Mike Matejka: Forming a more perfect union


When we meet someone new our human curiosity leads us to questions about our new acquaintance. What’s their hometown, profession, family and life story? As a friendship grows we come to understand that person through shared experience but also understanding their past – its triumphs and its tragedies.

American history is the same. Our curiosity should lead us to know the whole country and its many stories. There are triumphs and tragedies. There are moments when we the people did incredible feats and other times when our national story reflected baser instincts of greed, hatred, exploitation and division. We only know and appreciate our shared story if we not only stand on the mountaintop but also peer under the rock.

I frequently reflect on the Constitution’s opening lines: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity…”

Two phrases particularly jump out at me – “we the people” is all of us, not just the Founders in their powdered wigs; but most especially, “to form a more perfect union.” “To form” means we are in process. We’ve yet to succeed in forming that “perfect” nation. “To form” reflects striving, experimenting, trying, succeeding and failing, but in failure, we learn from our mistakes.

Thus it’s painful to watch the uproar nationally and at local school board meetings over thoughtfully looking at our own American story. I cannot tell you everything I learned in school over 50 years ago, but I’m glad that besides basic language and mathematical literacy, a willingness to explore and question was included. History was my favorite subject and I was exposed to presidential campaigns, military conflicts, and more that my young brain could digest about tariffs and mercantile policies.

When I came to Illinois State University, historians were exploring untapped territory – what was the common experience? Oral histories to collect daily life stories were the vogue not only professionally but through writers like Chicago’s Studs Terkel and the Foxfire Appalachian series. Thanks to that emphasis we learned not only about presidents, generals and corporate tycoons, but the national story that evolved on factory floors, farms, slave quarters, mines and city streets.

Learning a multidimensional American story is not a threat. It is learning who we are as a diverse people. As a Caucasian American, I’m enlightened when I better understand the lives of the African-American, Asian, LGBTQ, Native American or Hispanic people of our nation. We all have a rich, human story to share as we learn to live together.

During the recent school board meetings, we adults have much to learn from the youth. The young people who spoke did so with conviction and thoughtfulness, without sloganeering or derision. They are learning to live in a multicultural country, striving to “form a more perfect union.”

As we celebrate July 4th – sitting together in a public park, watching the fireworks, listening to our shared musical traditions – let us remember we are a nation perpetually evolving: a responsibility that asks all of us to listen and act together, not out of fear or selfishness, but together to “promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty.”

Mike Matejka lives in Normal.

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June 27, 2021 at 07:10AM

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