Maybe Add Values Teaching to Our American History Survey Courses?
The aged author of this essay just showed his faith in the value of patriotism when in spring 2011 he published his book SPEAKING UP FOR AMERICA; IN THE ROGUE RIVER VALLEY DURING THE VIETNAM WAR. Available from iUniverse, Amazon, etc., the 176 page book consists of 12 speeches, the first delivered May 30, 1963, and two essays. The author cut his eye teeth on Vietnam with his heavily researched book THE PRESIDENCY OF LYNDON B. JOHNSON (Kansas Press, 1984), 431 pages (suggested for the Pulitzer Prize at the time). The author shared authorship on Edgar Eugene Robinson and Vaughn Davis Bornet, HERBERT HOOVER; PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES (Hoover Press, 1976). Soon after getting the Stanford doctorate after 1951 he did the innovative chronological bibliographical essay for Robinson’s THE ROOSEVELT LEADERSHIP, 1933 to 1945 (Lippincott, 1955). His labor and welfare books and publications established his early reputation; he says his nearly four years with RAND were stimulating. He resides in Ashland, Oregon.
This essay of gratuitous advice recommends seven ideas that in my view should be present in one way or another in an extensive survey course in American History at both the college and secondary school levels.
The eighth idea is detailed, somewhat in passing, in my new book Speaking Up for America, where the intent is to advance the idea of patriotism (as number eight).
One of the arguments already being waged at this time, all should assume, is that between (let’s say) the Zinn school of radicalized or at least atypical social history content, and historians trained much earlier in presenting their United States history. Between the two lies a generation, maybe more. This essay is not about that fight, although I am not at all in the coterie demanding new content.
Those waging that battle for change--amounting to upheaval--may find the quite different new case I am making either unbearably offensive, or highly desirable.
While I think we always need to give thought to the values we may already be instilling with our standard history courses, I guess that some survey teachers will say upfront that the values additions I am suggesting are “out of the question.” (Especially, I think, authors of those splendid fact driven history textbooks now on the market could be already insulted before reading further. I mean no offense to them and others who lead us.) To continue:
What values should be stressed? Eight come to mind: the idea of law; the idea of freedom; the idea of representation; the idea of tolerance; the idea of participation; the idea of progress; and the idea of service. And, as I have made clear already, the idea of patriotism. (No ranking is intended.)
Already, there may well be outcries: that ours is a “history course,” and it is enough to teach, with maximum objectivity, the factual narrative. Stick to the task! Just teach the factual story better! Another objection is that, surely, here is a task for political scientists or sociologists or whatever. My own faith in historians is such as to reject that option out of hand. They’ve had their chance. (And I just edited out a very harsh judgment as to where we have arrived now.)
I was trained in history course after course, and was a small time survey course teacher in the past. Perhaps I can visualize the reluctance of historiographically trained historians taking on this task. Yet our native or adopted land, the United States of America, does now need more than just the facts in every history course at every level—college, secondary, elementary. While an enthusiastic advocate of values teaching, I am not suggesting that the new material very much displace the usual factual story. History is history, after all, and the factual story including cause and effect needs to be taught and learned as a first consideration. No doubt about it.
But our greater Society, now full of immigrants and at the same time loaded with parents and all kinds of strangers in and out of the media who may be pretty much unprepared to guide youngsters, youths, and young adults in “the American Way,” is a Society we now have trouble recognizing. Shouted “truths” are no substitute for carefully taught truths. Without diagnosing who or what is responsible for our collapsing Society, I’ll skip to what we used to do by way of furthering values.
Grade school teachers have long taught right conduct in all kinds of ways. It used to be the job of Civics to teach values at the next level, I recall. (I thought the civics course at my Ida M. Fisher High School in Miami Beach back in 1934 a smash hit.) In the academy, meanwhile, values teaching once resulted from careful content selection (At the turn out of the 19th century the motto of high school text writers John Fiske in A History of the United States (c. 1894 to 1907) and Edward Channing in A Student History of the United States (c, 1896 to 1904) was essentially Study great men and great events! Declared prolific Fiske: “In the teaching of history the pupil’s mind should not be treated as a mere lifeless receptacle for facts; the main thing is to arouse his interest and stimulate his faculties to healthful exercise.”
