Putting the Teaching of American History and Civics Back into Our Classrooms Out of Many, One: E Pluribus Unum

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Putting the Teaching of American History and Civics Back into Our Classrooms Out of Many, One: E Pluribus Unum

March 14, 2003 18 min read
The Lamar Alexander

I am glad to have this privilege to come to Heritage today to talk about the two subjects I care about the most: the education of our children and the principles that unite us as Americans. I salute Heritage for providing public forums on issues that are important to our nation.

At a time when we are asking young Americans to give their lives to defend our values, we are doing a poor job of teaching just what those values are. That is why, last week, in my maiden address--we still call it that in the United States Senate--I proposed ways to put the teaching of American history and civics back in our schools so our children can grow up learning what it means to be an American.

The Senate will hold hearings on April 10 on my proposal. The proposal is to create Presidential Academies for Teachers of American History and Civics and Congressional Academies for Students of American History and Civics--residential summer academies at which teachers can learn better how to teach and outstanding students can learn more about the key events, persons, and ideas that shaped the institutions and democratic heritage of the United States of America.

Today I want to discuss, first, why America is exceptional--not always better than other countries, but in important ways different; second, how the teaching and learning of American history and civics has declined and why; and, finally, why the three Latin words that were the first motto of our nation, E Pluribus Unum, are still in the right order--"Out of Many, One"--even though some are trying mightily to turn them around to say that we are "Many, out of One."

In other words, in the United States of America, I believe unity still trumps diversity.

You Can't Become Japanese

Now, to do this, I want to ask for your help. So will you please imagine that we are in a federal courtroom in Nashville, where I was in October 2001. It is naturalization day. The room is filled with anxious persons, talking among themselves in halting English. They are obviously with their families and closest friends. They are neatly dressed but, for the most part, not so well dressed.

Most faces are radiant. Only a few faces are white. There are 77 persons from 22 countries who have passed their exams, learned English, passed a test about American government, survived a character investigation, paid their taxes, and waited in line for five years to be a citizen of the United States.

The bailiff shouts, "God save this honorable court," and the judge, Aleta Trauger, walks in. She asks each of the applicants to stand.

Here is where I need your help. I will be Judge Trauger. I want you to be the 77 new citizens. Will you please stand, actually stand, raise your right hand, and repeat after me. I want you to listen carefully to this oath:

I, [and state your name],
Hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen;
That I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic;
That I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same;
That I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law;
That I will perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by the law;
That I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and that I take this obligation freely without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion:
So help me God.

Now, that is quite an oath. Sounds like it might have been written by some rowdy patriots in Philadelphia or Williamsburg, and I wonder if anything like that could be written into law today.

Judge Trauger then addressed the new citizens in Nashville with these words:

You are now an American citizen. On behalf of your fellow countrymen, I congratulate you. You have studied hard and achieved much. You know more about the matters of citizenship than many of us born into it. Even so, I would like to speak to you for a few minutes about what I think it means to be an American citizen.

Continuing to quote:

Americans, unlike many other people, are not Americans simply because of accidents of geography or centuries of tradition. Instead, we Americans based our citizenship on our foundation of shared ideals and ideas brought from many countries, races, religions and cultures.

The judge said:

We are Americans because we also share certain fundamental beliefs. We are bound together by the unique set of principles set forth in documents that created and continue to define this nation. We find our heritage and inspiration in the profound words of the Declaration of Independence: "All people are created equal and endowed with unalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." We pledge allegiance to the Republic as one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. But the greatest expression of our national identity is the constitution of the United States which established the responsibilities and rights that go with citizenship.

These were the words that fall day in 2001 of Judge Aleta Trauger to 77 incredibly happy new citizens, their families, and friends in the Nashville courthouse. This happens almost every month, in almost every federal courthouse. That same year, about 900,000 new citizens took this oath and heard words like this.

