Our National Alienation & Amnesia
How do we ask our children to fight, and perhaps die, for a country they do not know?


William J. Bennett

At least when a textbook is one-sided, however, it could give a student something to argue about; but boredom in our curriculum promises only the death of the subject matter as well as any interest in it. What a shame that great men and women like George Washington, Abigail Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Amelia Earhart, Jesse Owens, Martin Luther King Jr, and so many others should be consigned to brief mentions only, and then to the sighs of uninterested study. Their stories are just not told.

The textbooks are not the only indicators of the growing national amnesia that begins in childhood. Almost every young citizen’s first introduction to George Washington is a boring, snaffle-mouthed picture on our main currency, the dollar bill. Is this the appropriate depiction of the man once known as the “the fiercest chieftain in the forest?” Who would know he was in his early forties during the Revolution he led, and not guess that he was destined for a convalescent home?

Who knows that America’s war against Islamist terror did not begin on September 11, 2001, but that Thomas Jefferson fought our first war on terror, against Muslim slave traders in North Africa who had enslaved some 1.25 million Europeans some 200 years earlier? Children are not taught this.

Not so long ago, we knew our history as the inscription atop the National Archives in Washington declaring what is contained beneath: “The Glory and Romance of Our History.” How to preserve, how to recapture and re-teach, that glory and romance when over one-third of our eighth graders and over fifty percent of our twelfth graders perform below even “a partial mastery of the knowledge and skills that are fundamental for proficient work” at their given grades according to the Nation’s Report Card in History?

Let us call for a renewal. Begin with the texts. Let us have a national contest sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities or the Department of Education for better history textbooks, and grant the winners emoluments and recognition. Judges should be award-winning teachers, tour guides, National Park Rangers, and parents — all of whom are known to love their subject. There really is no good reason for a dulled down history. As McCullough put it, to take what was once “a source of infinite pleasure” and make it “boring,” “is a crime.”

Meet the People
While speaking of money, let us start with a child’s first introduction to George Washington — the dollar bill. We should replace the picture of him now, which represents nothing and nobody anyone would want to study, much less respect, with an engraving based on Jean-Antoine Houdon’s magnificent 1785 sculpture of Washington. It is the most accurate depiction of Washington in life that we have, depicting a virile man at the height of his physical and mental powers. In this sculpture Washington is the man old men respected and young men wanted to ride with. He is also the gallant hero all the young ladies wanted to dance with. But he is more, much more.


Sign up for free NRO e-mails today:

NRO Polls on LockerDome

Subscribe to National Review