Remarks of Senator Lamar Alexander on the Introduction of His
Bill: The American History and Civics Education Act
March 4, 2003
AS DELIVERED (http://frwebgate3.access.gpo.gov/cgi-bin/TEXTgate.cgi?WAISdocID=AUcwpw/0/1/0&WAISaction=retrieve)
Mr. President, from the Senate’s earliest days, new members have observed as we just heard a ritual of remaining silent during floor debates for a period of time that ranged from several weeks to two years. By waiting a respectful amount of time before giving their so-called "maiden speeches," freshman senators hoped their senior colleagues would respect them for their humility.
This information comes from the Senate historian, Richard Baker, who told me that in 1906, the former Governor of Wisconsin, Robert LaFollette, arrived here "anything but humble" (and I’m sensitive to this as a former governor). He waited just three months, a brief period by the standards of those days, before launching his first major address. He spoke for eight hours over three days; his remarks in the Congressional Record consumed 148 pages. As he began to speak, most of the senators present in the chamber pointedly rose from their desks and departed. LaFollete’s wife, observing from the gallery, wrote, "There was no mistaking that this was a polite form of hazing."
From our first day here, as the majority leader said, we new members of this 108th Congress have been encouraged to speak up, and most of us have. But, with the encouragement of the majority leader, several of us intend also to revive the tradition of the maiden address by making a signature speech on an issue that is important both to the country and to each of us. I want to thank my colleagues who are here, and I want to assure all of you that I will not speak for three days -- as former Governor LaFollette did.
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Mr. President, I rise to address the intersection of two urgent concerns that will determine our country’s future. These are also the two topics I care about the most: the education of our children and the principles that unite us as Americans.
It is time that we put the teaching of American history and civics back in its rightful place in our schools so our children can grow up learning what it means to be an American.
Especially during such serious times when our values and way of life are being attacked, we need to understand clearly just what those values are.
In this, most Americans would agree. For example, in Thanksgiving remarks in 2001, President Bush praised our nation’s response to September 11. "I call it," he said, "the American character." At about the same time, while speaking at Harvard, former Vice-President Al Gore said, "We should [fight] for the values that bind us together as a country."
Both men were invoking a creed of ideas and values in which most Americans believe. "It has been our fate as a nation," the historian Richard Hofstadter wrote, "not to have ideologies but to be one." This value based identity has inspired both patriotism and division at home, as well as emulation and hatred abroad. For terrorists, as well as for those who admire America, at issue is the United States itself—not what we do, but who we are.
Yet our children do not know what makes America exceptional. National exams show that three-quarters of the nation’s 4th, 8th and 12th graders are not proficient in civics knowledge and one-third does not even have basic knowledge, making them "civic illiterates."
Children are not learning about American history and civics because they are not being taught it. American history has been watered down, and civics is too often dropped from the curriculum entirely.
Until the 1960s, civics education, which teaches the duties of citizenship, was a regular part of the high school curriculum, but today's college graduates probably have less civics knowledge than high school graduates of 50 years ago. So called reforms in the ‘60s and ‘70s resulted in the widespread elimination of required classes and curriculum in civics education. Today, more than half the states have no requirement for students to take a course -- even for one semester -- in American government.
To help put the teaching of American history and civics in its rightful place, today I introduce legislation along with several distinguished co-sponsors including: Senators Reid, Gregg, Santorum, Inhofe and Nickles. We call it the "American History and Civics Act." This act creates Presidential Academies for Teachers of American History and Civics and Congressional Academies for Students of American History and Civics. These residential academies would operate for two weeks (in the case of teachers) and four weeks (for students) during the summer.
Their purpose would be to inspire better teaching and more learning of the key events, persons and ideas that shape the institutions and democratic heritage of the United States.
I have had some experience with such residential summer academies, when I was Governor of Tennessee. In 1984, we began creating Governor’s schools for students and teachers. For example, there was the Governor’s School for the Arts at Middle Tennessee State University and the Governor’s School of International Studies at the University of Memphis as well as the Governor’s School for Teachers of Writing at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, which was especially successful. Eventually there were eight Governor’s Schools helping thousands of Tennessee teachers improve their skills and inspiring outstanding students to learn more about core curriculum subjects. When these teachers and students returned to their schools for the next school year, they brought with them a new enthusiasm for teaching and learning that infected their peers. Dollar for dollar, the Governor’s Schools were one of the most effective and popular educational initiatives in our state’s history.
States other than Tennessee have had similar success with summer residential academies. The first Governor's school was started in North Carolina in 1963 when Governor Terry Sanford established it at Salem College in Winston-Salem. Upon the establishment of the first school, several states, including Georgia, South Carolina, Arkansas, Kentucky, and Tennessee established similar schools.
