Shoring Up the American Spirit

by Derrick G. Jeter

Sitting at his desk, sometime before July 4, 1776, John Adams counted noses for independence. Of the delegates to the Continental Congress in 1776 he figured “one third Tories [Loyalists], and [one] third timid, and one third true blue.”

True blue patriotism in 1776 was a risky venture if you lived in America. True blue patriotism in 1989 was a risky venture if you lived in China.

In a recent article about Chinese suppression of the historic six week student uprising that took place in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, especially about the events of June 3–4, 1989, David Aikman (“Hold that Ad”) holds out hope that history will triumph in the end: “The score so far: Chinese Communist Party 1, dissent 0. But wait until the CCP has to play against history.”

History will have the last word, but will those who need to heed its lessons be able to read it or care enough to learn? I have no fears of the U. S. government officially suppressing the nation’s history, like China does, certainly not any time soon. But I do worry that our citizens will unofficially forget our history through inattention and apathy. If this happens how can we hope to keep patriotism from eroding away?

The bombings that have taken place in England over the past few years by “home grown” terrorists raise disturbing questions about how national fidelity is infused into the hearts and minds of a country’s citizens. How does a nation ensure that its citizens truly love it; that they will work and sacrifice for its greater good, and not turn their backs on it or actively seek its destruction? No doubt, answers to these complex questions vary but no answer is complete that doesn’t acknowledge that a country’s citizens must be taught its history. Patriotism simply cannot survive without knowledge of the past. To forget our history is to forget our identity. And no nation can survive this level of forgetfulness.

Diane Ravitch, historian and professor of education at New York University, agrees. “Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 . . . no one needs to be reminded about how important it is to learn history. We know now that our ability to survive as a nation depends on our belief in our purposes as a nation, and this can only come from the knowledge about ourselves that the study of U. S. history provides.”

Because we are a people bound by a set of ideas and values, not by ethnicity and native soil, Americans must know their history if patriotism is to flourish. In his farewell address, President Reagan warned that a loss of identity would result in a loss of patriotism.

We’ve got to do a better job of getting across that America is freedom—freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of enterprise—and freedom is special and rare. It’s fragile, it needs protection. So, we’ve got to teach history based not on what’s in fashion but what’s important—why the pilgrims came here, who Jimmy Doolittle was, and what those 30 seconds over Tokyo meant. . . . If we forget what we did, we won’t know who we are. I am warning of an eradication of the American memory that could result, ultimately, in an erosion of the American spirit.

If we hope for intelligent, informed, patriotic citizens then we must reintroduce ourselves to American history and make sure our youngest citizens meet the great men and women who made America great.

Such knowledge can never be taken away and will produce true blue patriots for the 21st century.

John Adams quote: David McCullough, John Adams (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001), 78.

David Aikman quote: David Aikman, “Hold that Ad,” http://www.ttf.org/index/journal/detail/hold-that-ad/, accessed 10 July 2007.

Diane Ravitch quote: Diane Ravitch, “Statement on NAEP 2001 U. S. History Report Card,” http://nagb.org/naep/history_ravitch.html, accessed 08 August 2005.

Ronald Reagan quote: Ronald Reagan, “Farewell Address to the Nation,” January 11, 1989, http://www.reagan.utexas.edu/archives/speeches/1989/011189i.htm, accessed 11 July 2007.

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