Teaching the Story of America

Teaching the Story of America

U.S. News and World Report
October 28, 2013
Peter Roff

I was fortunate enough to have been coming of age just as America was preparing to celebrate the bicentennial of her birth. The national celebrations that began in the early 70s and culminated in the parade of “tall ships” past the Statue of Liberty was, for me, a period of prolonged personal education into how America had come to be and why the country had become what Ronald Reagan used to call “a shining city on a hill,” a symbol of freedom to the rest of the world.

There were a number of books available at the time that told the story of the American Revolution at a level suitable for young adults. The one I remember best is Nathaniel Benchley’s “Sam the Minuteman.” It is a short but compelling tale of a young boy called to action as British troops march on Lexington, Mass. the night someone fired “the shot heard ’round the world.” It left me with the lifelong impression that any American, even a young one, could be a patriot and that we all had a special part to play in achieving and preserving our liberty.

It is unfortunate that young people today do not seem to have the same love of country, the same passion for liberty that enveloped those of us that are part of the bicentennial generation. It is mostly a matter of education. Today, America’s youth seems to lack a sense of historical perspective or a respectable level of constitutional literacy. For years surveys have shown that all too many young people believe “From each, according to his ability, to each, according to his need” – a central tenant of Marxism – is in the United States Constitution alongside a clause requiring “the separation of church and state.” It is all too clear, especially since ABC’s “Schoolhouse Rock” is no longer on the air, that not enough is being done to teach American history accurately and interestingly to young people.

There are some refreshing exceptions. Callista Gingrich, the wife of former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, has embarked on a series of books for children featuring Ellis, an time-travelling elephant who finds himself a witness to some of the most important events in American history. In his latest adventure,”Yankee Doodle Dandy,” Ellis encounters important figures from history including the Sons of Liberty, Patrick Henry, Paul Revere, Betsy Ross and the Founding Fathers, and is there as they write themselves into the history books.

It’s important to teach the stories of American history to every succeeding generation while they are young so that they will know what the facts are as they go through life and people attempt to distort them. I will never forget the day my teen-aged daughter called me to let me know she had learned in class that the Boston Tea Party was not as I had always told her it was, but was instead a spontaneous act of anarchy perpetrated by “a bunch of guys coming home drunk from the tavern.”

For the more serious-minded student, my young friend Juliette Turner has written “Our Constitution Rocks,” a study of the nation’s most important founding document broken down so that young people can not only understand it but can see why even some of its seemingly most obscure parts are relevant to their lives. The book is a quick course toward constitutional literacy of a kind found lacking in most contemporary public schools.

As Reagan said, “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction.” It is our obligation to teach American history and the Constitution to young people while their minds are open and curious. If we do not then we will only have ourselves to blame if liberty’s lamp is ever finally extinguished.

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