Jewish World Review May 23, 2003 / 21 Iyar, 5763
Washington steps in to
help teach history
You don't have to ask much in an interview with Lamar Alexander on his
American History and Civics Education Act before he gets to the point: "I
want to put the teaching of American history and civics back in its rightful
place in our schools so that our children will grow up learning what it
means to be an American."
Mr. Alexander's bill would establish (a) academies for elementary and
secondary school teachers of American history and civics and (b)
academies in those subjects for outstanding high school students. The
academies - a dozen of each - would operate in the summer. States
wanting to set up an academy would make grant applications to the
National Endowment for the Humanities, which would have up to $25
million to award.
The American History and Civics Education Act is the first legislation that
Mr. Alexander, one of 10 freshmen senators, has introduced. That he has
opened with that bill, as opposed to some other, isn't surprising. Mr.
Alexander served as education secretary in the first Bush administration
and before that as president of the University of Tennessee. His interest in
education comes naturally. His father was an elementary school principal
in Maryville, Tenn., and his mother ran the county's only preschool
educational program. Mr. Alexander notes that she did so for 35 years "in
a converted garage in the back yard."
Earlier this month, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions
Committee unanimously approved the legislation. A similar bill is moving
through the House. And the Bush administration has signaled its support.
If there is opposition to the legislation, it has yet to be announced. Nor is
there likely to be any. The goals of Mr. Alexander's bill are popular in
Washington, if not at desks where high school students may think about
things other than Alexander Hamilton's tenure as the nation's first
Three years ago, Congress established the "Teaching American History"
program, whose purpose is to make American history a separate subject
in elementary and secondary schools. Toward that end, the Education
Department makes grants to school districts to support professional
development for history teachers.
Meanwhile, President Bush has asked the National Endowment for the
Humanities to run a "We the People" program, which aims, says endowment
chairman Bruce Cole, "to cultivate an enhanced understanding of American
history among students, teachers and the public at large." "We the People" has
an annual essay contest for high school students on "the Idea of America." The
first winner, a New Jersey high school student, wrote on the difficult subject of
Naturally, Mr. Alexander rejects the suggestion that his effort amounts to more
of the same. And, indeed, his bill would establish programs different, in terms
of design and execution, from those already under way.
What makes it hard politically to argue against his bill - what has made
teaching American history and civics a top Washington priority - are two
things. First, there is the abundant evidence that too many students know very
little about our history or how our government works. And, second, there are
the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, which, as Mr. Alexander says, have forced "us
to go back to school on what it means to be an American."
Mr. Alexander says, "Today's college graduates probably have less civics
knowledge than high school graduates of 50 years ago." Assuming he is right
about that, it also is true that 50 years ago the federal government didn't fund
summertime academies of the kind Mr. Alexander proposes. The fact that
Washington wasn't involved in history and civics education then doesn't mean it
shouldn't do that now. But it does suggest how times have changed.
What once was accomplished naturally, community by community, now seems
to require outside help. Fittingly, history will judge whether that help - in the
form of multiple Washington programs - produced the intended results.
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JWR contributor Terry Eastland is is publisher of The Weekly Standard.Comment by clicking here.
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© 2002, Terry Eastland