Preserving Our Belief in American Exceptionalism
November 21, 2013
When Russian president Vladimir Putin wrote his infamous op-ed for the New York Times earlier this year, he concluded by rejecting the idea of American exceptionalism. His thoughts sparked outrage among many. Sadly, however, a majority of young Americans found themselves agreeing with Putin’s charge.
In a recent Pew Research Center survey, only 34 percent of people between the ages of 18 and 34 said they believe America is the greatest country in the world, while a majority of Americans 65 and older still believe this to be true.
There are probably several reasons for this generational divide. For decades now we have failed to teach our children American history and the principles that define it — that all men are created equal, and that we are endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights, including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These founding principles are embedded in our nation’s past and are at the heart of American exceptionalism.
Unfortunately, we are beginning to see our nation’s memory of the past slip away. The results of the Department of Education’s recent National Assessment of Educational Progress suggest a serious challenge. Just 20 percent of fourth-graders, 17 percent of eighth-graders and 12 percent of twelfth-graders are at grade-level proficiency in American history.
Only one in three fourth-graders can identify the purpose of the Declaration of Independence. Less than half understand why George Washington was an important American leader. And most fourth-graders don’t know why the Pilgrims left England.
These are alarming statistics and indicate that we are doing a poor job of helping the next generation understand our history and the great privilege of being American.
Those of us who are passionate about our country’s history must find creative ways to tell the American story. As the author of three children’s history books, I have visited classrooms across the country to share the adventures of Ellis the Elephant, my time-travelling pachyderm, with four to eight year olds. Most young people I meet are energetic and eager to learn about the pivotal moments that have shaped our nation.
In addition to children’s history books, there are other innovative ways to introduce young Americans to our nation’s heritage. Interactive online courses like Khan Academy, television programs like Liberty’s Kids, and educational video games like Oregon Trail are great ways to teach critical history lessons. And of course, visits to historic sites like George Washington’s home at Mount Vernon or Independence Hall in Philadelphia are wonderful opportunities to inspire a love for American history.
If we fail to share our history with young Americans, future generations will fail to understand the essence of our nation. An appreciation of our history is key to preserving our belief in American exceptionalism.
Gingrich is the author of Yankee Doodle Dandy, the third in the Ellis the Elephant series for children ages four to eight. She is the president of Gingrich Productions and wife of former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.)