The American Patriot’s Almanac, written by bestselling author and former U.S. education secretary William J. Bennett and John T. E. Cribb, has just been re-released in time for Christmas. And it’s a gift in more ways than one. A fan of the book, I took the revised edition as an opportunity to talk to them about teaching children history, living history, the tea party, and, of course, Christmas.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: What’s your target audience for The American Patriot’s Almanac?
William J. Bennett: Anyone who loves this country, and anyone interested in raising a young person to be a patriot. One of our readers called this book a patriot’s daily devotional. That’s a pretty good description.
John T. E. Cribb: We’ve got a story from American history for every day of the year in the Almanac. It’s a reminder of all the things that make this country great, and all the reasons this country deserves our love.
Lopez: Can it realistically capture children’s imagination?
Bennett: Absolutely. Parents and other adults who are using the book have told us so. We’ve had parents tell us their kids take turns reading from the Almanac in carpool on the way to school. That principals read from it at school every day as part of morning announcements. Families read from it at mealtime.
Cribb: Readers tell us it interests people of all ages. Adults who like history will enjoy it. But middle schoolers and high schoolers can handle the material. Even young children can enjoy these stories if adults read them aloud or retell them.
Lopez: How do you capture children’s imaginations in the age of Wii and so many distractions and competition for their time?
Bennett: With good stories. There’s still no better way to grab a child’s attention than “Once upon a time.” In this case, the stories happen to be true. You can’t make up tales more marvelous than compelling episodes from American history.
Cribb: There’s a great quote by the historian Bernard DeVoto which we reference in the book. He wrote that American history is “charged and recharged with romanticism,” that if the stories of Columbus’s voyage and Lincoln’s struggles aren’t romantic, nothing is. His point was that history told well should grab the imagination. We hope we’ve done that.
Lopez: You write that “the woeful education of many people raises serious questions about our ability to compete in a global economy.” I have the impression you’ve been spending a lot of time in schools lately. Tell us about your history work these days, Secretary Bennett.
Bennett: When it comes to test scores, history is arguably American students’ worst subject. About fifty percent of our high school students are functionally illiterate when it comes to American history. If history is supposed to be a good story, that should tell you something about the way it’s being taught. One thing I’ve been doing lately is working to get my two-volume American history, America: The Last Best Hope, into as many schools as possible. We’ve made some inroads, though it’s a long haul.
Lopez: What have you learned being around teachers and students lately?
Bennett: I’m taken and pleased by what I’m hearing in schools, though not as pleased as I am with the new members of Congress, who give me almost overwhelming pleasure and hope. I’ve found there to be a new openness in schools about some new things — which in many cases turns out to mean trying some old and trustworthy things again. Recently there’s been great interest in the Common Core state Standards Initiative that speaks to what students ought to learn. It’s not a core imposed by the federal government, but rather a set of knowledge and skills we should want every child to possess. It’s based on principles and beliefs, as expressed in good literature and philosophy, which all Americans share. This book, The American Patriot’s Almanac, ties directly into that common culture.
Lopez: Have you seen things improve or get worse, education wise, since your days in the Department of Education?#more#
Bennett: Generally speaking, it’s been a flat line for some time now. The problem is that other parts of the world continue to make progress in educating their students — India, China, Singapore. So we’re losing ground on a relative basis. From an economic standpoint, the math and science achievement gap is particularly alarming. Can we reverse the trend? Sure, if we really put our minds to it. Will we? I don’t know.
Lopez: Speaking of education: How did the Almanac come to highlight Elizabeth Ann Seton, big time, on January 4? How important was she?
Cribb: She’s the first American-born saint, and her life is an incredible story. It deserves to be better known. She grew up and lived in privileged circumstances, and then her whole world fell apart. She responded with incredible strength and grace, and her work has ended up touching countless lives. Her feast day is January 4, which is why we tell her story on that day.
Bennett: She’s a good reminder that without men and women of faith, this country would be a pretty grim place. A lot of American history books take religion and faith out of the story. But that’s not a true picture of what this country is about. We think we give faith its due in The American Patriot’s Almanac.
Lopez: Were there any disagreements over what to include, what to highlight, what to exclude?
Bennett: Not really. We’ve known each other and worked together a long time now. When it comes to history, we’re pretty much of one mind.
