by Jay F. Hein and Jerry D. Semler
Ideas matter. And perhaps more than any other country, ideas have shaped America’s institutions, its citizens and its national identity. As G.K. Chesterton famously wrote, “America is the only nation founded on a creed.” Echoing Chesterton, President Dwight Eisenhower said of the founding fathers, “They proclaimed to all the world the revolutionary doctrine of the divine rights of the common man. That doctrine has ever since been the heart of the American faith.” That revolutionary proclamation continues on across time as it imbibes our laws, history, government, communities and civil society with enduring purpose. Indeed, ideas matter.
The American Idea was—and remains—a blueprint that improved the human condition and changed the course of history. While our democratic republic and free-market economy are not always operationally perfect, they are still admired the world over. Universal concepts such as liberty, self-rule, individual dignity, self-government, prosperity, equality and faith make up the core of Americanism. And while these grand concepts remain ill defined in our national psyche, they detract nothing from the American Idea; rather, their vague composition fuels the great conversation that is American democracy.
And yet the transmission of the ideas that shape America is not passive. They require the intentional transfer of knowledge, virtue and identity from one generation to the next. It is this inheritance that established the United States, and it is this inheritance that is continually in danger of being lost.
Our Founders believed that our democratic experiment required an informed citizenry. This conviction has only been amplified by the threat of global terrorism. No longer is war the sole domain of states, rather individuals are paramount in the ideological struggle between those who love freedom and those who feel threatened by it. Since Americans cannot defend what they do not understand, learning our nations’ first principles is essential.
Therefore it is troubling to learn that most American students score lower on civic education than any other subject. Other studies reveal that an astounding number of Americans of all ages lack the ability to place key historical events within their appropriate century or grasp the meaning of even one of the nation’s founding documents. Dr. Bruce Cole, professor emeritus at Indiana University and CEO of the American Revolution Center, refers to this trend as “American Amnesia.” He argues,
“…because democracy needs to be learned by each generation, we are in danger of losing the precious gift of self-governance that our Founding generation bequeathed to us. As careful students of history, our nation’s Founders knew that republics were fragile and that government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” would not endure without an informed citizenry.”
Thomas Jefferson, U.S. president from 1801–1809, warned, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, it expects what never was and never will be.” Nearly 200 years later, in his farewell address from the Oval Office, President Ronald Reagan warned against the “eradication of the American memory that could result, ultimately, in an erosion of the American spirit.”
Answering the charge of great Americans past and present, this edition of American Outlook is dedicated to educating for the American Idea as is a core portion of Sagamore Institute’s programming.
Heeding Jefferson and Reagan’s warning, Dr. William J. Bennett formed a partnership with Sagamore Institute to resuscitate the study of American history. Dr. Bennett drew on his experience as U.S. Secretary of Education and as the chairman for the National Endowment for the Humanities as well as his days teaching in university classrooms, to author a set of groundbreaking history textbooks. In tandem, he recruited Sagamore Senior Fellow Rex Bolinger to lead a team of nationally renowned educators to implement this new model in secondary schools around the country.
Sagamore Institute was honored to assist Dr. Bennett as he sought to “recapture the glory” and “conviction about American greatness and purpose” in history. In the third section of this magazine, you can read more about this project entitled “America: The Last Best Hope.”
As a think tank, Sagamore Institute is in the ideas business. With our location in America’s Heartland, our Midwestern mindset drives us to put those ideas into action. We aim to refresh the American Idea for the next generation and to embed its principles into projects that will repair what is broken in society and advance new solutions to stubborn problems. Our work requires an informed citizenry engaged in their communities and spheres of influence. Sagamore invites you to join us in this citizen-centered movement, which has been a central component of the American Idea throughout our years as a republic.
Jerry D. Semler, Chairman
Jay F. Hein, President