American by Choice: We Must All Learn What It Means to be an American

Peter W. Schramm

June 1, 2007

This week, I am being honored by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services as an “Outstanding American by Choice.” This strikes me as an interesting name for an award. It is meant, of course, to recognize selected citizens who were not born in America. But the idea of being an American by choice points to an important, and perhaps unintended truth: being American is not simply reducible to the happy accident of birth. Americans, both natural and naturalized, must be trained—they must be made—and much of my time these days is devoted to making Americans out of people who just happened to have been born here.

Over fifty years ago, when I was just shy of my tenth birthday, my family fled Hungary during the failed revolution against the Russian Communists. Our family’s story was like so many of the refugees from communism, complete with relatives arrested, property seized, and a nighttime dash to freedom. The decision to escape was an easy one to make (although not so easy to execute), but the question I had—the one I distinctly recall asking my father—was “where are we going.” We could have stayed in Europe—and indeed, the Germans would have welcomed us as Volk deutsche because of our German surname—but this was not my father’s plan. “We are going to America,” he said. “Why America?” I prodded. “Because, son. We were born Americans, but in the wrong place.”

Born Americans, but in the wrong place? I’ve spent the better part of the last fifty years working to more fully understand these words. Mind you, everyone understood America to be a free and good place where one might prosper unmolested. But in saying that we were “born Americans, but in the wrong place,” Dad, in his way, was saying that he understood America to be both a place and an idea at the same time. Fundamentally, it is a place that would embrace us if we could prove that we shared in the idea. We meant to prove it.

Because America is more than just a place, being an American citizen is different than being the citizen of any other country on earth. We Americans do not look to the ties of common blood and history for connection as people the way the citizens of other countries do. Rather, our common bond is a shared principle. This is what Lincoln meant when he referred to the “electric cord” in the Declaration of Independence that links all of us together, as though we were “blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh, of the men who wrote that Declaration.”

Because ours is a bond of principle and not of blood, true American citizens are made and not born. This is why, odd as it may seem, we must all learn—those who are born here, and those who come here by choice—what it means to be an American. Regrettably, we are doing a poor job of passing this knowledge on to future generations. Looking to just one practical indicator, the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress shows that 73 percent of twelfth-graders scored below the proficient level in civics, as did 78 percent of eighth-graders, and 76 percent of fourth-graders. To put this into perspective, 72 percent of eighth graders could not explain the historical purpose of the Declaration of Independence. This ignorance is tragic not merely because it indicates a deficiency in our educational system, but because with it comes a loss of our national identity. And so, I find it somewhat ironic and yet very fitting that fifty years after coming to this great country, I spend my days at an institution where my job is to teach college students and high school teachers what it means to be an American.

In recent weeks, there has been much talk about immigration, but very little informed discussion about what it means to be an American—about what is necessary to make Americans. Yes, there needs to be a sensible policy for accepting new citizens, and for ensuring that those who come here do so legally. But what happens once they are here? I hear frequent conversations about failures in integration and assimilation, even among recent legal immigrants. This is not new. What is new is that America’s own natural citizens increasingly have forgotten what it means to be American. Some do not know the basics principles of this country, and still others have embraced the ideology of multiculturalism and self-loathing to such a degree that they can no longer recognize, let alone proclaim, that ours is a great nation built on lasting principles. If we no longer understand or believe in that which makes us Americans, then there is nothing substantive to assimilate into. We become many and diverse people who share a common place, rather than E Pluribus Unum.

We cannot forget who we are. We are Americans. This is a great nation. We Americans insist on holding to the connection between freedom and justice, courage and moderation. We think that equality and liberty have ethical and political implications, and, as we have shown time-and-again throughout our history, we are willing to fight and to die to make men free. We need to impart these principles to succeeding generations.

We Americans correctly demand respect for our rights but, in getting that respect, we must continue to demonstrate that we continue to deserve it. We have to exercise our intelligence and develop our civic understanding so that we may preserve our liberty and pass it on, undiminished to the next generation. If government “of the people, by the people and for the people” is to endure, its endurance can only come from the devotion of Americans—born here and away—who have been so made.

Peter W. Schramm is the Executive Director of the John M. Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs.