Remember the original meaning of “The Pursuit of Happiness” this Independence Day

“The pursuit of happiness.”  That phrase animates an essay by Jon Meacham in the most recent edition of TIME.

It made me remember Mary Kay Tachua – the most brilliant professor I ever experienced.  More than forty years ago, an administrative error at the University of Louisville put Dr. Tachua as the professor of an undergraduate section of American History.  Dr. Tachua was renowned as a graduate professor; social activist; and, perhaps on special and rare occasions, a mentor to a deserving honors undergrad.  But, that was not her task in the fall of 1970 as she taught a motley crew of students, myself included, who were hoping for a Cliff Notes version of pre-Civil War American history.

She was no more happy than we were about this intersection of her high-minded rigor with our “can’t we just get through this course?” attitude.  At most, I had hoped to have to memorize nine or ten of the thirteen original colonies.  Instead we got what can only be described as a “full Tachua.”  She didn’t lecture about the Declaration of Independence.  Instead, we had to read primary text from Aristotle and Locke.  We had to think deeply about the genesis of the ideals that shaped this democracy of ours.  Dr. Tachua became an important intellectual coach to me after that eye-opening act and made me a life-long student of those founding days of our republic.

Dr. Tachua could have written the Meacham column.  In it, the author reminds us that the intent of that famed phrase in the Declaration that we will celebrate this week on the 4th had nothing to do with private happiness.  Instead, Mr. Jefferson was using the classical ancient definition of happiness, which as described by John Adams, means that “the happiness of society is the end of government.”  Meacham reminds us – as Dr. Tachua did so long ago – that those Founding Fathers saw “the pursuit of happiness as the pursuit of the good of the whole, because the good of the whole is crucial to the genuine well-being of the individual.”

What a powerful understanding of one of the tenets of this nation’s very founding.  And it put me to wondering.  What would a Founding Father styled “pursuit of happiness” mean to Kentucky’s kids on this 4th of July?  Well, I don’t think we can pursue happiness for the whole when more than one in four Kentucky kids live in poverty.  I don’t think we can pursue happiness for the whole when kids are locked up in Kentucky as a result of missing school.  I don’t think we can pursue happiness for the whole when Kentucky kids are subjected to unreasonable high pressured testing that is short on critical thinking.  I don’t think we can pursue happiness for the whole when the state has slashed opportunities for kids to have quality child care or live with relatives instead of being put into foster care.

Conversely, what if we got serious about pursing the Jeffersonian idea of happiness for kids?  And we addressed the real reasons kids act out in school instead of putting them in detention?  And we made it a priority to ensure proper transparency and resources are in place to prevent child abuse?  And budget and tax decisions helped working families become financially secure?  And we made sure kids were not exposed to secondhand smoke?  And … and … and.

Our commitment at Kentucky Youth Advocates is to wage that pursuit of happiness for kids as a whole so that kids as individuals can, in fact, achieve that personal happiness.  Meacham opines that the happiness spoken of in our Declaration of Independence is “as much about equanimity as it is about endorphins.”  So on this 4th weekend, pursue happiness.  For me that means grandkids and fireworks, burgers and brats.  But as we pursue happiness on this July 4th, the Founding Fathers would remind us that the Greek definition of happiness – eudaimonia – cannot escape civic generosity and claiming the best for the least.

Here’s to Governor Beshear, every legislator and – in fact – every citizen in making a commitment to create a Commonwealth where every Kentucky kid can pursue that July 4, 1776, kind of happiness.

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