"If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, it expects what never was and never will be." -- Thomas Jefferson
Bruce Cole, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, enjoys a nice view of the Capitol dome from his office window. He is less satisfied with what he sees of America's common culture.
Cole, who taught Renaissance art for many years before undertaking a stint in government, thinks the United States is in danger of losing its national identity through a loss of historical memory. If the words Yorktown, bleeding Kansas, reconstruction, Ellis Island, Marbury vs. Madison, "Remember the Maine," the Spirit of St. Louis, Midway, "I shall return," the Battle of the Bulge, the Hiss/Chambers case and "Ich bin ein Berliner" mean no more to most Americans than to the average Malaysian, what is it that makes us Americans?
Part of what makes America unique is that nationality arises from this shared history and from shared values and beliefs. It is not possible to become a Frenchman, a Swiss or a Russian by moving to those countries and adopting their beliefs. Nationality there is too bound up in blood, ethnicity and land. But every immigrant who arrives in the United States can become an American by adopting our beliefs.
There was a time when we had so much confidence in the superiority of our way of life that we aggressively taught our values to new immigrants and insisted that they master the basics of American history, the English language and civics before being eligible for citizenship. Today, we're not even teaching history to our own schoolchildren. And we are in the grip of a truly frightening collective ignorance. As Cole warns, when you don't know your history, you're more inclined to believe the kooky versions of it served up by everyone from Oliver Stone to Michael Moore. That is why the National Endowment for the Humanities is sponsoring a "We the People" initiative to improve the teaching of American history.
If you doubt the scope of the problem, consider a poll commissioned by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. David McCullough, author of John Adams and other wonderful works of history, said, "Anyone who doubts that we are raising a generation of young Americans who are historically illiterate needs only to read this truly alarming report."
Testing only seniors at the top 55 liberal arts colleges, the poll consisted of questions from a high-school-level exam (or what used to be high-school-level work). Eight-one percent received a grade of D or F. Only one student got every question right.