Forgetting Where We Came From
U.S. News and World Report
October 31, 2014
Next week, Americans will cast their votes in hundreds of House, Senate and state races across the country. We’re asked to choose between two parties with very different visions for the future of our country. It would be easy to get discouraged and think that our votes don’t matter. But, in fact, our history has shown that those we elect, and their vision for our country, can make a big difference.
President Ronald Reagan famously described his vision of the Cold War as “we win, they lose” – and that’s what happened. President John F. Kennedy pledged to send astronauts to the moon within seven years – and he did. And President Abraham Lincoln promised to save the union – and with the sacrifice and heroism of the American people, he succeeded.
Perhaps more ambitious than any of these goals, however, and what made them all possible, was President Thomas Jefferson’s vision to grow America from 13 relatively small British colonies into a nation spanning an entire continent, from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
While today this may seem to have been a forgone conclusion, it was in fact one of the boldest proposals in American history. When Jefferson made the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, nearly doubling the size of the country, two out of three Americans lived within 50 miles of the Atlantic Ocean. In 1805, Lewis and Clark became the first American citizens to cross the Continental Divide and discover a route to the Pacific. In the years to come, millions of Americans would follow their lead west, forging the pioneering spirit that has characterized so much of our history.
Today, however, we are in danger of forgetting that history. For two generations now, we have failed to adequately teach American history in our schools. As a consequence, many students are not learning the lessons of our nation’s past.
The numbers are shocking. Just 20 percent of fourth graders, 17 percent of eighth graders and 12 percent of 12th graders are at grade-level proficiency in American history, according to the Department of Education’s National Assessment of Educational Progress.
A majority of fourth graders don’t know the purpose of the Lewis and Clark expedition, Department of Education data show. Most fourth graders can’t say why the pioneers moved west. And two-thirds don’t understand that westward migration resulted in new states being added to the union.
We must do a better job. If children fail to learn American history, they cannot possibly understand our past or know what America represents in the world. The cultural knowledge we share – the essence of what it means to be American – is at stake.
That’s why it’s more important now than ever to find creative ways to introduce young people to American history. In ” From Sea to Shining Sea,” my new book for four to eight-year-olds, Ellis the Elephant joins the Lewis and Clark expedition as they venture west into unknown territory. Ellis helps children see that courage matters, having big dreams matters and patriotism matters.
There are many other ways to help inspire a love for American history. Our country is full of wonderful historical sites and museums, from Mount Vernon and Monticello in the east to Lewis and Clark’s Pacific campsites in the west.
With all of these wonderful resources, take time to talk to the young people in your life about what it means to be American and the pioneering spirit that has built our nation. The belief that there’s a better future ahead is at the heart of what has made America strong for more than 200 years.