July 22, 1999. I continue to be surprised by things that should no longer surprise me. I know that the education of students in high school is not what it used to be. But I was dismayed in seeing first hand, again, just how ignorant high school students are of both American history and government.
I taught two different week-long seminars for high school juniors this summer. Almost all were from public schools, and almost all were excellent students. In one class I had three students, and the other (Buckeye Girl’s State) two hundred and fifty. The theme in each was essentially the same: to introduce the students to the principles and practices of American politics. In short, they were seminars in American history, emphasizing the founding and the Civil War.
We read a few documents (hardly studied in schools) such as the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address, tried to think through the meaning of equality and liberty, the purpose of the Constitution, talked about fascinating events, and some extraordinary human beings, those heroes, in George Will’s words, who “make vivid the values by which we try to live.”
These seminars are not difficult to teach because the students’ expectations are so low. They think that a seminar with me on things American will be another dry-as-dust classroom experience, the kind that they have gotten used to in high school. Their expectations are not met because I immediately set out to talk in terms the founders would understand—I re-formulate the same questions and problems that moved them to revolution and founding. I assume that I am not talking at the students, but rather having a conversation with them. Noble and high-minded words are used, reflecting the manly eloquence of Madison, Jefferson, Hamilton, and the others. This is not the banal simple-speak to be found in their feel-good, high self-esteem high school environment. This engages the students.
We think through some big questions, and they hear a few good stories. They become energized.
Do you know of Colonel Lewis Nicola’s attempt to make Washington King in 1782, and Washington’s wonderful response? He wrote back to Nicola severely reprimanding him for the “painful sensation” he had caused. Nicola was shamed. The conspiracy ended. If you haven’t read this letter, the idea of republican government, and the virtues necessary to sustain it, will remain abstract to you. And you will never understand why George Washington was called great even in his lifetime, and why such a man of a few good words, but of many good deeds, is rightly called a hero.
Have you ever read Washington’s 1790 letter to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, wherein he welcomes “the children of the stock of Abraham” to the new nation wherein “everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid?” This wasn’t merely religious toleration, this was real religious freedom. This was the first time in the history of the human race wherein a political order welcomed even the Jews to practice their faith.
Do you know about Lincoln’s meeting with the ex-slave Frederick Douglass? Lincoln had invited him to the White House to explain some of his policies, and ask Douglass’ opinion of them. Douglass later (in 1864) said of that meeting: “Perhaps you would like to know how I, a Negro, was received at the White House by the President of the United States. Why, precisely as one gentleman would be received by another. He treated me as a man. He did not let me feel for a moment that there was any difference in the color of our skin.” They talked amicably and Douglass was taken by Lincoln’s “transparent countenance.” This abolitionist became a great supporter of Lincoln.
For the surrender ceremonies at Appomattox Court House, Robert E. Lee arrived in his sartorial best. General Grant arrived a few minutes late from the field, still muddy and dirty from his work. After the surrender was negotiated and signed, Grant introduced Lee to his staff. As he shook hands with Grant’s military secretary, Major Ely Parker, a Seneca Indian, Lee stared a moment at Parker’s dark features and said, “I am glad to see one real American here.” Parker responded, “We are all Americans.”
Such powerful scenes, such good stories. And you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out what they mean. Yet I have never met a high school student who had ever heard these stories.
They were, as a result of their ignorance, much taken by all the matters I brought up. They thought they were fascinating. “So that is what Jefferson meant when he talked about self-evident truths in the Declaration!” And, “isn’t it interesting that even slave owners admitted the equality of human beings during the period of the founding.” It struck them as especially interesting that in the Gettysburg Address Lincoln refers to equality as a proposition rather than a self-evident truth, as the Declaration had.
We talked for a while about the difference between 1776 and 1863. In the former year even slave owners believed that slaves were unjustly enslaved; by the latter year half the country had come to believe that some men were so inferior to others that they were rightly ruled without their consent. The self-evident truth seemed to be denied. It now had become a proposition, something that needed proving. Not only did the Civil War have to be won, but then each generation would have to prove, by their conduct and example, that the proposition was true. Self-government is hard, you must always work at it.
So why is it that it takes a program like the American Legion’s Buckeye Girls’ State (wherein they practice self-government by doing it) to get these students excited about things that should be a natural part of their education? The United States was the first nation in the world to construct an elaborate system of public schools. All the founders understood that republican government demanded that the citizens be educated. Citizens had to choose their representatives wisely, they had to learn to become independent, to be able to earn a living. And they had to be taught self-control. A public capable of governing itself had to be formed.
The main source of this problem, in my opinion, is the poor preparation of teachers. Future teachers are told that they must take classes in “education” rather than the subject they would like to teach. They end up (maybe) knowing “how” to teach, but don’t know enough about history and government (or math, physics, etc.) to be able to teach it well. The teaching “certification” programs of schools of education (in conjunction with foolish state legislatures) are responsible for this sad state of affairs.
The students in high school know that there is something wrong. And here is the room for hope. When they come across a teacher (either, by chance in high school, or in the kind of program I taught in) who knows something, who is able to point them toward thinking, they become engaged and enthusiastic. And they would like the system changed. The situation is not yet hopeless.