For example, in 1973 Pennsylvania established Governor’s Schools of Excellence, which has 14 different programs of study. As in Tennessee, students participating in the Pennsylvania Governor’s School program attend academies at 8 different colleges to study everything from international studies, to health care and teaching. Also established in 1973, Virginia’s Governor’s School is a summer residential program for 7500 of the Commonwealth’s most gifted students. Mississippi established its Governor’s School in 1981. The Mississippi University for Women hosts the program, which is designed to give students academic, creative, and leadership experiences. Every year West Virginia brings 80 of its most talented high school performing and visual arts students to West Liberty State College for a three-week residential program.
These are just a few of the more than 100 Governors’ schools in 28 states -- clearly the model is a good one. The legislation I propose today applies that successful model to American history and civics education at the national level by establishing Presidential and Congressional academies for students and teachers of those subjects.
Additionally, this proposed legislation authorizes the creation of a national alliance of American history and civics teachers who would be connected by the internet. The alliance would facilitate sharing of best practices in the teaching of American history and civics. It is modeled after an alliance I helped the National Geographic Society begin during the l980’s to put geography back into the American school curriculum. Tennessee and the University of Tennessee were among the first sponsors of the alliance.
This legislation creates a pilot program. Up to 12 Presidential academies for teachers and 12 Congressional Academies for students would be sponsored by educational institutions. The National Endowment for the Humanities would award 2-year renewable grants to those institutions after a peer review process. Each grant would be subject to rigorous review after three years to determine whether the overall program should continue, expand or end. The legislation authorizes $25 million annually for the four year pilot program.
There is a broad basis of renewed support for and interest in American history and civics in our country.
David Gordon noted in a recent issue of the Harvard Education Letter: "A 1998 survey by the nonpartisan research organization Public Agenda showed that 84 percent of parents with school-aged children said they believe that the United States is a special country and they want schools to convey that belief to their children by teaching about its heroes and traditions. Similar numbers identified the American ideal as including equal opportunity, individual freedom, and tolerance and respect for others. Those findings were consistent across racial and ethnic groups."
Our national leadership has responded to this renewed interest. In 2000, at the initiative of my distinguished colleague Senator Byrd, Congress created grants for schools that teach American history as a separate subject within school curricula. We appropriated $100 million for those grants in the recent Omnibus appropriations bill, and rightfully so. They encourage schools and teachers to focus on the teaching of traditional American history, and provide important financial support.
Last September, with historian David McCullough at his side, President Bush announced a new initiative to encourage the teaching of American history and civics. He established the "We the People" program at the NEH, which will develop curricula and sponsor lectures on American history and civics. He announced the "Our Documents" project, run by the National Archives. This would take one hundred of America's most important documents from the National Archives to classrooms and communities across the country.
This year, he will convene a White House forum on American history, civics, and service. There, we will discuss new policies to improve the teaching of history and civics in elementary and secondary schools.
This proposed legislation takes the next step by training teachers and encouraging outstanding students. We need to foster a love of this subject and arm teachers with the skills to impart that love to their students.
I am pleased that today one of the leading members of the House of Representatives, Roger Wicker of Mississippi, along with a number of his colleagues, are introducing the same legislation in the House.
I want to thank Senator Gregg, Chairman of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, who has agreed that the committee will hold hearings on this legislation so that we can determine how it might supplement and work with recently enacted legislation and the President’s various initiatives.
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Mr. President, in 1988, at a meeting of educators in Rochester, the President of Notre Dame University, Monk Malloy, asked this question: "What is the rationale for the public school?" There was an unexpected silence around the room until Al Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, answered in this way: "The public school was created to teach immigrant children the three R’s and what it means to be an American with the hope that they would then go home and teach their parents."
From the founding of America, we have always understood how important it is for citizens to understand the principles that unite us as a country. Other countries are united by their ethnicity. If you move to Japan for example, you can’t become Japanese. Americans, on the other hand, are united by a few things in which we believe. To become an American citizen, you subscribe to those principles. If there were no agreement on those principles, as Samuel Huntington has noted, we would be the United Nations instead of the United States of America.
There has therefore been a continuous education process to remind Americans just what those principles are. Thomas Jefferson, in his retirement at Monticello, would spend evenings explaining to overnight guests what he had in mind when he helped create what we call America. By the mid-19th century it was just assumed that everybody knew what it meant to be an American. In his letter from the Alamo, Col. William Barrett Travis pleaded for help simply "in the name of liberty, patriotism and everything dear to the American character."
There were new waves of immigration in the late 19th century that brought to our country a record number of new people from other lands whose view of what it means to be an American was indistinct—and Americans responded by teaching them. In Wisconsin, for example, the Kohler Company actually housed German immigrants together so that they might be "Americanized" during non-working hours.
But the most important Americanizing institution, as Mr. Shanker reminded us in Rochester in 1988, was the new common school. McGuffey’s Reader, which was used in many classrooms, sold more than 120 million copies introducing a common culture of literature, patriotic speeches and historical references.