Yet twenty or so years later there was dedicated crusading in graduate schools to bring dispassionate objectivity to the whole history process. Values teaching got hijacked. Religious instruction exited, ending up in social sciences coursework somewhat and to religious life in buildings off campus. Maybe my detour to this quick and casual diagnosis is shallow and naive. In any case, I am convinced that teaching values needs to be somebody’s assignment—and as soon as possible. I nominate history surveys of America’s development to greatness as a promising place to create and further values.
Let’s go through my values list, one by one, seriatim. The idea of law. Without grasping this idea our developing citizens cannot have an accurate impression of American government in action. In the grades, children learn at the outset, it appears, that “democracy” is rule of, or by, the majority. To this must be added on the spot, “with protection for the minority.” That’s where law comes in (and not just with our obsession with property rights). Our constitutions and laws made under them are the Law of the Land, to be sure. Yet too many are taught they live in a free country where “people can do what they want,” that is, we all live in a “free country.” No. Freedom is limited by all kinds of laws….
The rules by which we coexist can be changed in a variety of ways, but it takes time, patience, and individuals organized into active groups, plus electing new representatives in our Republic, to change the legal structure. Laws are, to be sure, fundamental to freedoms, let’s admit it, but laws also restrict freedoms. Less talk about freedoms and more about laws may be what we should seek.
The idea of freedom is the second idea to be put forward. Students need to know that while seeking freedom is a “good thing,” freedom is severely restricted in any state fit to live in—restricted, that is, by constitutions and laws in so many ways. Freedom in movement, action, options--all get restricted somewhat, even in a free state. The moment a democracy opts to be at the same time a republic, is the point where the popular idea of “freedom” somehow innate at birth—a God given right--takes a big hit.
Closely related is the next idea, the very idea of representation. It would be well said that a democracy is no democracy without it. Unfortunately, tiny groups of scouts or a class split into six person groups see little need for producing representatives (strangers, perhaps, who may soon have too much to say). A great nation, however, cannot be governed like a rural town meeting.
Those representatives we duly elect are likely to speak “in the name of the whole people” even when they actually may be responding only to handfuls. Always, we must assume that every representative governs for all of us (even when it is palpably untrue). Republican government means, if it means anything, that those elected, the “representatives,” govern to give the people what they ought to want as well as what they seem to want. This is called statesmanship when it operates as it should.
The history teacher will feel at home when advocating the idea of tolerance. The mixed bag that is our history in this matter is not something to view with pride; yet there has indeed been in our land much toleration in practice and praise for the concept. Confinement to prison is what can happen when we exhaust our patience on tolerance. Misconduct can be endured by society only to a point. The idea of a Golden Rule is sometimes honored; sometimes sidelined. While Americans display pride in their tolerance, they manage to have more people in jail than anybody else. (It is my observation that what tolerance we have vanishes at the jailhouse door.) In America there is what we believe, what we ought to believe, and what we actually do regardless of what we believe . That scandalous mismatch needs society’s attention, and it is something for the young to bear in mind as they weigh alternatives.
An idea that makes the wheels turn better in our Society (compared with the world in general) is the idea of participation. Our history books are full of material about what our leaders did, and what alternative leaders wish had been done. Groups of eager volunteers try to guide us on better paths, and they help with money and good deeds. Our Society is somewhere near the top among those where volunteering is considered the way to go. This is an important part of our history as we crossed the continent. When we casually or arbitrarily edit religion out of American history, with even single religious groups being thought unworthy, what goes with them is the remarkable part their volunteers played in building the well being of all of us.
Regarding the participant/volunteer--I felt a real sense of accomplishment when in 1960 I finally found an enthusiastic publisher (Oklahoma) for my Welfare in America with its references to such groups as the Red Cross, Salvation Army, St. Vincent de Paul, and others of that nature. Major space in my book naturally went to Community Chests and United Funds, the YMCA and similar groups, and Boys Clubs. The Latter Day Saints and numerous Jewish groups were major players in our voluntary circles and got in my focus. I have to say that while such groups were active even before World War I, they were seldom if ever found in the history courses I took at Emory nor did they become index entries in big texts for many years, I’m convinced. Volunteer charitable activity is absolutely central to what we call “the American Way” in my view.
Moving on, the idea of progress is a standard item in history books, it appears. The meaning of America in the World was for many years related to a faith many of us clung to, the idea that things would inevitably get better. We believed that even when the odds seemed to be stacked against it. Immigrants were weaned on it. Not until the passing of a century would new and devastating ideas dent and virtually demolish it: that costly war of Wilson’s day; that awful Depression; a second war that hit so hard; aggressive fascism followed unexpectedly by the global threat of communism. A generation before Paul Erlich and John Muir awakened many to the reality of diminishing resources and the impermanence of the familiar landscape and natural resources we easily found the idea of progress inevitable.
