Teaching American Students to Be Americans
The Florida legislature is now considering a measure that calls for American students to be taught about America.
The bill, in the typically cumbersome language of most proposed laws, is titled “Public Postsecondary Educational Institutions.” Formally introduced as H.B. 999, the bill would give greater power to boards that oversee Florida’s public colleges and eliminate funding for “diversity, equity, and inclusion” programs at public universities. But these are not the aspects of the bill that most caught my eye.
H.B. 999 urges higher educational institutions to “(promote) citizenship in a constitutional republic.” It states that when appropriate, Florida college students should be taught “the historical background and philosophical foundation of Western civilization and this nation’s founding documents, including the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution, the Bill of Rights and subsequent amendments thereto, and the Federalist Papers.”
I am a little tempted to stop there. As an historian and advocate of teaching our youth the facts and philosophies of America’s founding, I’m delighted that tens of thousands of young men and women will actually have to read the texts that contain the ideas and beliefs that began our country. By doing so, the contempt for the United States being taught so aggressively in far too many bastions of liberalism, by which I mean most colleges and universities, might lessen. Appreciation for our remarkable country might increase. Patriotism might mean more than watching almost nude “entertainers” at Super Bowl halftimes.
History should be taught accurately. This means thorough and honest appraisals of our country’s heritage, good and bad. The tentacles of slavery and its appalling effects on African-Americans and all of us should be examined with integrity. Labor exploitation during the Industrial Revolution and the treatment of ethnic minorities are among the other unpleasant themes that should be covered.
But our heritage is not one of relentless ugliness. The darkness in our past is pierced through with bold streams of light. Although we have failed to apply the principles of the Declaration — human equality and God-given rights — with the rigor or justice for which those principles call, we have done so much better than other nations. And our commitment to self-correction is unsurpassed in the world.
At the height of the Civil Rights movement, Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke to the promise of American life eloquently. Acknowledging the grim implications of racism, he pointed to a shared future grounded in certain “self-evident” truths. “One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God” — black men and women denied the right simply to have coffee at a downtown café — “sat down at lunch counters, they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judeo-Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.”
We should share a common indignation at wrongs done, whether political, social, racial, or economic. Yet should our disappointment over failure surmount thankfulness and even wonder regarding all that is good and right about the United States? When the pursuit of justice becomes a pretext for rage and when problems are so magnified that they obscure the great things we enjoy and presume upon each day — degrees of religious liberty, economic opportunity, and political freedom unknown in all but a handful of other countries — we prove ourselves not only unworthy of self-governance but of those who have sacrificed so much on our behalf.
Learning about our Providential history cannot help but inspire appreciation for those who have fought and built and hoped and dreamed in past generations. Imperfection is not the same as ignobility. Elements of our past have been painfully, ashamedly hurtful. Yet the broad course of America’s heritage cannot but inspire a deep sense that despite the many evidences of human fallenness woven into the fabric of our national story, the tapestry itself is nothing less than remarkable.
In 1957, then-Senator John F. Kennedy received a patriotism award from the University of Notre Dame. In his acceptance speech, he challenged the faculty with these words: “the duty of the scholar — particularly in a republic such as ours — is to contribute his objective views and his sense of liberty to the affairs of his state and nation.”
We can hope that Florida’s public universities have such scholars. Governor Ron DeSantis (R) seems to be working to that end, for which all of us can be grateful.
Rob Schwarzwalder is Senior Lecturer in Regent University's Honors College.