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Letters to the Editor — May 27, 2021
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We live in anxious times. But many times in our past were far more anxious, and the reasons for anxiety then were more compelling. Consider, for example, the situation facing the world in the early months of 1941, when Hitler’s triumphant armies controlled continental Europe, when only the British Isles managed to hold out and when the future of liberty looked very dim.
Yet at that moment, the novelist John Dos Passos wrote: “In times of change and danger when there is a quicksand of fear under men’s reasoning, a sense of continuity with generations gone before can stretch like a lifeline across the scary present.” Dos Passos urged that we look backward to a past that could be a source of sanity and direction, a lifeline of sustenance and instruction. Such training of the mind and memory ought to be at the core of an education for democratic citizenship.
We neglect an essential element in the formation of citizens when we fail to supply young people with a full, accurate, and responsible account of their own country. The evidence of that failure is overwhelming. In fact, the most recent test administered by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, sometimes called The Nation’s Report Card, shows continuing decline in (already-low) history and geography scores and flatlining in civics scores.
We must recommit ourselves to the teaching of both history and civics — and to the recognition that the two belong together. Something more needs attending to in the work of civic education, too. Tracking scores on standardized tests can provide useful, if limited, data about the state of our historical knowledge. But the scores cannot tell us about the depth and quality of that knowledge or the extent to which those who possess it feel a genuine and living connection to it.
The word “citizenship” has lost much of the noble luster that it once had, just as “civics” has wound up demoted to a kind of “user’s guide” to the machinery of government. Both words deserve better. Citizenship is not merely about voting but also about felt membership in a society of civic equals.
Civic education, rightly understood, extends far beyond how a bill becomes a law. It should promote a vivid and enduring sense of our belonging to one of the greatest enterprises in human history. Hence a civic education should be an initiation not only into a canon of ideas but into a community; and not just a community of the present but also a community of memory.
Ultimately, a patriotic education should be an education in love. This love must be embraced freely and be unsentimental enough to coexist with the elements of disappointment, criticism, dissent, opposition and even shame that come with moral maturity and open eyes.
Without the deep foundation that it this love supplies, a republic will perish.
Let me give a concrete example. During his youth, Abraham Lincoln read Mason Weems’ 1799 biography of George Washington, which gives us the fable of young George chopping down the cherry tree and being unable to lie about it. The mature Lincoln would develop a far more informed and sophisticated understanding of history, yet essential traces of Weems’ book stayed with him all his life.
Lincoln stopped off in Trenton, New Jersey, on his way to his 1861 inauguration in Washington, and gave a short but powerful speech to the New Jersey State Senate, in which he recalled the effect of Weems’ book on him as a young man. He particularly remembered Weems’ account of the Battle of Trenton, one of the pivotal moments in the American Revolution, stating:
“The crossing of the river; the contest with the Hessians; the great hardships endured at that time, all fixed themselves on my memory more than any single revolutionary event; and you all know, for you have all been boys, how these early impressions last longer than any others. I recollect thinking then, boy even though I was, that there must have been something more than common that those men struggled for.”
That “something more than common” was, he said, “something even more than National Independence; that something that held out a great promise to all the people of the world to all time to come.” Lincoln was “exceedingly anxious that this Union, the Constitution, and the liberties of the people shall be perpetuated in accordance with the original idea for which that struggle was made,” and he hoped that he could be a “humble instrument in the hands of the Almighty, and of this, his almost chosen people, for perpetuating the object of that great struggle.”
What a lot for a youthful story to do! It shaped a boy’s mind and soul in ways that would have such enormous consequences for the man — and for all of us. That story, those “early impressions,” helped Lincoln form a compelling vision of the American past — a vision both inspiring and true that would sustain him through the dark days to come.
History must be based on truth, not on myth. We do ourselves and the young no favors by prettifying or oversimplifying the past and failing to give an honest account of our failures as well as our triumphs. But we also do no favors to ourselves or to the truth if we fail to honor the magnificent achievements of our history and leave them out of the accounting entirely. One of the chief reasons we endeavor to record the past and teach it to the young is to serve as a vessel of shared memory, imparting to each generation a sense of membership in its own society, a sense of living connection to its own past — one that can unite us and strengthen us in hard times.
Consider the alternative. If a great story of estimable things can give us courage and hope in a hard time, does it not stand to reason that the promulgation of an inglorious story of relentless failure, mendacity, and despoilation can have the opposite effect? The Inglorious Story has been gaining the upper hand, playing a significant role, I believe, in sustaining our low morale, saturating the young in debilitating ideas about the past, present, and future, and leaving them isolated and anxious.
Shouldn’t we consider whether the remarkably high indicators of unhappiness among the young — and not only them — are partly traceable to a massive loss of morale and hope? Suicides among Americans aged 10 to 24 increased by nearly 60 percent between 2007 and 2018. A Pew study found rising rates of depression, especially among teenage girls, and that 70 percent of teens think that anxiety and depression are major problems for their peers. Roughly 50 percent see alcohol and drug addiction as major problems. “Many children, experts say, are struggling to imagine their futures,” reports USA Today.
This should be no mystery to us. The Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, a survivor of the Nazi concentration camps, observed that humans can endure nearly any kind of deprivation — except for the deprivation of meaning. Without a “why,” almost any “how” can defeat us.
Such matters go far deeper than civics. But a robust civic education, which seeks to impart that “sense of continuity with generations gone before” of which Dos Passos spoke and which begins the process of locating one’s life in a meaning larger than oneself, is an important step back from the lonely precipice at which we find ourselves.
Wilfred M. McClay is a professor of history at the University of Oklahoma and a visiting scholar at the Heritage Foundation. This essay is adapted from City Journal.
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