a family of partners.