Thursday, June 28, 2007

Making E Pluribus Unum

“We must all learn--those who are born here, and those who come here by choice--what it means to be an American.” –Peter W. Schramm

Peter Schramm was 10 years old when he fled with his family from Hungary after the revolution against the Soviets failed. To his question about where they were headed, his father replied, “America.” Peter asked, “Why America.” “Because, son,” his father replied, “We were born Americans, but in the wrong place.”

Since then Mr. Schramm has become a professor of history and political science at Ashland University. He spends his days teaching people what it means to be an American. Schramm contends (here) that “being an American citizen is different than being the citizen of any other country on earth.”

Explaining this, Schramm writes, “We Americans do not look to the ties of common blood and history for connection as people the way the citizens of other countries do. Rather, our common bond is a shared principle.” Since we are bound together by an ideal, he echoes Lincoln’s claim that Americans are “blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh, of the men who wrote [the Declaration of Independence].”

Schramm asserts, “American citizens are made and not born.” Each generation must learn and buy into the ideal that is America. Our problem today, he complains, is that “we are doing a poor job of passing this knowledge on to future generations.” And the problem is severe. 72% of eighth graders cannot “explain the historical purpose of the Declaration of Independence.” Schramm notes that our immigration debate has been largely devoid of “discussion about what it means to be an American--about what is necessary to make Americans.”

We can expect immigrants to have a long learning curve on what it means to be Americans, but today native citizens are deficient as well. Schramm describes the situation. “Some do not know the basic principles of this country, and still others have embraced the ideology of multiculturalism and self-loathing to such a degree that they can no longer recognize, let alone proclaim, that ours is a great nation built on lasting principles.”

Why is this bad? Schramm says, “If we no longer understand or believe in that which makes us Americans, then there is nothing substantive to assimilate into. We become many and diverse people who share a common place, rather than E Pluribus Unum.”

Schramm writes, “We cannot forget who we are. We are Americans. This is a great nation.” If America is to continue to aspire to its founding ideals, citizens must become Americans. We will only continue to enjoy the rights we enjoy if we continue to demonstrate that we deserve them.

It seems that we Americans are not only failing our kids in language, math, and science; we are failing them in civics as well. This can be remedied. We have experience and know how to do it successfully. Let's get to it.

8 comments:

Reach Upward said...

Peggy Noonan's article in today's WSJ parallels my post, but is infinitely more poignant.

Frank Staheli said...

I appreciate this statement:

"Schramm writes, 'We cannot forget who we are. We are Americans. This is a great nation.' If America is to continue to aspire to its founding ideals, citizens must become Americans."

That's why I think it is critical to make illegal immigration much harder and legal immigration much easier.

Reach Upward said...

I think everyone could benefit from reading Bill Bennett's comments on how to make Americans.

Democracy Lover said...

Yes, we do need to understand and believe in that which makes us Americans - most notably our Constitution that enshrines our rights as citizens and the careful separation of powers and limits on the executive that enable us to retain those rights.

We are failing to educate our children, but primarily by our failure to provide an example of good citizenship. We stand idly by while our rights are trampled by our own government, and say nothing when the executive branch declares itself above the law. The best civics lesson we could give our children and all those within our borders is to bring restore Constitutional government and Constitutional rights.

As for our educational system, it is designed to fail at this point. Teachers must teach to standardized tests rather than engage students in actually understanding our history. When teachers attempt to provide an honest look at our history, the thought police (like Bill Bennett or Dinesh D'Souza) attack them. We cannot understand what it means to be American by ignoring our history, or whitewashing our history, but most importantly, we cannot pass on the legacy of our Founders unless we protect the democratic republic they bequeathed to us in the Constitution.

Reach Upward said...

Hear, hear! Our teachers are now required to tell students what to think rather than teaching them how to think.

However, I laugh when you place Bennett and D'Souza in the category of thought police. Education has the strongest stranglehold on thought of any institution in the nation. It is pervaded by thought police that want to prevent people from saying the 'wrong' words or from thinking the 'wrong' thoughts. I read Bennett's history books and found them a breath of fresh air compared to what is currently taught on our school campuses today. As for D'Souza, his thoughts are definitely out of the mainstream, but at least they inspire thought rather than squelching it.

Democracy Lover said...

I would agree that pretty much any history book would be a "breath of fresh air" compared to the watered-down pablum fed to our children in the schools today.

What we need, however, is not a story of our nation that inspires patriotism, but one that is honest. Our children need to learn that their government does not always tell the truth and that our nation's motivations have rarely been pure. If we fail in this, we raise a nation of sheep, not a nation of free citizens.

Reach Upward said...

If that's what you think, then I think you will enjoy Bill Bennett's books America: The Last Best Hope (part 1, part 2). Bennett is open about America's successes and America's flaws. He is not afraid to expose the warts. But unlike much of the junk that passes for history texts nowadays, Bennett does not make America look like all warts.

David said...

Thanks Scott - for the post and the link to the WSJ article.

"If America is to continue to aspire to its founding ideals, citizens must become Americans."

This makes me think of discussions among LDS people about who in a group are converts and who have been raised in the church.

I think that any really important thing in life, be it our religion or our nationality or something else, must become personally important to us or else it it worthless in our individual lives.

Even if someone is born into a church they must become individually converted before that religions is really important to them.

Whether we are born into this country or migrate into it is not nearly so telling of how good a citizen we will be as whether we have truly become American.

In fact, in my political discussions with other people I find that a discussion with someone who is really American (having that inner commitment) who disagrees with me is much more enjoyable and enlightening than having a discussion with a fair weather citizen who agrees with me.