A friend who teaches high school Social Studies recently lamented to me that her students come up from middle school with such a vague idea of what has made America unique among nations since its founding—and what its character has meant to the rest of the world—that she is forced almost to play Devil’s Advocate against the nation’s own history, in order to entice them to its defense.
It is a backwards way of teaching, she admits. Over the past several decades the social and historical curriculum has reduced the time spent on civics and founding documents in order to amplify the broadly social aspects of American history. As a result, students have a solid grasp of the fact that the nation is imperfect and that the citizenry has worked to address those imperfections. Less clear to them, however, is how honorable-in-intention America has been, from the writing of the Declaration of Independence until today, and why that intention has mattered in history.
Her students have no sense of American “identity” as a national and united force not just against certain ideas, but for others. They don’t understand why they should think any better of America than any other nation, “but get them to justify the Berlin Airlift,” she says, “and then you see the lightbulbs go on, and suddenly they become excited. Wow, America sacrificed her own blood, her own resources, in order to save the people they defeated! That’s cool!
At that point “our sacred honor” has become something meaningful to the students; it is the thing that has made manifest the “exceptional and indispensable nation.”
After too much delay, America is finally beginning to scrutinize its complacent and under-achieving public schools system. Reforms are needed to the curriculum, attendance, and testing for the students, and tenure and and performance-reviews for the teachers. But we do not have to wait while politicians, assemblies and unions debate and delay. We can begin—today, with this very election—to teach our children about the spirit of honor, innovation, and independence that formed the nation and, even divided as we are, still sustains it.
While we may criticize a politician or argue against a policy, we must get back to stressing the importance of a loyal opposition and respectful debate as a means of movement over monopoly. We must demonstrate that honor, freedom and truth are not theories but actual, strengthening virtues; they are not just real, they are Eternal.
We must remind our students that as imperfect as America may be, this is still the land to which—in ways large or small—every free nation owes its current liberty. This is the nation that has routinely sent its idealistic young off to foreign lands—to die there—not for empire, not for real-estate, but for the protection and advancement of that unseen thing that is freedom, the strengthener of the human spirit, the burnisher of human potential. Irony-slaves and cynics aside, aside, this is still the nation toward which millions of creative or industrious people will swim; it is the nation to which the oppressed call out for rescue and relief.
Our children must learn that the American presidency is, like a papacy or a monarchy, larger than the person who occupies the office, and that it is noble. The American president emancipated a much-sinned against part of humanity, when too many would not. The American president has used the big stick to overthrow tyrants; the American president has put his airmen to use to keep his vanquished enemies from starving in a brutal winter, he has used his navy to bring aid after tsunami.
The American president has dreamed great space voyages into reality, has opened closed markets, has encouraged a people to tear down walls. The American president has envisioned millions of people raising purple fingertips to the sky, and made it so.
The American president says, “not on my watch,” and the world exhales in relief. Our children need to know that.
We must repeat, over and over, that liberty is the means by which we created creatures are meant to live and to grow and be; that liberty lives in truth spoken forthrightly, and not in circuitous spin; that liberty thrives where people can speak without fear of injury or reprisals; that liberty is sustained only when the press is free and unencumbered; that liberty flourishes when people refuse to be intimidated into silence or acquiescence, but becomes a fragile thing, easily diminished, when we refuse to acclaim it for ourselves.
Perhaps it was easier to tap into the quietly honorable intentions of America at its founding, when oppressed people understood what the opposite of freedom was and resolved to reject it as they rejected empire, or subjugation. Succeeding American generations pursued liberty for others - agreeing always to lead, but never to rule, and ready to return to their own quite ordinary lives when their role was played out.
Today’s balloting seems poised to deliver a hard pull-back from the perceived “mandates” of only two years ago, and a stinging rebuke to public servants who began to believe they were meant to rule, rather than represent - who moved too far against our understandings of consent, and of ourselves and our sacred honor.
Our children and young adults have watched adult America veer incautiously leftward, like a driver slipping lanes because he’s been distracted by a text message; and we will not emerge from that mistake unscathed. But we can make this a teachable moment for our students and ourselves; if we move forward with quiet resolve and honorable intentions we may yet manage to rescue our representative republic from the collision force of a generation that has been bearing down and driving hard for years, against everything that came before itself.
Elizabeth Scalia is a contributing writer of First Things. She blogs at The Anchoress. Her previous articles for “On the Square” can be found here.