Cribb: We have a list of Fifty All-American Movies in the book, movies that capture the American spirit. Drawing that up probably triggered the most spirited debate. I managed to get It’s a Wonderful Live onto the list, despite some resistance from Bill. I still can’t figure out how anyone can not like that movie.
Lopez: What do you have against It’s a Wonderful Life? Not so wonderful?
Bennett: I best not go on about that. It just has never moved me. I have tried about a dozen times, and I can’t finish it. Clearly it’s my limitation. Miracle on 34th Street, with a really great lawyer, now you’re talking. That’s on the list, too.
Lopez: Was “The Origins of Football” section to keep boys interested?
Bennett: I’m an old offensive lineman. Both my boys played football. Someone once said it’s the great American game because it’s all about land acquisition. I don’t know about that, but I think anyone who likes the game will be interested to know where it came from.
Cribb: We also tell the stories of the origins of baseball and basketball. All three games are distinctly American. They’re part of the American landscape. We tried to mix all sorts of things like that into the book.
Lopez: You include American poetry. That’s a lost appreciation, isn’t it? We do have some decent poetry in our past, don’t we?
Cribb: Yes, we do. We’ve got a section called “Poems of American Patriotism.” No doubt, some elites will turn up their noses at poems like “Concord Hymn” and “The Bivouac of the Dead.” But these poems have moved generations of Americans for a reason.
Bennett: We’ve also got a section called “Songs of American Patriotism” with lyrics of songs like “The Marines’ Hymn” and “Anchors Aweigh” and “Taps.” Those lyrics are poetry in their own right.
Lopez: Practically speaking, how do you teach a child to be a patriot?
Bennett: We certainly hope The American Patriot’s Almanac will help any adult in that effort. One way is to teach children about their country’s founding and past, the good and the bad. Taken in its totality, this nation’s record stands tall. Second to none. If children hear that story from adults who love this country, they’ll come to love it too.
Cribb: We have a list near the front of the book — which you have adapted on NRO — called “Twelve Great Reasons to Love a Great Country.” That’s a good place to start. Adults need to explain to young people exactly why we should be grateful and proud to live here. Because if you leave it to television and most news media, you’re likely to end up with a young person who is mainly cynical about the United States.
Lopez: Why a revised version now? What’s new?
Bennett: We’re headed toward the tenth anniversary of 9/11. Thanks to the hard work and sacrifice of a lot of courageous people, we’ve been spared any further catastrophic attacks on our soil. But we’re still under attack. There are still lots of bad guys out there hoping to take us down. If we don’t remember why this country is so special, why it’s worth fighting for, then we’re in trouble. That’s what this book is about.
Cribb: There’s lots of new stuff in this edition. We’ve got several new stories in our daily calendar section. We’ve updated facts and figures. We’ve added a list of fifty great American quotes, some of our favorites, plus several quotes from abroad about the United States. Readers may be interested to see that, despite what you often read in the press, America does have many friends and admirers overseas. We’ve also got a new section called “Faith and the Founders.” It’s a reminder that most of the Founders were people of faith, and that they drew deeply from the wellsprings of the Judeo-Christian tradition in creating our government.
Lopez: Are you targeting this to the tea party?
Bennett: Well, I have been saying that The American Patriot’s Almanac is best served with tea . . . Actually, we wrote and published the first edition before the tea-party movement got going. So, no, we didn’t write it with the idea of targeting the tea party. But the book is definitely a good fit. There’s no doubt that tea-party folks love this country deeply and are motivated by a passion to make it better.
Lopez: Do you think the tea party has staying power?
Bennett: Yes. It’s turning out to be one of the most influential political movements of recent times. I don’t think it will turn into an organized party in the sense of the Republican party or Democratic party. But as a grassroots movement, it certainly shows all signs of having staying power. And if we finally manage to address our debt problem in a meaningful way, the tea party will deserve no small share of the credit.
Lopez: Any advice for a patriotic Christmas?
Cribb: Fly an American flag. We’ve got a section in the book called “Flag Etiquette” that gives guidelines for displaying and handling Old Glory. The U.S. Flag Code designates Christmas Day as one of the days when Americans are encouraged to fly their flag.
Bennett: And say a Christmas Day prayer for our troops overseas. Of all the days of the year, this has got to be the toughest to be so far from home. And let’s not forget that if the jihadists they’re fighting had their way, we’d no longer have the right to celebrate Christmas Day. That’s something to think about on December 25.