In the 20th century it was war that made Americans stop and think about what we were defending. President Roosevelt made certain that those who charged the beaches of Normandy knew they were defending for freedoms.
But after World War II, the emphasis on teaching and defining the principles that unite us has waned. Unpleasant experiences with McCarthyism in the 1950’s, discouragement after the Vietnam War, and history books that left out or distorted the history of African-Americans made some skittish about discussing "Americanism." The end of the Cold War removed a preoccupation with who we were not, making it less important to consider who we are. The Immigration law changes in 1965 brought to our shores many new Americans and many cultural changes. As a result, the American Way became much more often praised than defined.
Changes in community attitudes, as they always are, were reflected in our schools. According to historian Diane Ravitch, the public school virtually abandoned its role as the chief Americanizing Institution. We have gone, she explains, from one extreme (simplistic patriotism and incomplete history) to the other—"public schools with an adversary culture that emphasize the nation’s warts and diminish its genuine accomplishments. There is no literary canon. There are no common readings, no agreed upon lists of books, poems and stories from which students and parents might be taught a common culture and be reminded of what it means to be an American."
During this time many of our national leaders contributed to this drift toward agnostic Americanism. These leaders celebrated multiculturalism and bilingualism and diversity at a time when there should have been more emphasis on a common culture and learning English and unity.
America’s variety and diversity is a great strength, but it is not our greatest strength. Jerusalem is diverse. The Balkans are diverse. America’s greatest accomplishment is not its variety and diversity but that we have found a way to take all that variety and diversity and unite ourselves as one country. E pluribus unum: out of many, one. That is what makes America truly exceptional.
Since 9/11 the national conversation about what it means to be an American has been different. The terrorists focused their cross-hairs on the creed that unites Americans as one country—forcing us to remind ourselves of those principles, to examine and define them, and to celebrate them. The President himself has been the lead teacher. President Bush has literally taken us back to school on what it means to be an American. When he took the country to church on television after the attacks he reminded us that no country is more religious than we are. When he walked across the street to the mosque he reminded the world that we separate church and state and that there is freedom here to believe in whatever one wants to believe. When he attacked and defeated the Taliban, he honored life. When we put planes back in the air and opened financial markets and began going to football games again we celebrated liberty. The President called on us to make those magnificent images of courage and charity and leadership and selflessness more permanent in our every day lives through Freedom Corps. And with his optimism, he warded off doomsayers who tried to diminish the real gift of Americans to civilization, our cockeyed optimism that anything is possible.
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Just after 9/11, I proposed an idea I called "Pledge Plus Three." Why not start each school day with the Pledge of Allegiance -- as we do here in the Senate -- followed by a faculty member or student sharing for three minutes "what it means to be an American." The Pledge embodies many of the ideals of our National Creed: "one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all." It speaks to our unity, to our faith, to our value of freedom, and to our belief in the fair treatment of all Americans. If more future federal judges took more classes in American history and civics and learned more about those values, we might have fewer mind-boggling decisions like the one issued recently by the Ninth Circuit.
Before I was elected to the Senate, I taught some of our future judges and legislators a course at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government entitled "The American Character and America’s Government." The purpose of the course was to help policy makers, civil servants and journalists analyze the American creed and character and apply it in the solving of public policy problems. We tried to figure out, if you will, what would be "the American way" to solve a given problem.
The students and I did not have much trouble deciding that America is truly exceptional (not always better, but truly exceptional) or in identifying the major principles of the American Creed or the distinct characteristics of our country. Such principles as: liberty, equal opportunity, rule of law, laissez faire, individualism, e pluribus unum, the separation of church and state.
But what we also found as we find in this body was that applying those principles to today’s issues was hard work. This was because the principles of the creed often conflicted. For example, when discussing President Bush’s faith-based charity legislation, we know that "In God We Trust" but we also know that we don’t trust government with God.
When considering whether the federal government should pay for scholarships which middle and low income families might use at any accredited school -- public, private or religious -- we find that the principle of equal opportunity conflicted with the separation of church and state.
And we find there are great disappointments when we try to live up to our greatest dreams, for example, President Kennedy’s pledge that we will "pay any price or bear any burden" to defend freedom, or Thomas Jefferson’s assertion that "all men are created equal," or the American dream that for anyone who works hard, tomorrow will always be better than today. We are often disappointed when we try to live up to those dreams.
We learned that, as Samuel Huntington has written, balancing these conflicts and disappointments is what most of American politics and government is about.
Mr. President, if most of our politics and government is about applying to our most urgent problems the principles and characteristics that make us the exceptional United States of America, then we had better get about the teaching and learning of those principles and characteristics.
The legislation I propose today with several co-sponsors will help our schools do what they were established to do in the first place. At a time when there are record numbers of new Americans, and at a time when our values are under attack, at a time when we are considering going to war to defend those values, there can be no more urgent task than putting the teaching of American history and civics back in its rightful place in our schools so our children can grow up learning what it means to be an American.