William J. Bennett: How do we ask our children to fight, and perhaps die, for a country they do not know?
[Former Secretary of Education William J. Bennett is the author of America: The Last Best Hope, Volume 2 (From a World at War to the Triumph of Freedom), and the Washington fellow of the Claremont Institute.]
Tens of millions of Americans are about to celebrate our nation’s Founding. The worrisome question is, will future generations take to this celebration the way we have for the past 231 years if they do not know the first, second, or third thing about their country?
Two years ago, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough told the U.S. Senate that American History was our nation’s worst subject in school. The latest National Assessment of Educational Progress (a.k.a., “our Nation’s Report Card”), released last month, bears that out again. Our children do worse in American history than they do in reading or math. McCullough testified we were facing the prospect of national amnesia, saying, “Amnesia of society is just as detrimental as amnesia for the individual. We are running a terrible risk. Our very freedom depends on education, and we are failing our children in not providing that education.”
McCullough is right, and it is a double tragedy: a) our children no longer know their country’s history and b) the story they do not know is the greatest political story ever told.
It is not our children’s fault. Our country’s adults are expected to instill a love of country in its children, but the greatness and purpose of that country are mocked by the chattering classes: Newspaper columns and television reports drip with a constant cynicism about America while doubts about her motives on the world stage are the coin of the realm. Too many commentators are too ready to believe the worst about our leaders and our country, and our children’s history books — and even some of the teachers — close off any remaining possibility of helping children learn about their country.
Many of our history books are either too tendentious — disseminating a one-sided, politically correct view of the history of the greatest nation that ever existed; or, worse, they are boring — providing a watered down, anemic version of a people who have fought wars at home and abroad for the purposes of liberty and equality, conquered deadly diseases, and placed men on the moon. ...
As commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, Washington in 1775 firmly ordered his soldiers not to celebrate Pope’s Day. It had been a New England tradition for 150 years to set afire effigies of the pope. These straw men were filled with live cats whose screams were said to be those of the popes in Hell. Washington knew that the Continental Army “swarmed with Roman Catholic soldiers” and he wisely put an end to such bigotry. He not only ended Pope’s Day in the Army, he ended it in America.
King George III in 1783 said that if General Washington resigned his commission to Congress, then meeting in Annapolis, he really would be “the greatest man on earth.” Washington did that. What does it take to get that kind of praise from your enemy? Go to Annapolis today, and you are likely to be told that “someone told Washington he had to resign.” Similarly, several popular history textbooks simply edit down George Washington (and other greats like Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt) to less than greatness; or, they insist on giving equal time to presidents like John Tyler and other figures like Hawaii’s Queen Liliuokalani.
There’s little sense that textbook writers have taken to heart the criticisms of the rejected National History Standards of 1994. These Standards totally neglected Washington’s role as the first president. For example, Professor Harry Jaffa notes that Washington’s Letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, written in 1790, was the first time in history that any national leader addressed the Jews as equal fellow citizens. Isn’t that remarkable fact worth favorable attention?
These stories about our greats like Washington are accessible in excellent biographies by writers such as Walter Isaacson, David McCullough, and Joseph Ellis. Why don’t high schoolers get them in their texts?...
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Steven Henderson - 3/4/2008
I think Bennett is right on line. As a US History teacher, I rarely use textbooks because they are boring.
They leave alot of the good stuff out for fear of offending both the left and the right, the Protestants and the Catholics, white, African Americans and Native Americans, etc.
American History should be taught in full; the good, bad, and the ugly. It is a story of progress. Students enjoy it if you make it real to them. Not stale and boring.
Fred L Melchiorre - 10/14/2007
As a History teacher for the past 23 years, I have become angered by the constant degradation of history education in the United States. I respect Mr. Bennett and I am a fan of his history text, America, The Last Best Hope, however, it would be refreshing for people like Bennett to also give examples of successful history teaching; at least once in a while. How about an article on history teachers who haven't succumbed to the politically correct version of US history through the brainwashing of the the drive by media. My students get the raw and real stories of the great leaders and the average American from 1763 to 1870 in my US history class which culminates with a trip to Gettysburg Battlefield. The students learn and love to learn. Many have gone on to become history teachers. Let's give them some hope and not the same old gloom and doom. People with the public voice need to give both sides.
Randll Reese Besch - 7/3/2007
Bennett needs to examine the way the school textbook system works. Since 'jackboot' Bennett was anti-drug fuerhr and adovocated beheadings for drug blackmarketeers instead of overturning the uncontitutional 'drug war' his point of view is suspect. But I happen to agree with his present assesment.