February 16, 2003

February 16, 2003 | Commentary on

No Greater Lesson

President Bush wants regime change in Iraq, but -- considering how ignorant many Americans are of their history -- the harder job may be regime maintenance here at home.

Tomorrow, the president hosts "We the People: A White House Forum on American History, Civics and Service," as part of an administration initiative, launched on Constitution Day last year, to address the growing problem of civic illiteracy. He also has requested $25 million for the National Endowment of Humanities to promote American history. The effort comes none too soon.

According to the Department of Education, more than half of high-school seniors lack even a basic knowledge of American history. Nearly one in five, for example, think Germany was our ally in World War II. Many college students, another study finds, can't identify the Gettysburg Address and don't know that James Madison was the Father of the Constitution.

The problem runs deeper than just an ignorance of facts and figures. The American Founders argued that self-government requires civic and history education. Not only must future citizens know that legitimate government is grounded in the protection of equal natural rights and the consent of the governed -- the principles of the Declaration of Independence -- they also must understand and appreciate how the Constitution and our institutions of limited government work to protect liberty and the rule of law.

"Every child in America should be acquainted with his own country," wrote educator Noah Webster in 1788. "As soon as he opens his lips, he should rehearse the history of his own country." The objective of an education oriented toward a life of citizenship is to "implant in the minds of the American youth the principles of virtue and of liberty and inspire them with just and liberal ideas of government and with an inviolable attachment to their own country," Webster said.

History fosters attachment, and attachment-a necessary precondition to sustained civic engagement-fosters patriotism. But as constitutional signer James Wilson reminds us in his 1790 textbook, "Law and liberty cannot rationally become the objects of our love, unless they first become the objects of our knowledge."

Unfortunately, this is no longer the mission of our schools. We've shifted away from civics and social studies in elementary education; there are few high school civics courses anymore. Students can graduate from the top colleges and universities in America without taking a single course in U.S. history.

The roots of this transformation lie in another regime change -- an intellectual one wrought by progressive education reformers such as John Dewey and Charles Beard at the turn of the 20th century. They considered American history -- in particular, the ideas and institutions of the American Founders -- outdated and oppressive, a barrier to historical change and social progress. They replaced the old notion of civics with pragmatic skills training in tolerance, self-understanding and social consciousness.

We see the problem in the controversy surrounding the word "patriotism." It's a bad word in academic circles nowadays. Patriotism implies "a false air of moral weight and glory," writes University of Chicago professor Martha Nussbaum. Rather than developing preferences for any particular nation-state, students should be taught that they are citizens of the world that "happen to be situated in the United States."

In the continuing aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, President Bush has joined the battle over America's meaning. War, after all, tends to focus the mind not only on the harsh realities of the world but also on what distinguishes us from our enemies. But rather than follow the modern educational establishment, deconstructing the past for the sake of progress, Mr. Bush -- by reviving an older notion of history, civics and service -- wants to understand the past so that its wisdom and experience can guide our future.

"Our Founders believed the study of history and citizenship should be at the core of every American's education," Bush observed last September. "To be an American is not just a matter of blood or birth; we are bound by ideals, and our children must know those ideals."

"The American flag stands for more than our power and our interests," Bush added in his recent State of the Union Address. "Our founders dedicated this country to the cause of human dignity, the rights of every person, and the possibilities of every life. This conviction leads us into the world to help the afflicted, and defend the peace, and confound the designs of evil men."

Having recognized and confronted the evil that is terrorism, it's now time to relearn America's principles and purposes and remember why this regime is good, and worth defending. There's no greater lesson for a people -- and no nobler task for a statesman.



-Matthew Spalding is director of the B. Kenneth Simon Center for American Studies at The Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org) and editor of "The Founders' Almanac: A Practical Guide to the Notable Events, Greatest Leaders & Most Eloquent Words of the American Founding."

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Originally appeared in The Washington Times, February 16, 2003.