Last week the Bradley Foundation, one of America’s indispensable institutions, released a report, E Pluribus Unum: The Bradley Project on America’s National Identity. Ross Douthat has written about it here.
According to the report, America is facing an identity crisis. We are losing our sense of national identify, detaching ourselves from our history and founding ideals, giving way to separatist impulses, and replacing the idea of national citizenship with “global citizenship.” The effect of this is a splintering, divided nation. The antidote is for Americans to affirm once again their commitment to national unity, a shared culture, a common language, and defining ideals. Americans need to be reminded “who we are and what unites us.”
The report includes recommendations for many sectors of society, from businesses to civic groups to political leaders to colleges to elementary and secondary schools. On the latter, the E Pluribus Unum report reminds us, “We look to the public schools to fulfill their civic mission.”
Indeed we do, or at least we once did. Among the most neglected issues of our time is the role schools once played, and must one day play again, in transmitting to students an appreciation for American history, our ideals, and the importance of “preparing boys and girls for the duties of daily life and intelligent citizenship.” That last quote, by the way, comes from a report by the National Education Association – but written in the early part of the 20th century. (The NEA was once an outstanding organization; today, it ranks as among the most harmful in American life.) America’s finest Secretary of Education, William Bennett, put it this way:
Running through our nation’s history like a golden thread are certain ideals and aspirations. We believe in liberty and justice and equality. We believe in limited government and the betterment of the human condition. These truths underlie both our history and our society, and while they may be self-evident, they are not spontaneously apprehended by the young. They must be taught these things, and they should know that a large part of the world thinks and acts according to other principles. Once we understand that history plays a central role in preparing our students for democratic citizenship, everything else falls into place.
The study of history is central to this. Bernard De Voto, in speaking about the romantic aspect of history, put it in vivid and moving terms:
If the mad, impossible voyage of Columbus or Cartier or La Salle or Coronado or John Ledyard is not romantic, if the stars did not dance in the sky when your Constitutional Convention met, if Atlantis has any landscape stranger or the other side of the moon any lights or colors or shapes more unearthly than the customary homespun of Lincoln and the morning coat of Jackson, well, I don’t know what romance is. Ours is a story mad with the impossible; it began as a dream and it has continued as dream down to the last headlines you read in a newspaper.
Education reform should be a central issue in our political and civic conversations – and while we should frame this debate as about skills and achievement and higher test scores, we also need to remind people that education is about shaping young people’s sensibilities and character and preparing them for the duties of citizenship. And in teaching our students about America – about its achievements and injustices, about its imperfect steps toward a more perfect union – they will develop a deep and abiding love for her.