When looking up at the night sky, it’s easier to see faint stars in the periphery of one’s vision, so in order to see them more clearly, we look slightly away. We all want our democracy to flourish; it may be useful to find places away from our particular time and place, from which we can see American democracy more clearly, and perhaps return it to health.

I’d been thinking about how humanity’s history might be written for 40 years. Ten years ago I began the project of describing the largest set of human attributes I could identify, and then matching major historical epochs with the different subsets of attributes those epochs allowed to be expressed. A book, “A History of Humanity,” resulted in 2018.

The book supplied places to stand away from 21st-century American democracy in order to see it — ourselves — more clearly. We know that wisdom can be found in pockets everywhere in the world. Wise child-rearing practices in pre-modern Africa, for example, clarify what is wrong with our way of educating for democracy and suggest what we can do to fix our educational system. By contemplating ourselves from the standpoints of our wisest forebears, we can together fix our political and economic systems as well.

The work on the book, and mounting interest in the 2020 election, prompted me to recommend what I believe to be most important initiatives open to a new administration.

1. The first move of the new administration falls to the Office of the Surgeon General. That Office must design and implement a national parent-education initiative modeled on the worldwide First Thousand Days program. As our 17th Surgeon General, Richard Carmona, made clear in his 2005 Workshop on Making Prevention of Child Maltreatment a National Priority, the children of America are receiving the wrong kinds of attention from adults, with grievous results for everyone. That misconnection must be corrected if any movement toward a humane society is to be possible.

The heart of the Surgeon General’s initiative will promote the loving, nonverbal, right-brain to right-brain communication between mother and child in the first two years of the child’s life. It is that moment-to-moment communication that lays the foundation of a fully human life.

2. The K-12 educational system must be re-thought top to bottom. As it stands, it is surprisingly unaware of the nature of childhood and it is often materially inhumane — however well-meaning many of its teachers and administrators undoubtedly are.

Before the historical creation of the school, children learned, and learned with delight, from stories. The reception and creation of stories makes the most effective and humane foundation for modern schools. A K-12 curriculum with story at its spine will add “the wisdom of the hands” to hearing, telling, and creating stories of all kinds: hands making music, hands making our one, precious ideographic language, American Sign Language, and hands making art and objects of use. The study of nature will make admiration and protection of the biosphere the end to which the methods of natural science are the means. And mathematics will no longer stand as an obstacle many children must overcome but as a wholly teachable elaboration of natural thinking processes.

3. Poverty is the major cause of children’s failure in school. In order to bring this cruelty to an end, and to un-do other shackles keeping Americans from living the lives they deserve, a serious graduated income tax must begin to close our income gap. The principal aim of the tax must be the provision of an adequate income to all Americans rather than the increase and protection of the wealth of a few Americans.

4. Having been raised and educated humanely, future Americans deserve to be represented in Washington and in state capitols wisely. Our country is currently suffering a crisis of representation: the wrong people too frequently exercise the responsibility of representation, and we don’t know how to move people more deserving of that responsibility into our legislatures. We can start by removing money from electoral politics. We should then begin talks both about preventing the wrong aspirants to power from holding it, on the one hand, and about drawing comprehensively able aspirants into power, on the other hand.

5. Unfortunately, the world’s nations behave toward one another as participants in three unequal-outcome contests. The first is the classic unequal-outcome zero-sum contest, where “prize” stays the same, the winner emerging triumphant, the loser resentful. The second is the unequal-outcome negative-sum contest, where prize diminishes and one participant, having lost less in the contest than the other participant, regards himself as having won (on a large scale, wars are unequal-outcome negative-sum contests). The third is the unequal-outcome positive- sum contest, where, though prize has increased, one participant, having won more than the other participant, regards himself as having won the contest (on a different scale, middle-class life is often conducted as continuous unequal-outcome positive-sum contests, small wars, winners in time losing such small-scale connections, seen as contests, as friendships and marriages).

International relations must be conducted as equal-outcome encounters, resourcefulness being directed not to winning a contest but to equalizing the conditions of the participants in the encounter throughout its length.

Marvin Bram is an emeritus professor of history at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. He has lectured on global history as a founding member of the National Humanities Faculty and for the Association of American Colleges and Universities. In 2018 he published “A History of Humanity” for the university system in India.

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