Can the “Strenuous Life” renew American competitiveness?
It has been a century since Theodore Roosevelt sat in the White House, but the Rough Rider has managed to maintain a hold on the American imagination. Since 2000 alone, he has been the subject of 36 books. And this summer he graced the cover of a major American newsweekly, inside of which ran a dozen articles covering every facet of the 26th president–perhaps the only politician without a full-time press operation to get such treatment. While Time explained its flood-the-zone coverage by noting that TR was “the man who drew his flourishing nation into the future,” the articles themselves spoke more to nostalgia than Rooseveltian exuberance for the yet to come.
Not that most Americans spend much time arguing the virtues of the Pure Food and Drug Act or the establishment of the National Parks system, although both owe their existence to Roosevelt. But, in today’s age of poll-driven slogans, there is nevertheless a palpable yearning for the qualities of national leadership that Roosevelt embodied, in and out of the Oval Office. He dreamed big, and he acted on those dreams. He was erudite, an accomplished naturalist, and a prolific writer. He was comfortable in both the society circles to which he was born and in the company of the cowboys and soldiers he sought to join. Like all great presidents, it is through his biography that we read the story of America: a person whose life story intersects with the life of the country and someone with a vision for what the next chapters should read.
Roosevelt consciously led a life in keeping with how he saw American history. To him, the personal was political. Personal behavior and character–not of his opponents, but of his fellow Americans–was a pressing national concern. The “Strenuous Life,” for which TR is well-remembered embracing, was not just a personal creed but a political stance. As Roosevelt told the Hamilton Club of Chicago in his famous 1899 lecture of that name, “A healthy state can exist only when the men and women who make it up lead clean, vigorous, healthy lives; when the children are so trained that they shall endeavor, not to shirk difficulties, but to overcome them; not to seek ease, but to know how to wrest triumph from toil and risk.” To TR, the health of the nation was intertwined with the health of its citizens: Physical and intellectual vigor went hand in hand, and a country could only compete on the world stage if its inhabitants had both.
So what would TR make of the United States today? According to the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, only three in 10 American adults get the recommended amount of weekly physical activity. American children spend, on average, four hours a day sitting in front of a computer or TV screen, while less than 10 percent of younger children have daily physical education in school. While TR sure enjoyed a good meal, he undoubtedly would be alarmed to behold a nation in which more than 108 million adults are overweight or obese and in which, since 1980, childhood obesity rates have more than doubled among kids between two and five and tripled among kids age six to 11. The strenuous life has been replaced with the sweetened life. Perhaps Time should have put TR’s 300-pound successor, William Howard Taft, on its cover.
There is even evidence that kids confronting poor nutrition and obesity suffer academically and behaviorally. As the National Association of State Boards of Education noted, “Health and success in school are interrelated. Schools cannot achieve their primary mission of education if students and staff are not healthy and fit physically, mentally, and socially.”It is impossible to gauge how much this contributes to America’s intellectual slippage, but the slippage is readily apparent. Only one out of every five high school students takes enough science and math to qualify for any kind of engineering or advanced science degree in college, and American 15-year-olds now rank 24th in the world in math scores. And while 30 years ago the United States ranked third in the number of young Americans who earned science degrees, it now ranks 17th. In the fields that will define the future, what seems to be lost is the national will to compete. Indeed, the New York Times reported this August that millions of American men between 30 and 55–men at the height of their productivity–are choosing not to work. Representing 13 percent of men this age, these people are relying on savings, credit cards, and home equity to finance a life of leisure. It’s hardly “the life of toil and effort, of labor and strife”that TR preached.
To be sure, for every 40-year-old who chooses to live on his Visa card and home-equity loan, there is one pulling a double shift or working weekends to get a new company off the ground or keep his family afloat. While American high-schoolers lag behind their peers overall, more go on to college than ever before, and they compete intensely to do so. And, it was not that long ago–not even a decade–that the United States appeared to be leaving its world competitors in the dust during the tech boom.Yet the overall trends are clear: Something has changed. Americans’ anxiety about their waistline and their anxiety about the country’s global competitiveness are both symptoms of a larger problem: the loss of the strenuous life.
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