Ammunition in the 'culture wars'

Suzanne Fields

5/8/2003 12:00:00 AM - Suzanne Fields

The Culture Wars have entered a new phase and the Feds have the big guns. They've put the politically correct educationists on the run, overwhelming them with intellectual firepower, campaigning to restore the teaching of civics and American history to the nation's schools.

If they succeed, we may not raise another generation of what historian David McCullough calls "historical illiterates," the consequences of what Bruce Cole, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, calls "collective amnesia."

Laura Bush fired the first shot at a White House forum held the other day at the National Museum of American History for 300 teachers and scholars. "An understanding and appreciation of history makes every American a more engaged citizen," she said.

Putting government money where her mouth is, she reminded the audience that her husband initiated a program that would spend $100 million over three years on educational training programs for teachers. This would broaden teacher understanding of the nation's democratic traditions and establish model programs to focus on American history, ideals, culture and principles. The NEH already administers "We the People," which includes support for lectures and seminars on American history, with emphasis on heroes and heroic democratic institutions.

Seconding the First Lady, Lynne Cheney, wife of the vice president, emphasized the power of parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles to pass on the narrative of our national story, in league with local schools, reciting personal stories to supplement larger historical narratives.

That's how Mrs. Cheney discovered Fanny Peck, her great-great-grandmother who, when she was seven years old in the summer of 1852, walked beside her family's wagon on the Mormon Trail to the West. Fanny often walked barefoot because she wanted to save her only pair of shoes for Sunday services. Such personal discoveries whet the appetite for more history no matter what our age.

Any teacher or student who wants to study "significant" texts in American history can find 100 milestone documents, such as George Washington's Farewell Address, the Voting Rights Act (1965), the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, on-line (www.ourdocuments.gov).

No small thing. A survey of students at 55 elite colleges found that two-thirds of them were unable to identify the Constitution as establishing the separation of powers. Not one of these 55 "elite" institutions requires students to take a course in American history. The curriculum is crowded instead with such intellectually rigorous disciplines as gay and lesbian studies, feminist studies, black studies and now, inevitably, "white studies."

The Corporation for National and Community Service, part of USA Freedom Corps, a White House initiative to foster a culture of citizenship, service, and personal responsibility, including volunteerism, is part of the Federal arsenal to restore the study of civics. Leslie Lenkowsky, its CEO, credits his sixth grade history class in 1956, where he first read the Constitution, as forging his passion for public service. "Can we recapture the civics education and civic practices that transformed generation after generation of American kids into patriots?" he asks.

He observes with a certain rue that political action among young people is often deprived of an understanding of historical facts that lead directly to civic reflection. What was striking after Sept. 11, he says "was not that many Americans were moved to fly the flag and express their love of country, but how new it seemed to so many people, as though they were stretching muscles long unused."

These muscles, he says, can grow strong again with a little intellectual heavy lifting, with young and old volunteering services for the needy in their local communities. But service requires pride in country and pride in country requires knowledge of history, leading to an appreciation of the country that Abraham Lincoln called "the last best hope" of mankind.

Patriots aren't born, they're made. We're born citizens, but citizenship has to be learned. The Good Citizen's Handbook: A Guide to Proper Behavior, by Jennifer McKnight-Trontz, is a popular little book made up of advice from civics texts, citizenship manuals, government pamphlets, and Boy Scout manuals from the '20s to the '60s. The handbook covers everything from the value of red meat in the diet to the benefits of exercising daily. (Sounds up to date.)

Underlying the advice is the idea that a healthy person contributes to a healthy family, a healthy neighborhood, and a healthy country. Some people buy this little book for nostalgia; others for kitsch. Still others buy it for the advice. The basic theme teaches that civic knowledge and individual character create a nation's strength. Nothing kitschy about that.