Ronald Reagan was characteristically upbeat and optimistic when he addressed the American people for the final time as president 30 years ago this past Friday. His farewell address to the nation is best known for his vivid description of just what he’d had in mind all those times when he invoked America as “a shining city on a hill”:
In my mind, it was a tall proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity, and if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors, and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it, and see it still.
But for all of his optimism, Reagan did leave his audience with one clear warning for the future. He said the country needed “an informed patriotism.” He greatly feared that we were not doing enough to foster it.
“Are we doing a good-enough job teaching our children what America is and what she represents in the long history of the world?” Reagan bluntly asked.
When he was young, the nation’s youth “were taught, very directly, what it means to be an American,” he noted. “And we absorbed, almost in the air, a love of country and an appreciation of its institutions.” Young people learned those lessons from family, in classrooms, and through popular culture.
The Gipper worried that we were not handing down to future generations a responsible love of country. “Parents aren’t sure that an unambivalent appreciation of America is the right thing to teach modern children,” he said. “Well-grounded patriotism is no longer in style” for those media figures who direct the course of popular culture.
“We’ve got to teach history based not on what’s in fashion but what’s important,” he urged parents and teachers. “If we forget what we did, we won’t know who we are. I’m warning of an eradication of the American memory that could result, ultimately, in an erosion of the American spirit.”
We’ve had three decades to observe just how prophetic and accurate Reagan’s warning was. Study after study has shown the shocking ignorance of both young people and adults about American ideals, history, and institutions. In 2017, a poll by the Annenberg Public Policy Center showed that only one-quarter of respondents could name all three branches of government. More than one-third couldn’t name any First Amendment rights.
But ignorance isn’t the only threat to the understanding that Americans have of their country. In 2017, the National Association of Scholars released a report entitled “Making Citizens: How American Universities Teach Civics.” As The College Fix reported, Making Citizens suggests that “left-leaning professors have transformed the teaching of traditional civics with an emphasis on activism, creating a pipeline of students eager to serve the goals of secular-progressive causes.” The report’s authors note that instead of teaching “students the foundations of law, liberty, and self-government,” colleges teach them “how to organize protests, occupy buildings, and stage demonstrations.”
Perhaps it’s too much to expect that public schools today can go back to formally teaching students about representative government, the separation of powers, and landmark Supreme Court cases, but at least we should insist that they sponsor and encourage debates in which advocates of traditional civics from outside groups can help foster a sense of civic engagement.
Reagan himself was far too practical to believe that the job of reintroducing the study of self-government could be left to the schools. “All great change in America begins at the dinner table,” he said in his farewell address. “So, tomorrow night in the kitchen I hope the talking begins. And children, if your parents haven’t been teaching you what it means to be an American, let ’em know and nail ’em on it. That would be a very American thing to do.”
It is also absolutely necessary if we are to have any success in our effort to “make America great again.” “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction,” Reagan reminded us. “We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same.”