Golden Ages happen, generally, when a series of unconnected events come together in a fortuitous way to form an extraordinary moment. For example, we often view the late-1950s and early-1960s in America as a Golden Age.

Of course, many will note that we whitewash much of the ugliness of the fifties in our mind's eye, remembering the era through the prism of black and white television series in which Father always knew best and problems evaporated every thirty minutes. The social critic's question in a nutshell: "Happy Days" for whom?

Notwithstanding that critique, the period stands out for so many of us (even, perhaps especially, those of us born after the fact) as a shining moment in our national story when so much was right with America. Why were the 1950s so grand? The Golden Age materialized, at least in part, as a result of the deprivation of the Great Depression, the sacrifice of the Second World War followed by the relief of victory and the great surprise of collective affluence.

On a personal scale, think of a typically rural American, raised on a farm somewhere in the heartland during the Great Depression, growing to maturity in an environment in which “want” was a perpetual state--but making do. Coming of age during our all-out national struggle to defeat fascism, this typical American joined the battle (if male, most likely went to war). For veterans of the fight for survival during the 1930s, defeating Hitler and Tojo seemed light duty (at least a fellow got three squares a day).

Returning home victorious, America's warriors were rewarded with the opportunity to attend college and buy homes on the G.I. Bill. For so many Americans, higher education, a tried and true path to upward mobility, proved the unexpected but hilariously happy consequence of their war service. America went to college in droves and emerged in the post-war world with the best educated most resourceful workforce on the planet. Born into deprivation, tested by war, the Greatest Generation understood the post-war opportunity and made the most of it. Happy Days.

One wonders if great success is possible without severe trials. How long can a golden age last? How long can a people maintain a level of excellence without a great cultural crisis to motivate them to higher achievement?

Are we in such a crisis? Or, more accurately, are we descending into such a period of crisis? Will this coming crisis mark the downward turning point in the great American drama—or will the next test mark the beginning of a cycle of renewal?

Or as Benjamin Franklin purportedly asked 220 years ago: "Is the sun rising or setting on the American experiment?"