For The Record

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Following are excerpts from an April 19 speech by Secretary of Education William J. Bennett in which he announced a three-point "Intellectual Initiative" to promote the teaching of history in the nation's schools.

Mr. Bennett spoke at a conference sponsored by the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a Washington-based research organization, on "civic virtue and educational excellence."

... One of the tasks of a school system--indeed, the primordial task of any school system--is the transmission of social and political values. ...

Are American schools helping transmit our democratic heritage? Do the norms and values which the schools inculcate make the case for our political system? Although the evidence on this question is fragmentary and often anecdotal, what we know is not encouraging. A recent survey, for example, found that many 13- and 17-year-olds do not know what happens to a law after it passes Congress, and the majority fail to realize that a President cannot declare a law unconstitutional. In short, far too many students cannot explain the essentials of American democracy.

Why should we be surprised, when many of our schools no longer make sure their charges know the long procession of events that gave rise to modern democracy? We offer our students the flag but sometimes act toward it as if it were only cloth. We neglect to teach them the ancient texts sewn into its fabric, the ideas and endeavors of cultures whose own emblems in time lent us the designs for our own. Too often our high-school graduates know little or nothing of the Magna Carta or even the Bible, the Greek polis, the Federalist Papers, or of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, in which up and down the state of Illinois, Lincoln and Douglas debated the doctrinal foundation of American government. ...

It is the fault of us whose trust it is to teach our children the recognition of truth in the past and thereby the present. Our students will not recognize the urgency in Nicaragua if they cannot recognize the history that is threatening to repeat itself. If they have never heard of the Cuban missile crisis, they cannot comprehend the Sandinista head of secret police when he states that "Cuba's friends are Nicaragua's friends, and Cuba's enemies are Nicaragua's enemies." If our students know nothing of the Russian Revolution, they cannot comprehend the Sandinista Minister of Defense when he says "Marxism/Leninism is the scientific doctrine that guides our revolution" and "We would like to help all revolutions."

If our students know nothing of the Monroe Doctrine, what difference will the intrusion of the Brezhnev Doctrine in Central America mean to them? ...

[S]urely one explanation for the fact that democratic values no longer seem to command the assent they once did is that for many years now the teaching of social studies in our schools has been dominated by cultural relativism, by the notion that the attempt to draw meaningful distinctions between opposing traditions is a judgment which all virtuous and right-minded people must sternly condemn. One social-studies series for elementary schools, for example, advises the teacher that the material aims to "decrease inclinations toward egocentrism, ethnocentrism, and stereotyping." But what this means, it turns out, is more than teaching children that all cultures and traditions are not the same. It means teaching that all cul-tures and traditions are equally valid, that there are no real criteria for good and bad, right and wrong, noble and base. But if all traditions are equally valid, then there is clearly not much point in transmitting a particular cultural heritage, a distinctive set of social and political values. On the contrary, to the extent that educational philosophy is dominated by the idea of cultural relativism, any attempt to impart a particular tradition is ipso facto to be condemned. ...

Apart from its intrinsic interest as a record of the past, history is a vitally important study for several reasons. First, history is organized memory, and memory, in turn, is the glue which holds our political community together. Strictly speaking, the United States did not simply develop; rather, the United States was created in order to realize a specific political vision. Today, as in the past, it is the memory of that political vision which defines us as Americans. Throughout our history, there have indeed been occasions when our actions have fallen tragically short of our vision, and it is important for our students to know about those occasions.

Certainly, we Americans are no strangers to sin. But there have also been occasions when we have not fallen short of our ideals, and students ought to know about those as well. As Professor Lino Graglia of the University of Texas Law School has written, "In the context of inhumanity and misery I read as history, I hold the American achievement high." By studying American history, and yes, celebrating its heroes explicitly for each generation, and noting its achievements as well as its failures, our students are invited to grasp the values of our political tradition.

But if history is a kind of collective memory, it is also a mode of inquiry which aims at determining the truth. As a method of inquiry, history teaches respect for facts and for the proper methods of weighing evidence. It helps us distinguish superficiality from depth, bias from objectivity, tendentiousness from honesty, stupidity from discernment, and confusion from lucidity. History provides us with a sense of perspective and with the ability to make critical judgments. As the distinguished historian, Felix Gilbert, has observed, "The past is one way--and not the worst way--of acquiring the right and the criteria to judge the present." And acquiring the criteria to judge the present, it seems to me, is no less vital to the success and well-being of democratic self-government than acquiring a sense of community. ...

Unfortunately, even the subject of history is in danger of losing its distinct identity, of becoming absorbed in the smorgasboard of this and that known as "social studies." As the Council for Basic Education noted in its 1982 report, Making History Come Alive, "In most schools today, the subject of history is subsumed by the curricular genus of 'social studies.' Teachers of history belong to social-studies departments, they commonly identify themselves as social-studies teachers, and they teach other subjects in addition to history. Parents are likely to presume that if their children are taking any social-studies courses, they are learning history. They may or may not be. ..."

[T]he present decline in the status of history in our schools is very serious. To put the matter plainly, to be ignorant of history is to be, in a very fundamental way, intellectually defenseless, unable to understand the workings either of our own society or of other societies. It is to be condemned to what Walter Lippmann called a state of "chronic childishness." "In developing knowledge," Lippmann continued, "men must collaborate with their ancestors. Otherwise they must begin, not where their ancestors arrived but where their ancestors began. If they exclude the tradition of the past from the curricula of the schools, they make it necessary for each generation to repeat the errors rather than to benefit by the successes of its predecessors."

Such a situtation is intolerable. In order to change it, I would like to take this opportunity to propose an Intellectual Initiative designed to transmit our social and political values, to generate individual intelligence, and to provide our young people with the perspective they need to function effectively in today's world. At the core of this Intellectual Initiative--yes, it too is a kind of defense initiative--lies an enhanced appreciation of the role and value of the study of history. Specifically, then, I would advocate consideration of the following program:

First, our schools should treat history as an autonomous discipline, related to, but distinct from, the so-cial studies. This history must be sure to teach the events and the principles that have formed modern states.

Second, local communities should agree (and they can agree) on what constitutes an irreducible minimum of historical knowledge which every high-school graduate, regardless of whether he or she goes on to college, must master.

Third, just as math and physics must be taught by persons who know their subject, so history must be taught by peole who know history. As the Council for Basic Education has pointed out, "The preparation of history teachers should include concentration in history, taught by historians and augmented by significant study in such related fields as literature, the arts, anthropology and the social sciences."

This Intellectual Initiative will help bring about another result. If taught honestly and truthfully, the study of history will give our students a grasp of their nation, a nation that the study of history and current events will reveal is still, indeed, the last best hope on earth. Our students should know that. They must know that, because nations can be destroyed from without, but they can also be destroyed from within. As Sidney Hook said, in [the 1984] Jefferson Lecture, education reform in American schools must include an explicit commitment "to sharpen the students' understanding of a free society, its responsibilities and opportunities, the burdens and dangers it faces. ... We should seek to develop [a] loyalty directly, through honest inquiry into the functioning of a democratic community, by learning its history, celebrating its heroes, and noting its achievements."

Americans are the heirs of a precious historical legacy. Let it never be said of us that we failed as a nation because we neglected to pass on this legacy to our children, to all of them. ... Let it be said that we told our children the whole story, our long record of glories, failures, aspirations, sins, achievements, and victories. Then let us leave them to determine their own views of it all: America in the totality of its acts.

If we can dedicate ourselves to that endeavor, I am confident that our students will discern in the story of their past the truth. And they will cherish that truth. And it will keep them free.

Vol. 04, Issue 32

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