Saturday, February 21, 2009

A Few Thoughts on the Importance of Teaching American History

Alexander Hamilton
Senator Henry Clay

Theodore Rooesvelt Jr.

An item that caught my eye today, stimulated me to write about the importance of teaching American history to both young and old in this country.

First, an article that Thomas Barnett posted today Cheap houses, happy immigrants where he comments on this article in Newsweek "A Fence Can't Stop the Future.

The main point of the article is that:

The law of large numbers guarantees that Latinos will move the national averages in almost every measurable area of American life. The question is how. If current trends continue, Latino growth could actually speed our national decline. Need a cautionary tale? In California, the under performance of Latino students has pushed the state to the bottom of the heap—45th among 50 states in educational attainment. On the other hand, if we invest in services that lift Latinos into the middle class, they could become the dynamic heart of a continuing American success story.

This point about an investment in education is critical in my opinion. And that brings up an issue where I differ with the current trend in studying American history by focusing too much on our failures over the triumphs that led to the conditions that brought us to the place we are today. I do not advocate ignoring those shortcomings as was done in past decades, just a re-awakening of the strengths that have led us to continue to be the desired destination of millions like those above who seek what Barnett describes in Great Powers as an; "America..built for speed, for the cutting edge, and for both producing and attracting ambition." Where, "Our promise is of equal opportunity, not equal outcome." Phrases, that best define why we continue to be the magnet that turns the turbines of innovation and change.

Those new to our country send their children to class where they learn so much about the negatives that when I get them in my college classrooms, they are mystified to learn about roles that men such as Alexander Hamilton, Henry Clay, and Theodore Roosevelt played in shaping a future that today's Americans enjoy.

Understanding how our system of government works in relation to the civil government that their parents were familiar in their home country is another area where a massive effort to educate would pay off in dividends that would make the most jaded hedge fund trader jealous.

If we as Americans care about our future, we need include the lessons learned by studying the virtues of America's past along side the scars left by that journey.

One of my favorite passages was found written in the margins of a copy of The Pilgrim's Progress, carried by Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt Jr. son of President Theodore Roosevelt and discovered after his death during World War II. "I do not repent me of all the trouble I have been at to arrive where I am...My marks and scars I carry with me" And later to his wife he had written after being relieved by General Patton in Sicily. "The longer I live the more I think of the quality of fortitude--men who fall, pick themselves up and stumble on, fall again, and are trying to get up when they die."*
General Roosevelt went on to win the Medal of Honor for leading his men ashore on D-Day. He died of a heart attack one month later, on the eve of taking command of the 90th Division.
Roosevelt's words serve as an allegory to the American spirit and the importance of introducing there meaning into the minds of those seeking that opportunity of equality, so that they have a full measure of what being American means.

*Rick Atkinson, The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944 (New York: Henry Holt, 2007), 160.

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