Judge Trauger, may I say, is not some right-wing, super-patriotic extremist nominated for the federal bench by the Bush White House. She was appointed by a Democratic President. But Democrats as well as Republicans--almost all of us as Americans--agree with Judge Trauger's exposition of what it means to be an American.

For example, after 9/11, President Bush spoke of the American character. Former Vice President Al Gore said the next day we "must defend the values that bind us together."

Judge Trauger, the President, and the former Vice President were invoking a creed of ideas and values in which most of us believe. "It has been our fate as a nation," the historian Richard Hofstader wrote, "not to have ideologies but to be one."

Those who love and hate the United States love and hate us not so much for what we do but for who we are. And it is different being an American. One major difference is how you get to be an American, just as those citizens did.

You can't become Japanese by moving to Japan and taking some oath.

A Turk with great difficulty might immigrate to Germany and become a citizen, but he will find himself described as a Turk living in Germany, not as a German.

Because of their Pakistani roots, the family of the recently arrested al-Qaeda leader, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, could not become Kuwaiti when they moved to Kuwait.

But if a Japanese or a Turk or a Pakistani came to America and wanted to be a citizen, they would have to take that oath to become an American. And they do that based not on race, creed, or color but by taking an oath and pledging allegiance to a common set of principles.

What Happened to Our Common Culture?

What principles? Judge Trauger mentioned most of them.

Until recently in our country, most people learned these principles in school, in their churches, at home, from the media, in patriotic celebrations that were a part of everyday life.

Thomas Jefferson spent his retirement evenings at Monticello teaching overnight guests what he had in mind when he helped create America. Other Founders took extensive notes and wrote long letters explaining what it means to be an American.

At the Alamo, Colonel William Barrett Travis appealed for help simply "in the name of the American Character."

Former American Federation of Teachers President Albert Shanker said that the public school "was invented to teach immigrant children the three Rs and what it means to be an American with the hope they would then go home and teach their parents."

Diane Ravitch reminds us that McGuffey's reader sold 120 million copies and helped to create a common culture of literature, patriotic speeches, and historical references.

President Franklin Roosevelt made sure those who charged the beaches of Normandy knew they were fighting for Four Freedoms.

But then things changed, for a variety of reasons. One reason was that McCarthyism gave "Americanism" a sour taste. The Vietnam War and other challenges to authority questioned prevailing attitudes, including our founding principles. The end of the Cold War removed a preoccupation with who we were not, making it less important to consider who we are.

And our history textbooks, which had done a good job of teaching some traditional history, left out a lot. The contribution of Spanish explorers was undervalued. The diseases those explorers brought with them that devastated Native Americans was rarely mentioned.

No Tennessee history book taught me about men like Kunta Kinte, the seventh-generation ancestor of Alex Haley, a Tennessean who won a Pulitzer Prize for his family story, Roots, the struggle for freedom and equality. There was very little mention of men like my ancestor John Rankin, a conductor in the underground railway, and about the slave-catchers from Kentucky who tried to assassinate him.

And, finally, the largest number of new Americans in our country's history came to our shores--and in the last few years, the prevailing notion became let's just celebrate all those cultures, and we forgot to remind new Americans of the principles that have always united our many new cultures.

Osama Bin Laden and George Washington

So, just at a time when there should have been an acceleration in the teaching and learning of American history and civics--it declined.

In Dr. Ravitch's words, instead of incomplete history and simplistic patriotism, we went to the other extreme: "public schools with an adversary culture that emphasized the nation's warts and diminished its genuine accomplishments."

Imagine the plight of teachers. Assaulted by simplistic patriotism on one side and multiculturalism on the other, teachers dove for cover, textbooks became sanitized and boring, and we've seen the embarrassing results.

Christopher Hitchens, in a 1998 article in Harper's, summarizes the evidence:

  • 59 percent of 4th graders do not know why Pilgrims and Puritans first voyaged to America.
  • 68 percent of 4th graders can't name the first 13 colonies.
  • 90 percent of 8th graders can't recount anything about the debates of the constitutional convention.

