Is America a melting pot, a salad bowl or a sheet of jazz music? In the mid-1990s, the National Endowment for the Humanities devoted $6 million to town-hall meetings where Americans could discuss their collective identity. The freewheeling "conversations" never did define what that was, although former NEH president Sheldon Hackney came up with jazz music as a national metaphor-because it's nonhierarchical.
Bruce Cole, NEH president since 2001, thinks we need only look back to see what it means to be American. He calls widespread ignorance of U.S. history our "American amnesia." So when President Bush launched his "We the People" initiative under the agency in 2002-meant to educate citizens about American history-he devised a program for it aimed at kids.
The program selects 15 books that exemplify one American principle from a long-used NEH summer reading list of about 300 classics. Last year's theme, the program's first, was courage. This year's, announced in June, is freedom. "These wonderful and powerful books shed light on our national heritage," said Mr. Cole. "They all reflect the theme of freedom-freedom sought, freedom denied, freedom lived."
Some 1,000 school and public libraries-and even homeschool libraries-can now apply for a set of the books, which the NEH will mail to award winners next spring. The books run in age groups from kindergarten through 12th grade, and among them are some perennial standouts: Beatrix Potter's The Tale of Peter Rabbit, Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 and George Orwell's 1984 and Animal Farm.
The bookshelf's most surprising asset, however, is the baldly Christian Chronicles of Narnia, by C.S. Lewis. Chosen because they "convey lessons about the struggle against oppression," NEH officials explained that the seven volumes also teach about the responsibilities of freedom.
In the second of the series, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Aslan the lion frees Narnia from the rule of the wicked White Queen. But many of the land's talking animals abuse their newfound liberty, and pay by becoming mute. The lesson the NEH hopes young readers will learn: Free creatures, and free individuals, enjoy their freedom only when they learn to use personal restraint.
The NEH has compiled its first two "We the People" bookshelves from established classics, published in or before 1985. To make the cut, each book had to offer knowledge about American history, culture, or values. Classics on the freedom bookshelf also highlight a wide swathe of national history.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's Paul Revere's Ride educates readers about the American Revolution, just as the subject is flagging in schools. To Be a Slave, by Julius Lester, offers first-hand accounts of slaves and former slaves starting from when they left Africa and stretching into the 1900s. Willa Cather's My Antonia opens windows onto immigrant life in Midwestern Nebraska.
Thousands applied for last year's courage bookshelf. To qualify, each applicant had to offer supporting events that emphasized the theme, such as pizza party discussion groups or essay contests.
The NEH is also reaching deep into communities previously shunned by federal programs. Alfrieda Day is one example. The Illinois homeschool mother received the first courage bookshelf this year, but has been turned down in the past for other programs because she didn't represent a public school. "I was surprised when we got it," she said. "It's really nice to be included-we are educating our children."
But too many students aren't being educated on basic American history. The "We the People" website lists several polls to make its point. From 2002: None of the nation's 50 top colleges required courses in American history. From 2001: More than half of high-school seniors thought Italy, Germany, or Japan was a World War II ally.
And now the War on Terror provides even more reason for historical literacy, said Erik Lokkesmoe, NEH communications director. "We focus a lot on how we're fighting, where we're fighting, but not why we're fighting . . . part of national security is to protect the ideals that make us free."
That kind of focus might comfort conservatives leery of the agency, a survivor from Lyndon Johnson's failed Great Society program, especially as its funding grows. From 2003, the NEH budget increased $11 million to $135 million this year, its biggest percentage increase since 1979. For 2005, Mr. Bush has requested $162 million. This is small change by federal standards, but Mr. Cole hopes it will rub out American forgetfulness.