Two views currently clash about the meaning of U.S. citizenship and how to teach students about it. Some view the United States as a uniquely diverse society founded upon the idea of freedom. Others scoff at that and see the history of the United States, like that of most other countries, as one of oppression and patriotic gore.
Is the United States different from other countries? If so, why? Those questions are a little like the question that the youngest child at the table is supposed to ask during the Passover meals that many Jews will eat next week: "Why is this night different from all other nights?"
The Passover Haggadah (order of service) then speaks of "four sons" who have varying reactions to the evening's celebration of deliverance from Egyptian slavery. One is the wicked son, who asks his father, "What is this service to you?" That might seem like a quest for meaning, but the use of "you" means that the wicked son is taking up the posture of an observer who feels superior to those who retain quaint understandings.
Lots of wicked sons teach history in American colleges and schools now. They see America as a land-grabber along with every empire in history. (Never mind Colin Powell's true statement about the land the United States grabbed in World Wars I and II: enough soil to bury our dead.) They scream about hypocrisy and lies in Iraq rather than human weakness and mistakes. Last fall they sneered at "General Betray-Us."
Some of these wicked sons are truly wicked. Others have ingested materialistic emphases that reduce or even eliminate human choice from history. The Great Man (or great person) teachings of Christmases past sometimes treated men as angels, but many courses now treat humans as either robots or rats.
Another of the four sons in the Haggadah is the wise son, who already knows the story of deliverance. He is like American wise sons who know that our country truly is exceptional. They know that we are sinful and fallen, so we've fallen into slavery and have mixed motives about even noble ventures. Overall, though, they see America as a sweet land of liberty.
The tension in the Haggadah account is that the wise son impatiently asks the father to give the story's moral before he's even narrated it in an understandable way. That's the problem in much of our history teaching today. Young children are supposed to develop "critical thinking" about historical problems instead of learning stories of America's patriots. They are taught to see George Washington only as a slave owner, not as a brave man who staked his life and fortune on the triumph of an idea.
The dad during the Passover seder is supposed to be patient for the sake of his two other sons, one who is "simple" and one who does not know enough to ask a question. In both cases the father is supposed to personalize the story of deliverance by explaining that God delivered "us" or "me" from slavery. The sons cannot understand the intellectual debate but they can grasp the story and the importance of taking it to heart.
That's what we should do in our history teaching. Polls show that students don't know basic facts, but the problem is deeper than that. Wicked sons teach materialistic doctrines. Some wise sons don't teach the tales that help students to love America's past and work optimistically for its future.
Teachers can do better by telling stories about America from a romantic realist perspective. Students need to understand both what happened and why people were excited about those events. Neither a "just the facts" approach nor a "just the opinions" approach is sufficient. Students need to appreciate the romance.
Homeschooling parents, using biographies from Greenleaf Press and others that tell of bravery and ideals (none followed perfectly), have often done better than the history pros. For older students, teachers should throw away standard textbooks and instead use popular biographies and histories by writers such as David McCullough, Nathaniel Philbrick (Mayflower), Stephen Ambrose, and others. Neither wickedness nor impatient wisdom will do. Sometimes we have to respect the simple.
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