america: the Last best hope
by William J. Bennett
The great American historian David McCullough recently testified to a terrible secret about what is happening in America’s classrooms. While we hear much about how U.S. students are falling behind the rest of the world in math and science competency (and that is indeed alarming enough), McCullough pointed out that students fare even worse in American history education—more than 50 percent of our nation’s high school seniors are functionally illiterate in American history. As inheritors and protectors of this country, this is a shame for them and a concern for the future of our Republic. That is why I have written a series of textbooks called America: The Last Best Hope. How can we ask the next generation to fight—and possibly die—for a country they do not know? We are, right now, making aliens of our own citizens.
Where and when your past is denied to you, especially a past that is the second greatest story ever told and the greatest political story of all time, making home-grown aliens is exactly what we are doing . As a great Eastern European intellectual once said, “The American Revolution is the only revolution that did not betray the hopes of its children.” Instead, though, today, our entire system of education is denying the story of the American Revolution, and everything that came after it, to its own children.
The problem is precisely this, and 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 McCullough put it, to make our story boring, to water it down, is nothing less than an intellectual crime.
Am I asking that we paper over our black eyes and birthmarks? Of course not. Have we done terrible things? Absolutely. Are there great stains on this history? Yes, indeed. But overall, if you judge a country as you judge a man—in the totality of its actions—I believe it is as Lincoln said shortly after Antietam: “We shall nobly save or meanly lose this last best hope of earth.”
It was Daniel Patrick Moynihan who introduced me to the U.S. Senate hearing considering my merits to become chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Listen to what this wise old American statesman had to say about his country: “Am I embarrassed to speak for a less than perfect democracy? Not one bit. Find me a better one. Do I suppose there are societies that are free of sin? No, I don’t. Do I think that ours, on balance, is the most incomparably hopeful set of human relations the world has? Yes, I do. Have we done obscene things? Yes, we have. How did our people learn about them? They learned about them in television and in the newspapers.”
These words form the introduction to my first volume on American history. We tell the story of America and we tell it truthfully. I am very proud that the reviews of my book, all across the political spectrum, have concluded that they tell America’s history in a fair way. But the main object of my texts was not to avoid causing a food fight at the annual gathering of history teachers, but rather to not write another history of the United States that is so dreadfully boring.
Again, this is the most exciting story ever told in political history, and it is sadly ironic that most of our books are painful to read. Said another way, when was the last time you caught your son or daughter staying up past bedtime reading a history textbook by flashlight under the covers?
I spent a lot of time in this book on Frederick Douglass, who is largely unknown to too many children, including and especially, black children. This is an incredible guy who wrestled his overseer to the ground and escaped to Massachusetts. A man who climbed through windows of the White House to visit presidents. A man who refused a bid for president himself, so he could support Ulysses S. Grant.
Douglass was a man who argued with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony when they challenged by saying, “Why aren’t you supporting us the way we are supporting you?” His response: “Because they are not lynching you. Your time will come, too, but ours has a prior claim.” What an interesting debate between a vigorous, strong, and eloquent black man with a couple of very persuasive women.
My favorite Douglass story, which I tell in the book, should be irresistible to any boy: Douglass bought a first-class ticket on a Massachusetts train only to have the conductor come through with two of his heavies and say, “You’ve got to get out of the first class section, it’s not for you.” Douglass wrestled with the two enforcers, as well as the conductor, before finally losing and was thrown off the train. But when he gathered himself on the platform, he was holding the seat. Curious bystanders approached him, and he simply stated, “I paid for this seat and I am taking it with me.” This is a great story and a wonderful way to start talking about all that happens before him and after him, as well as his debates with Lincoln. Yet, this is a great story, and a great man, that is simply absent from our history books.
Here’s another one: The pope recently visited Washington to a warm reception, but that would not have been the case had he arrived 225 years earlier. As commander in chief of the Continental Army, General George Washington firmly ordered his soldiers not to celebrate “Pope’s Day.” Was this Washington’s early attempt to separate church and state? Hardly. It had become a New England tradition to set afire effigies of the pope, and (yes, it gets worse) they were filled with live cats whose screams were said to be those of the popes from their demise. Washington knew that the Continental Army swarmed with Roman Catholic soldiers, and he wisely put an end to such bigotry. He not only put an end to Pope’s Day in the military, he put an end to Pope’s Day in America.
It was also Washington who recognized the Hebrew congregation of Newport, Rhode Island. This was the first time a public official publically recognized the equality of the Jews in the Commonwealth.
These are great and important things, and our kids need to know them. And they will listen if we trade boring memorization of sterile historical dates with the vitality of these stories. One of ways I illustrate the youthfulness of the American Experiment is to note that we have lived longer under our form of democratic government than any people in the history of the world, yet we are still a very young country. Consider this: as a young boy, Oliver Wendell Holmes met veterans from the Revolutionary War; as an older man, he hired Alger Hiss to work for him. Alger Hiss died just over ten years ago. That is the reach—and youth—of this great nation. The extent of this one man’s arms stretch from beginning to end of our youthful American history.
There is a joke I tell in the book about an Englishman who went to the British Museum and requested a copy of the French constitution. The clerk replied, “I’m sorry, sir, but we don’t keep periodicals here.” We do better here, of course. Yet we are not much past the preface and early chapters of our own story. We have done a lot, but there is much more of our story and it is today’s students who will have teach it to those who usher in the 22nd century. It is such inspiration that caused me to write the book. It was written out of a certain sense of romance for this country. It is the case that dreams do come true here. Some don’t, but many do.
It was also written to correct the record on a number of fronts. And it was written ultimately to counter the cynicism. There is just too much cynicism on the right and the left. This is dangerous because, as Oscar Wilde said, “Cynicism corrodes.” People need to understand that this country is a hopeful one. We must give an honest account of it, of course, and then each of us must make it our own.
When I became secretary of education, the best piece of advice I got was from my wife, who formerly taught elementary and special education. She told the nation’s schools’ chief, “Don’t just stand there and make pronouncements. Find out what you’re talking about first, now that you’re in the cabinet.” I said, “Why should I be different than the other guys?” And she said, “You’re the secretary of education. Do your homework.”
She then instructed me to go into classrooms, ask teachers if they will let me teach a class, and get a teacher’s evaluation from the kids and their parents. My retort—“Elaine, I am the secretary of education for the United States, I do not do retail, I do wholesale”—was met with a retort of her own. The daughter of a good businessman, she said, “Do good retail, and you will do better wholesale.” So off I went to 130 classrooms as a way of paying honor to the teachers and to learn firsthand their challenges and aspirations.
These teachers, students, and parents taught me a lot, especially as I engaged them in civics and American history. For example, I like to challenge seventh graders with this question about the Declaration of Independence: “Which is the most important of these words, ‘We hold these truths to be self evident’ or ‘that all men are created equal?’” Or I’d ask an eleventh grader to pick two or three of the Federalist Papers they deem most important. Upon finishing a Federalist Papers lesson in California, a young woman raised her hand and said, “You really love this country, don’t you?” I said “Yes, I do.” She asked me why, and I told her that it’s a long and complicated story, but this is a country unlike any other—where dreams really do come true.
But to live that dream, to know what hope we convey, and to teach it from generation to generation, we must describe it, appreciate it, and learn to fall in love with it all over again. Thankfully, historical amnesia still has a cure. Let us begin the regimen now.
William J. Bennett is the author of many books, such as The Book of Virtues and his three-volume history textbookAmerica: The Last Best Hope. During the 1980s, Dr. Bennett served as the chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities and as U.S. secretary of education. Dr. Bennett is now the Washington Fellow of the Claremont Institute.
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