(by Marvin Olasky, WorldMag.com) – America’s schools and colleges are opening their doors for the 2008-2009 year, but what are they teaching about America? Are they training students to become more aware of what divides us than what unites us? Is the United States in danger, as a new Bradley Project report suggests, of becoming not “from many, one”-e pluribus unum-but its opposite, “from one, many”?
I contributed slightly to that Bradley report, titled E Pluribus Unum, along with a diverse group that included journalists such as Michael Barone and Charles Krauthammer and academics such as William Galston (University of Maryland) and Amy Kass (University of Chicago). We came from different backgrounds but became aware of dire studies: Most eighth-graders cannot explain the purpose of the Declaration of Independence. Only 5 percent of seniors can describe how Congress and the Supreme Court can check presidential power.
What kind of voters will go to the polls two months from now? Many that know little about American history, and what they know is grim: The Puritans were bigots, George Washington owned slaves, Andrew Jackson’s actions led to the Trail of Tears, Andrew Carnegie fought with workers. Those statements are true, but if they are not balanced by teaching about the Puritans’ strength of purpose, the courage of Washington and Jackson, the generosity of Carnegie, and so forth, schools are producing “Hate America First” voters.
The Bradley Project noted that “schools should not slight their civic mission by giving students the impression that America’s failures are more noteworthy than America’s achievements. They should begin with the study of America’s great ideals, heroes, and achievements, so that its struggles can be put in perspective. A broad-minded, balanced approach to the American story best prepares young people for informed democratic participation.”
Why are we producing high-school graduates with either no knowledge or a distorted knowledge of American history? One cause: “boring textbooks that lack narrative drive and ignore or downplay America’s heroes and dramatic achievements.” Another cause: “teachers unexcited about history who talk more about America’s failings than its successes.”
Furthermore, “Teachers must depend on state curriculum frameworks that are wary of facts and chronology. A foundation for understanding American history should be laid in the primary grades by including national holidays, heroes, songs, and poems. . . . The teaching of American history should be strengthened by including more compelling narratives and primary texts, such as the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the great speeches and debates.”
Another problem with K-12 history teaching is the tendency to emphasize ethnicity, even though that’s not what parents want. A Bradley-commissioned Harris Poll found that 80 percent of Americans (including 70 percent of Latinos) believe our schools should focus on American citizenship, not ethnic identity. Eight out of nine African-American parents, according to a Yankelovich survey, say, “There’s too much attention paid these days to what separates different ethnic and racial groups and not enough to what they have in common.”
Regardless of parental wishes, some teachers suggest that “the United States is no longer ‘we the people,’ but ‘we the peoples.’ The new attitude favors dual citizenship, multilingual ballots, and bilingual instruction rather than English immersion. Instead of one America, there are voices for many Americas, or even no America at all.” Bradley Project participants agreed that “we should not adopt policies that perpetuate division or that compromise our national allegiance.”
Does college make up for what K-12 schooling lacks? Sadly, no: “College does little to close the civic literacy gap.” Most college seniors, even at elite universities, cannot correctly identify major national figures such as James Madison. The Coming Crisis of Citizenship, an Intercollegiate Studies Institute study, reported that most college seniors could not identify the opening words of the Declaration of Independence. Most were unable to define representative democracy or the separation of powers.
Losing America’s Memory, an American Council of Trustees study of seniors at 55 top-ranked colleges and universities, showed that 99 percent could identify Beavis and Butthead and 98 percent Snoop Doggy Dogg, but less than one in four could identify the phrase “government of the people, by the people, and for the people” as coming from the Gettysburg address. Only a third of graduating seniors knew that George Washington was in command at the Battle of Yorktown, the culminating battle of the American Revolution.
One problem at colleges is that professors prefer to teach their specialties rather than introductory courses, and cowed administrators don’t insist on covering the basics. Former Harvard dean Harry Lewis put it this way: “Students are much more interested in taking courses on the American Republic than professors are in teaching them. At research universities, especially, where the rewards come for creativity and novelty, the subject is not trendy enough for most professors.”
The history that is taught is often fragmented history, a history of this or that group, not of the nation as a whole. E Pluribus Unum argues that “colleges and universities should require knowledge of America’s national history and its democratic political tradition as a condition of graduation. Faculty should be hired who are prepared to teach these subjects, not just narrower specialties.”
But that refusal to teach about American ideals is part of a deeper problem, the refusal to think America worth defending that is indicated by the unwillingness of many colleges to host ROTC programs. Leading institutions like Harvard and Yale allow students to participate in ROTC programs only if they commute to other colleges that have programs.
Ironically, anti-military professors would not last long if radical Muslims or other enemies of a free society were to gain power. The Bradley Project concluded that “colleges and universities should have ROTC programs on campus and should give the same access to military recruiters as they do to other employers.”