Today, three-quarters of 4th, 8th and 12th graders--this is according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress--are not proficient in civics knowledge, and one-third of them do not have basic knowledge, making one-third of our students "civic illiterates."

Children are not learning American history and civics because they are not being taught it, or at least they are not being taught it well. American history has been watered down, and civics is too often dropped entirely from the curriculum. Today, more than half the states don't have a requirement for students to take a course--even for one semester--in American government.

The results of this are evident everywhere in American life.

For example, some federal judges--who seem not to know that the first Congress both enacted the First Amendment and paid the first Senate chaplain--are unable to reconcile our religious traditions with the separation of church and state, producing absurd decisions like the one removing "under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance.

A United States Congresswoman actually says that "Osama bin Laden and these non-nation state fighters with religious purposes are very similar to those kinds of atypical revolutionaries that helped to cast off the British crown."

Schools remove the names of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson because it is discovered they owned slaves, without remembering they also created a country whose principles led to the inevitable end of that horrible practice.

And, according to the Princeton Review, our presidential debates (and I participated in these) are now conducted at a 6th or 7th grade vocabulary level as compared with the Lincoln-Douglas debates in the 1850s, which were conducted at a level of vocabulary expected of high school seniors.

Trust Classroom Teachers

To help put the teaching of American history and civics back in its rightful place in our schools, I have proposed that we create Presidential Academies for Teachers of American History and Civics and Congressional Academies for Students of American History and Civics.

These residential academies would operate in the summer for two weeks for teachers and four weeks for students. Their purpose would be to inspire better teaching and more learning of these subjects.

The idea for these academies is based primarily upon my trust and respect for classroom teachers. I believe that if, for example, 200 Tennessee teachers come together for two weeks in the summer to discuss how to do a more complete, inspiring, and effective job of teaching American history and civics, they will light up their classrooms with their enthusiasm during the next year.

In the same way, good students who spend a month with such teachers will go back to their classrooms not only inspired themselves, but serving as good examples for other students.

I know this works because I have seen it happen before. Tennessee's Governor's summer schools for teachers and students were the best education spending, dollar for dollar, our state has ever done. Teacher after teacher, student after student told me these schools literally changed their lives. There are more than 100 such Governor's schools in 28 states, almost all with great experiences.

Our pilot program would start with 12 Presidential Academies for Teachers and 12 Congressional Academies for Students. We'd spend $25 million a year for four years and see if it worked. The schools would be sponsored by educational institutions. The grants would be awarded for two years at a time by the National Endowment for the Humanities after a peer review process. Each grant would be subject to rigorous review after three years to see if the program is worth continuing.

This is not only something that will work; it is something parents want. A Public Agenda survey showed that 84 percent of parents with school-age children said they believe that the United States is a special country, and they want schools to convey the belief to their children by teaching about its heroes and traditions.

President Bush has taken leadership in this. He created a "We the People Program" to develop curriculum and sponsor lectures on American history and civics. He is also sponsoring a White House forum on the subject soon.

Last year, the Senate authorized $100 million to schools for the teaching of traditional American history and civics. A dozen Senators, including the Democratic Whip, Harry Reid of Nevada, have joined in sponsoring our legislation. Congressman Roger Wicker and colleagues in the House of Representatives have introduced it there.

I have one more thing I need to say. I want to read you one sentence from my so-called maiden speech to the Senate last week, because it elicited what one newspaper described as "harsh criticism from the civil rights community." This is the sentence:

Some of our national leaders have celebrated multiculturalism and bilingualism and diversity at a time when there should have been more emphasis on a common culture and learning English and unity.

There are some real differences of opinion reflected in the criticism I got for saying that. Some believe that America is just another country and that it is embarrassing for us to claim it is truly exceptional. Some believe it is old-fashioned and wrong to try to define the principles that unite us as Americans because in the past it led us to excesses such as McCarthyism, because it can seem exclusionary, and that we would be better off just being comfortable as descendants of wherever we came from.

