Gratitude for the generosity of, and history and civic-education lessons about, America

Mar 17, 2021

“Write some good ones.”

Austrian-born American film director, screenwriter, and producer Billy Wilder tells an inspiring story while accepting the Irving G. Thalberg Award at the 1987 Academy Awards. On YouTube now, please trust that it would be very well worth your less than eight minutes to view.

Wilder accepts the prestigious lifetime-achievement award by thanking an American consular official in Mexicali, Mexico, whose name he did not remember.

It was the 1930s. Wilder’s six-month visitor’s visa to America was expiring, and he wants to stay in the country. As required, he exits the U.S. to apply for a new visa that would allow re-entry. At the American consulate in Mexicali—just across the southern border of California—he is being interviewed by the official, who can authorize such a visa and thus his re-entry.

“Believe me. I wanted to get back to America. It looked bad,” Wilder explains. He tells the official about his life, including having 20 minutes to escape from the Nazis. He and the official just stare at each other for some time. Wilder has hope, which might be all he has. The official then asks him what he does for a living. “I write movies,” Wilder answers.

The official paces around the office for a little bit, then comes back, sits at his desk, stamps the relevant papers in all the right places, and says, “Write some good ones.”

“That was 54 years ago,” according to Wilder, “and I’ve tried ever since. …

 “You are, without any doubt, the most-generous people in the world,” concludes Wilder, who was given his chance here. “Thank you very much.”

Urgent questions for the next chapters

We at The Giving Review have been concerned and often written about America’s self-understanding, its national identity. Who are we as a people? How did we get to be so? What needs to be done to preserve what we’ve done that’s worked, so that it might be passed on to future generations?

Given our personal histories and, well, the publication’s purpose (and title), we’ve tried to think about what role giving has played, is playing, and will and could play in the years ahead, as the next chapters of the great American story are written.

Who are we? A generous people, no doubt.   

Reciprocity, and the habits of mind in practicing it

University of Chicago sociology professor Elisabeth S. Clemens’ Civic Gifts: Voluntarism and the Making of the American Nation-State, about which we’ve written, examines generosity as a unique characteristic of the American people. The practice of gift-giving and reciprocity throughout our history, from the founding to the present day, has contributed significantly to our sense of nationhood, Clemens impressively details—despite serious ethnic, religious, and other differences.  

Ultimately, Americans’ respect for the rule of reciprocity, and other important habits of mind in the practicing of it, has resulted in a mentality of “we are all in this together”—a state of mind giving rise to a spirit of solidarity critical to facing down natural disasters, economic crises, and other unprecedented challenges at home and abroad.

E pluribus unum.

Book drives, blood drives, food drives, and turkey drives

In her new A Beginner’s Guide to America: For the Immigrant and the Misinformed, Roya Hakakian writes about everyday, routine occurrences that an immigrant encounters in America. They reassure that America is truly a great country. For example, Hakakian praises the refund. Newcomers to America, she explains, are incredulous when they learn that stores will take goods back, even many days after the sale. Being able to get a refund is proof that “anything is possible because a one-time decision need not be destiny.” You get your fair shot here.

A 1985 Jewish refugee to the U.S. from Iran who spoke no English, Hakakian is a Guggenheim Fellow and widely published poet and essayist.

Her Beginner’s Guide to America does not gloss over or dismiss some flaws here, either. Belonging is not handed on a silver platter to immigrants, the book notes. She refers to Americans’ habit of suspicion of—and even, in some cases, hate for—one or another immigrant community. Older immigrant groups treat newer ones, she observes, as unkindly as they were themselves treated.   

“Americans resist you until they no longer can,” Hakakian writes, but adds, “keep everything in perspective, or you will drown in self-pity.”

As for American’s generosity, she concludes, once immigrants begin to detach themselves from the old country, they discover that America is a unique land of abundant “book drives, blood drives, food drives, [and] turkey drives.” E pluribus.

In contrast to some unfortunate native-born who emphasize “failure, betrayal and hopelessness,” she believes that—especially to those who come from far way, like Wilder in a previous era—America is more than a homeland, it is “the promised land.”

It’s a “land of hope,” as Wilder certainly thought and Wilfred M. McClay similarly tells us in his Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story, about which we’ve also written. Wilder, Hakakian, and McClay have good answers for our next chapters’ urgent questions.

In fact, Civic Gifts, A Beginner’s Guide to America, and Land of Hope will all be invaluable to have handy in the days ahead. Immigration is prominent in the current public discourse, but so too are other critical political, social, and economic issues that are just plain pulling us apart—“Balkanizing” us, if being pessimistic.

The coming “successor” narrative

K-12 history and civics education unfortunately has become such an issue, which brings us to the large-scale Educating for American Democracy (EAD) launched late last this month. For the moment, EAD’s funding comes from the U.S. Department of Education and the National Endowment for the Humanities.  

EAD’s core argument is one that will also appeal to private philanthropy—namely, education in history and civics is vital or American citizenship. Neglected in recent years, it needs attention and support. Ronald Reagan, recall, argued similarly when he called for an “informed patriotism.”

EAD intends to develop and promote, in all respects, a national curriculum. Of the 300 participants in its leadership group, only a handful could be considered traditionalists. It will be a progressive exercise, and thus likely garner generous Big Philanthropy funding.

Its curricular transformation will stand as the “successor” to the history and civics narrative of 20th Century liberalism. Underlying structural themes likely will rely on an understanding and acceptance of racial-, ethnic-, and gender-group consciousness. With a new curriculum in hand based on those understandings, classroom teachers will be prepared to focus on inclusion and equity, and not necessarily on the bedrock American aspirational principle of equality, of fair shots for all.

EAD’s agenda even includes providing legitimacy to Saul Alinsky-style “action civics.” Courses in civics will mandate “service learning,” too, in which students intern with leftist community organizations for purposes of public demonstration and other advocacy aims.

Less than eight minutes

Private grantmakers with an interest in and commitment to improving student academic performance on the way to becoming a citizen-participant in the life of their American communities ought keep in mind Clemens, Hakakian, and McClay.

In fact, should you be a donor with such an existing or would-be focus, please trust that it would be very well worth your less than eight minutes to view Wilder’s inspiring Thalberg Award acceptance remarks on YouTube.

And give Clemens, Hakakian, and McClay a generous shot. With gratitude, give America a shot.