These are tough times for, and in, America. We are at war, and we find that war highly controversial. Many of our political leaders have record-low approval ratings and too many are held in ignominy. Washington — our nation’s capital — is held in contempt, as a laugh line by comedians. But perhaps a greater tragedy than all of this is that we seem to no longer have any kind of reference point. For indeed, we are not living in the toughest of times, we are not living in the worst of times, nor are we fighting the toughest of wars. But try telling that to our nation’s young people; too many of them absorb too much of the negativism taught by our culture to know this.
The truth is, we’ve been in far worse shape in terms of what we’ve had to endure in this country — but we may not have been in far worse shape in terms of what we know about our country. Too many of our high-school students do not graduate high school, and of those who do, too many do not know the basic facts of their own country’s history.
This year’s National Assessment of Education Progress (our “Nation’s Report Card”) revealed that over 50-percent of our nation’s high-school students — our population reaching voting age — are functionally illiterate in their knowledge of U.S. History. Tragically, students do not begin their education careers in ignorance: if you track education progress in the 4th, 8th, and 12th grades with the Nation’s Report Card, you will see students know more in the 4th grade, less in the 8th grade, and are failing by the time they are high-school seniors. Relative to what they should know at their grade level, the longer they live and grow up in America, the less they know about it. How did this happen? Why is knowledge of and about the greatest political story ever told so dim?
Too many of our nation’s adults have taken too dark a view of their country and have not seen fit to transmit her story down to the next generation. Too many in our culture would rather point out our nation’s failings than its successes. And in our schools, too many textbooks on American history are politically one-sided (turning off those with opposing political views). Worse, and more often, many of them are just plain boring.
Yet we know the study of our history can be bestseller material when presented with the glory and romance that resides in it. This is why historians such as David McCullough and Michael Beschloss, and networks like the History Channel, remain so popular. They capture our great triumphs and tragic failures with all the greatness of those triumphs and all the tragedy of those failures intact — they don’t redact, they don’t gloss over, and they don’t dull down.
But that is not the history we give to our students. One education expert recently wrote, “students in our high schools are rarely expected to read a complete history book.” That’s a history book of any sort: a biography, a 1776, a Bruce Catton Civil War book. And, a recent national survey found that a majority of public high-school students are never assigned as much as 12-page history paper.
This is doubly tragic when we stop to consider we are not talking about just any country’s history here, we are talking about our country’s history — the country Abraham Lincoln called the “last best hope of earth.” We are, after all, a country that has prevented epidemics, improved the conditions of mankind, and saved other countries. We have fought wars for those who could not defend themselves, we have liberated the immiserated, and we are a city of refuge for foreigners as well.
With all that has gone wrong in our war and in our economy dare I repeat our merits and take a positive view? Of course I do. In the midst of a previous war’s dark days that had cost many lives and would cost many more — hundreds of thousands more — President Franklin D. Roosevelt could still say “we are a great nation” even as we fought for what he called “total victory” against an enemy that hewed to a “pirate philosophy” of fascism, even as we had just come out of the Great Depression. And, I remind that Lincoln could call us the “last best hope” only three months after Antietam, still the bloodiest day in American history.
But, America is not just the story of presidents. It is not just the study of great leaders, but, rather, of the undertaking of a great people — the study of great citizens who wisely choose how to save themselves and others, how to correct wrongs, and how to preserve what is still the greatest nation in the history of the world.
While we have our Washingtons, our Lincolns, our Roosevelts, our Trumans, our Reagans, we also have so many others — heroes in every walk of life, in every city in America. If we take on the complete study of our country again — the good, the bad, and the sometimes ugly — we will realize that for every anti-hero that we can be criticized for, there are hundreds of heroes; for every dark moment, there are thousands of rays of light to be seen through the passing clouds
Those who watched the recent Medal of Honor service for Lieutenant Michael Murphy were awestruck by the presentation to this young man’s family — by hearing of how Lt. Murphy’s “powerful sense of right and wrong,” guided him his whole life, and how he embraced from an early age the importance of “defend[ing] those who could not defend themselves.” “Murph,” as he was known by his friends, was our nation’s 3,445th Medal of Honor recipient, the highest honor our nation bestows.
Why don’t our schools take next week, as Veteran’s Day is celebrated, to start a program where they learn about “Murph” and the other Medal of Honor winners throughout their elementary- and secondary-school careers? Why not invite a veteran in to school next week? Such study would help teach our children history with real-life heroes and, at the same time, it would help repay the debt to those heroes by transmitting their stories unto the next generations. I cannot think of a greater way for young children and young adults to learn history than through the stories that make our history — and these stories deserve to be told and retold.
A time of war is a terrible thing, but it brings opportunities for teachable moments, and it is about the best time there can be to make our heroes and their cause teachable and estimable again. If we rededicate ourselves to studying our history and our people rightly, if we take the time to look at the entirety of our firmament, we will see what our Founders saw we could be, what foreigners who came here saw all along, and what we ourselves can — even today — see once again: that we have something precious here. That something is called America, where young men and women sign up to protect her each and every day in the uniform of our armed services. And it is worth the time of every young man and every young woman in our nation’s classrooms to study why.
–William J. Bennett is the author of Volumes I & II of America: The Last Best Hope — a new box set of American history (including a special audio tribute to Ronald Reagan). Bennett is the Washington fellow of the Claremont Institute .