“We will be able to achieve a just and prosperous society only when our schools ensure that everyone commands enough shared background knowledge to be able to communicate effectively with everyone else.”—E.D. Hirsch Jr., Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know
President Barack Obama spoke to two different groups of Americans in his inaugural address. One group understood the deep historical significance of the words in his speech and grasped fully the moment in history to which they were bearing witness. A second group, no doubt moved and caught up in the excitement of seeing an African-American take the oath of office, saw merely a historic “first.” And that’s a shame.
“It’s an amazing event for our students who are under 18 and haven’t fully formed their consciousness,” one school administrator told The Los Angeles Times. “They see Obama and say, ‘This is a president who looks like me; I can be president.’ ” It’s a true and earnest observation that has been made many times in the last few months. But as uplifting as that sentiment is, it’s bittersweet to consider that many students—indeed, many Americans—lacked a full appreciation of the moment and of their new president’s inaugural message. President Obama’s speech was rich in historical, literary, and biblical references, lending meaning, resonance, and emotional weight to his words. Yet these allusions were almost certainly unfamiliar to many of those watching.
To have endured an education in which history was a second-tier subject was to be left to wonder: Who were these people Obama mentioned, who “toiled in sweatshops and settled the West”? Who were those who “endured the lash of the whip and plowed the hard earth”? If you were not taught our nation’s rich history, the president’s description of those who “packed up their few worldly possessions and traveled across oceans in search of a new life” may have failed to move you. If you do not know what happened at Concord, Gettysburg, Normandy, and Khe Sanh, the sacrifices of those who “fought and died” for us in those places is lost on you. As uncomfortable as it is to consider, if our children are ignorant of that history, then at least some measure of that sacrifice was, alas, in vain.
President Obama’s inaugural address placed us—all of us—in the flow of history. With its references to the “rights of man,” our “common defense,” ideals that “light the world,” and a generation that “faced down fascism and communism,” the address was surely met with either nods or blank stares. If our children do not know the events and phrases to which Obama referred, they cannot fully appreciate the significance of this moment or even what this president is asking of them. How is it possible for them to be “the keepers of this legacy”—why should they value it and seek to keep it at all?—unless they understand the thing they are being asked to keep?
Mr. Obama’s most poignant observation was that “a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.” How many of his younger listeners fully appreciate the price that has been paid to make this moment possible? How many of our children, instead of seeing mere novelty, comprehend fully and viscerally the improbable closing of a historical loop they have just witnessed? A black man takes the oath of office with his hand on a Bible belonging to the president who signed the Emancipation Proclamation. He turns to deliver his inaugural address facing the site where another great American dreamed out loud of the day when his children would be judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. He then delivers that address to millions of Americans who had rendered that very judgment.
It in no way diminishes the significance of that day to observe with a touch of sadness that too many of our nation’s children—especially those who look with pride at this president who looks like them—were able to appreciate the event purely on a superficial level. Too many could appreciate the symbolism of the moment, but no more. Some saw history. Others, poorer by far, saw a symbolic “first.”
President Obama called upon us to enter a “new era of responsibility.” It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. For America’s educators, perhaps the noblest duty that we can “not grudgingly accept, but rather seize gladly” is to ensure that in the very near future our nation’s children are able to judge this president not by the color of his skin, or even the content of his character, but by the full weight of his words.
A version of this article appeared in the February 11, 2009 edition of Education Week