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Illustration by Krieg Barrie

Subtract and divide

Back to School | Schools ignore what's good about America and focus instead on keeping Americans from coming together as a people

Issue: "Two-ring circus," Sept. 6, 2008

America's schools and colleges are opening their doors for the 2008-2009 year, but what are they teaching about America? Are they training students to become more aware of what divides us than what unites us? Is the United States in danger, as a new Bradley Project report suggests, of becoming not "from many, one"-e pluribus unum-but its opposite, "from one, many"?

I contributed slightly to that Bradley report, titled E Pluribus Unum, along with a diverse group that included journalists such as Michael Barone and Charles Krauthammer and academics such as William Galston (University of Maryland) and Amy Kass (University of Chicago). We came from different backgrounds but became aware of dire studies: Most eighth-graders cannot explain the purpose of the Declaration of Independence. Only 5 percent of seniors can describe how Congress and the Supreme Court can check presidential power.

What kind of voters will go to the polls two months from now? Many that know little about American history, and what they know is grim: The Puritans were bigots, George Washington owned slaves, Andrew Jackson's actions led to the Trail of Tears, Andrew Carnegie fought with workers. Those statements are true, but if they are not balanced by teaching about the Puritans' strength of purpose, the courage of Washington and Jackson, the generosity of Carnegie, and so forth, schools are producing "Hate America First" voters.

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The Bradley Project noted that "schools should not slight their civic mission by giving students the impression that America's failures are more noteworthy than America's achievements. They should begin with the study of America's great ideals, heroes, and achievements, so that its struggles can be put in perspective. A broad-minded, balanced approach to the American story best prepares young people for informed democratic participation."

Why are we producing high-school graduates with either no knowledge or a distorted knowledge of American history? One cause: "boring textbooks that lack narrative drive and ignore or downplay America's heroes and dramatic achievements." Another cause: "teachers unexcited about history who talk more about America's failings than its successes."

Furthermore, "Teachers must depend on state curriculum frameworks that are wary of facts and chronology. A foundation for understanding American history should be laid in the primary grades by including national holidays, heroes, songs, and poems. . . . The teaching of American history should be strengthened by including more compelling narratives and primary texts, such as the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the great speeches and debates."

Another problem with K-12 history teaching is the tendency to emphasize ethnicity, even though that's not what parents want. A Bradley-commissioned Harris Poll found that 80 percent of Americans (including 70 percent of Latinos) believe our schools should focus on American citizenship, not ethnic identity. Eight out of nine African-American parents, according to a Yankelovich survey, say, "There's too much attention paid these days to what separates different ethnic and racial groups and not enough to what they have in common."

Regardless of parental wishes, some teachers suggest that "the United States is no longer 'we the people,' but 'we the peoples.' The new attitude favors dual citizenship, multilingual ballots, and bilingual instruction rather than English immersion. Instead of one America, there are voices for many Americas, or even no America at all." Bradley Project participants agreed that "we should not adopt policies that perpetuate division or that compromise our national allegiance."

Does college make up for what K-12 schooling lacks? Sadly, no: "College does little to close the civic literacy gap." Most college seniors, even at elite universities, cannot correctly identify major national figures such as James Madison. The Coming Crisis of Citizenship, an Intercollegiate Studies Institute study, reported that most college seniors could not identify the opening words of the Declaration of Independence. Most were unable to define representative democracy or the separation of powers.

Losing America's Memory, an American Council of Trustees study of seniors at 55 top-ranked colleges and universities, showed that 99 percent could identify Beavis and Butthead and 98 percent Snoop Doggy Dogg, but less than one in four could identify the phrase "government of the people, by the people, and for the people" as coming from the Gettysburg address. Only a third of graduating seniors knew that George Washington was in command at the Battle of Yorktown, the culminating battle of the American Revolution.

One problem at colleges is that professors prefer to teach their specialties rather than introductory courses, and cowed administrators don't insist on covering the basics. Former Harvard dean Harry Lewis put it this way: "Students are much more interested in taking courses on the American Republic than professors are in teaching them. At research universities, especially, where the rewards come for creativity and novelty, the subject is not trendy enough for most professors."

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