Jefferson said of education that it “enables every man to judge for himself what will secure or endanger his freedom.”
Historian Rick Shenkman in his new book, Just How Stupid Are We? concludes that in the November 4 election, people were clueless without 15-second infomercials in deciding whom to vote for.
How can ignorant people make such judgments, asks Chester Finn, Jr., in his introduction to Terrorists, Depots, and Democracy, What Our Children Need to Know. Finn asks, “How does it strengthen America for the future if it is raising a generation of ignorant citizens whose teachers are urged not to inform them of the truth about events for which they have no context, background, or information base”?
The Fordham Foundation’s monograph (no relation to Fordham University), which deals also with what teachers need to know about America and the world, contains short essays by William J. Bennett, E. D. Hirsch, Jr., Lynne Cheney, James Q. Wilson, Stanley Kurtz, Tony Blair, and two dozen others.
What better time than now, just after the November 4 presidential election, to be reminded of the foundations of our democratic self-government and its difference from all other countries? Our children need to know where else in the world self-government has taken root, and why; and where it has not, and why.
Our children need to know that our origins are in Western Civilization. The words citizen, freedom, and constitution come from Greek and Latin. Our children have to understand the our country is more than a tale of small-pox infected Indians, oppressed slaves, and interned Japanese Americans. They must understand the nature of totalitarian ideologies, which have attacked us in the past and we know will do so again.
From the beginning, the American experiment was fragile, writes Lynne Cheney. In 1776 our forefathers declared their independence from Britain, the greatest empire in the world. Their—our—Declaration of Independence declared that governments get their powers through the consent of the governed—us, (Not through King George III.)
For eleven years the American colonists fought the Revolutionary War and finally won, but only barely. Our forefathers were so ill equipped they had to bandage their shoeless feet. Then, in 1787, our forefathers drafted a Constitution guaranteeing us freedom of speech and religion.
Our students need to know that we still look to our Constitution to govern us. They need to know about the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, World War II, and the 9/11 attack upon us by people we did not know existed and who hate our ideas. They need to learn about the heroism of the firemen and policemen who rushed into the attacked World Trade Center to try to rescue the innocents trapped there, and the heroism of the passengers on flight 93 who wrestled the terrorists in midair and crashed them all into the earth instead of into the Capitol or the White House, where the plane was believed headed.
What makes America exceptional? How do the political principles and institutions we value as Americans differ from those of the societies from which the World Trade Center terrorists came?
We have our freedom of religion, and intellectual freedom, comments Lynne Cheney, who writes, “Try to imagine the Wright brothers, or Steven Spielberg, or Bill Gates in an oppressive society. It is inconceivable that they would flourish.”
“Freedom, democracy, an independent judiciary, and the dignity of the individual are not innate to the human spirit,” observes Victor Davis Hanson. The American experiment from the first seemed fragile, by no means easy to perpetuate. These ideas, different fundamentally from other countries’, represent a threat to countries that do not permit them. This essential difference, our students must understand.
Foreigners come here as immigrants and who are integrated or assimilated into our society, make us a unique country. In no other country does this happen.
But our toleration of cultural and intellectual differences, and the “quintessentially American virtue of niceness,” have given rise to a kind of moral relativism, making it impossible to teach children the difference between good and bad regimes, writes Finn.
These are the things America is made of that American children have to understand if they are to carry on this fragile experiment without counting themselves out as pacifists.
If the enemies of open, democratic societies had used force to impose historical and civic ignorance on our children, we would have considered it an act of war. Instead, we have done this to ourselves.”
As historian David McCullough testified to a Senate committee in 2003,
We are raising a generation of people who are historically illiterate. . . . We can’t function in a society if we don’t know who we are and where we came from. . . . When you have students at our Ivy League colleges saying they thought Germany and Japan were our allies in World War II, you know we’ve got a very serious problem.
By Natalie Sirkin