Most important, we have not been able to put behind us the memory that the ancestors of some of us didn't come for the same reasons most did. Native Americans were already here, and the ancestors of most African-Americans, like Kunta Kinte, were captured in their villages, transported in the stinking bellies of slave ships to this country, and sold into bondage. It is hard to put that out of one's memory.

Why Unity Trumps Diversity

Here is what I believe.

I believe that America's variety and diversity is a magnificent strength. I have always sought that in my own life and for my children. But diversity is not our greatest strength. Jerusalem is diverse. The Balkans are diverse.

The greatest challenge we face in Iraq is not winning a war, but turning diversity into unity after the war. The greatest accomplishment of the United States of America, after establishing freedom and democracy, is that we've found a way to take all our magnificent variety and diversity and unite as one country.

I preside a great deal as a freshman Senator. Engraved above the Senate president's chair, for every C-SPAN viewer to see, are the three Latin words that form the original motto of our country, E Pluribus Unum--"Out of Many, One." It is not "Many, out of One." As Samuel Huntington has observed, if it were many out of one, we would be the United Nations, not the United States of America.

"Pledge Plus Three"

Since 9/11, there has been a different tone in our country. The terrorists focused their crosshairs on the ideas that unite us--forcing us to remind ourselves of those principles, to examine and define them, and to celebrate them.

President Bush has been the lead teacher, literally taking us back to school on television about what it means to be an American. We should join our President in this national discussion.

One way would be for each school to start each day the way the Senate does--with the Pledge of Allegiance, followed by a teacher or student saying in his or her own words for three minutes about "what it means to be an American." It would be a daily lesson in American history and civics for the whole school.

When I decided to run for the Senate a year ago, I was a member of the faculty at Harvard's school of government, teaching a course in "The American Character and America's Government." The students and I were trying to figure out if there is "an American way" to solve tough public policy problems.

It was easy for us to define the principles that unite us, such as liberty, equal opportunity, rule of law, laissez faire, individualism, E Pluribus Unum, the separation of church and state. But applying those principles to real problems turned out to be hard work.

The Senate was reminded of this yesterday when we debated partial birth abortion: It was the liberty of a woman versus the life of a baby. We also see these conflicts of principle when we discuss President Bush's faith-based charity proposal because on the one hand, "In God We Trust," but on the other hand, we don't trust government with God.

I want the federal government to pay for scholarships that would follow children to any accredited school--public, private, or religious. To me, that is equal opportunity. To the National Education Association, it is the violation of separation of church and state and of the principle of E Pluribus Unum.

As Samuel Huntington has written, most of our politics is about conflicts among principles that unite us--and about disappointments that occur when we try to live up to our greatest dreams. "All men are created equal," we say, but there is still racism in America. "We will pay any price, bear any burden to defend freedom," President John Kennedy said, but we didn't go to Rwanda, and there is a great debate about going to Iraq.

If the conflicts among these principles and our disappointment in not reaching them is what most of our politics and government are about--then we had better get busy teaching them again.


My best student in my last class at Harvard was Natalia Kubay. She had grown up in Ukraine, married a Peace Corps worker, and moved to Boston. She was waiting for her citizenship. Her enthusiasm for her new country was so great that it infected all of us who were privileged to be in the classroom with her. She hopes one day, after she is a citizen, to run for office and serve in government.

Natalia is proud of her family and her native country. When she takes the oath of a naturalized citizen in the federal courthouse in Boston, as you did today, she will be living in this nation of immigrants, proud of where she came from, but prouder to be able to say, "We are all Americans."

The Honorable Lamar Alexander represents the state of Tennessee in the United States Senate. He has also served as president of the University of Tennessee, as governor of Tennessee, and as U.S. Secretary of Education.


The Lamar Alexander