So schools and colleges must change, but E Pluribus Unum notes that “the preservation of American memory is not solely the task of our schools and colleges. We all have an obligation to remember what we owe to those who have gone before us. Schools used to be named after American heroes such as Nathan Hale and Clara Barton instead of just East Metropolis Junior High. That practice should be restored.”
Americans who work outside fields of formal education also have a responsibility: The Fourth of July should be celebrated not only with fireworks but also with teaching about how a free and independent country came into being. “Families, schools and colleges, businesses and civic organizations, and government at all levels should keep American memory alive by treating national holidays and historic sites such as Mount Vernon and Gettysburg as touchstones of national identity and as educational opportunities.”
Small changes can help: “There was a time when all of us, and especially our nation’s schoolchildren, celebrated George Washington’s and Abraham Lincoln’s birthdays. Today these great national holidays are collapsed into a generic Presidents’ Day, as if Millard Fillmore and Chester A. Arthur were being honored. Washington and Lincoln’s birthdays should be restored as distinctive celebrations.”
Finally, individual families can do their part: “Families can schedule at least one trip annually to a national landmark.” Walking Civil War battlefields can help-see “Brother against brother: Top Civil War battlefields to visit” (WORLD, June 10, 2000)-and I can also say from personal experience that sites like Mount Vernon are well worth visiting.
A few good American history books
Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen, A Patriot’s History of the United States William Bennett, America: The Last Best Hope
Paul Johnson, A History of the American People
Marvin Olasky, The American Leadership Tradition
Nathaniel Philbrick, Mayflower
Leland Ryken, Worldly Saints
Perry Miller, ed., The American Puritans: Their Prose and Poetry
J.I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness
David McCullough, 1776
Joseph Ellis, Founding Brothers
David McCullough, John Adams
Burke Davis, The Campaign That Won America
Marvin Olasky, Fighting for Liberty and Virtue
Stephen Ambrose, Undaunted Courage
Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America
Shelby Foote, The Civil War
Bruce Catton, The Civil War
Michael Shaara, The Killer Angels
Booker T. Washington, Up from Slavery
Amity Shlaes, The Forgotten Man
Stephen Ambrose, Band of Brothers
David McCullough, Truman
Whittaker Chambers, Witness
Peggy Noonan, When Character Was King
William F. Buckley Jr., The Fall of the Berlin Wal
l Robert Shogan, War Without End
Peggy Noonan, A Heart, a Cross, and a Flag
Karl Zinsmeister, Boots on the Ground
Michael Barone, Hard America, Soft America
Mark Steyn, America Alone
Copyright ©2008 WORLD Magazine, August 23, 2008 issue. Reprinted here September 9th with permission from World Magazine. Visit the website at www.WorldMag.com.
1. a) What does E Pluribus Unum mean?
b) How does the Bradley Project report suggest this belief is changing in America?
2. What have recent studies shown about American students’ understanding of our government?
3. a) What negative facts do many students learn in school about American history?
b) What does writer Marvin Olasky say is the result of such teaching?
c) What additional facts does the writer recommend students be taught in order to receive a balanced perspective of American history?
4. For what reason does the Bradley Project recommend that “schools should not slight their civic mission by giving students the impression that America’s failures are more noteworthy than America’s achievements. They should begin with the study of America’s great ideals, heroes, and achievements, so that its struggles can be put in perspective.”
5. a) The Bradley report concludes that high-school graduates have either no knowledge or a distorted knowledge of American history. What reasons are given to explain this assertion?
b) What solution is offered in the report for this problem?
6. a) What did the Bradley-commissioned Harris Poll discover?
b) What information on this subject did a Yankelovich survey add?
7. a) What is your experience with American History classes and textbooks? Are the assertions made in the Bradley Report true for your school?
b) Do you think this is true for most public schools?
Explain your answers.
ON THE BRADLEY PROJECT:
The Bradley Project on America’s National Identity was established to examine and answer questions about American unity and whether the shared values, beliefs and symbols that have forged a strong and healthy national identity – that make us Americans – are still working. Read an overview and the full report at BradleyProject.org.
ON E PLURIBUS UNUM:
E pluribus unum is a motto found on the Great Seal of the United States. It appears on official documents such as passports. It also appears on the seal of the President and in the seals of the Vice President, of the Congress, of the House of Representatives, of the Senate and on the seal of the United States Supreme Court.
E pluribus unum, written in capital letters, is included on most U.S. currency.
Originally suggesting that out of many colonies or states emerge a single nation, it has come to suggest that out of many peoples, races, and ancestries has emerged a single people and nation – illustrating the concept of the melting pot.
Read the Harris Poll “A Study of Americans’ Views on National Identity” commissioned by the Bradley project at BradleyProject.org. (Note: This is a PDF document. It may take a few moments to open.)
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