Threatened by the weaponry of the Soviets, we now conceptualize various scenarios in which minor players on the world scene can conceivably bring American civilization to its knees. Surely the atomic age and the Idea of Progress hit head on. Our thinking since Herman Kahn wised up intellectuals among us is that, sooner or later, things are bound to get worse! (In On Thermonuclear War (1960). Moreover, we are now threatened economically by the Chinese far beyond that old bush-league threat from a manufacturing Japan decades ago.
Moving toward a doomsday mood, almost casually, we are being subjected to unforgivable judgments! This historian hopes his far more active colleagues in the trenches are facing head on this almost casual rumination about coming oblivion as a possibility. Is this complacency about a horrible end for usthe rationale my seven great grandchildren will have to live with in their continuing schooling? It is unthinkable that one of the more optimistic peoples inhabiting the planet may be shifting to being downbeat about The Future to the point of probable demoralization. Fortunately, our technology is in there fighting.
Now comes the idea of service. An upbeat magazine that Americans would profit from reading, if they could, is The Rotarian—internationalist through and through. Members of our Rotary, Kiwanis, Lions, and similar organizations read in such publications that their money and their time are uniting to bring vast change to some backward parts of the planet. One of the worthy things about the United States is the development of service clubs over the years. Their members have yearned to make a difference. The Rotary campaign against polio instituted not so many years ago (aided by the UN) is on the verge of being won! The effort of Lions to help against blindness is a campaign of long standing.
The American history of service needs to be grasped by students at every level. (The innumerable scholarships distributed to high school seniors seem to be much noted by winners and losers alike.) We have come a long way since the local businessman wearing a Rotary button was the butt of snide remarks in novels of the Twenties. Today some college teaching faculty, but not enough, divert portions of their energies to the diverse work of our service clubs. Still, all realize that the curriculum schedule mitigates against that.)
Volunteering, the volunteer, the non-governmental agency, all are involved when we speak of service in the American experience. But we are dealing with more than that. The history of nonprofit groups (Heart, Cancer, Scouts, other organizations linked to causes (veterans groups) is a major part of the national history. While membership in fraternal bodies has seemed to be shrinking, in earlier years the Masons, Elks, Moose, Soroptimists, and the rest left a record that, while not comparable to the activities of cities, counties, and districts with federally underwritten welfare programs, is still something that has preoccupied our people. A motto: teach about it to help save it.
The eighth on our list is the idea of patriotism. That it was a vital ingredient in the concept and activity surrounding my new book Speaking Up for America is already evident. Let me quote from pages xiii and xiv: The words now printed in this book were sometimes prepared at the request of veterans organizations. Many were delivered on such patriotic holidays as Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Veterans Day. Thus open patriotism is often visible on these pages. I am not in the least apologetic! It seems to me that Samuel Johnson was overly cynical when he proclaimed (maybe slyly?) that ‘Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.’ His remark is from an age when authoritarian rulers flourished, and there was little to be patriotic about. Since the old curmudgeon’s edict does not intimidate me, readers will find on display here an unapologetic love of country.
(To detour but a moment, there seem to be two fairly recent books on the “politics” of Samuel Johnson which I have not read; however, I did sweat through what I would term his aristocratic essay The Patriot, where in 1774 (and 1777?) he seems little inclined to side with the restless colonists of North America or any aspect of their Cause. The good patriot seems to him—I judge quickly--one who respects and abides by both order and Authority. (Essay in The Oxford Authors: Samuel Johnson. 1984, pp. 580-8.0 Moreover, we are told he routinely eschewed all aspects of statesmanship and totally avoided “affairs of state.” Sir Sidney Castle Roberts in his long and sound Encyclopaedia Britannica sketch, 1963 edition.)
My book, I hasten to say again, is one of memorial and historical speeches and several essays, War and peace in America’s history is a theme; justice for the Vietnam veteran, and our nation’s efforts to help other peoples through war and in in peace is a preoccupation. The book is not a defense of the Vietnam War effort nor a taking of sides at this late date on the quarrels of those troubled years over policy regarding Southeast Asia.
I remark close to book’s end, “Those who defend us, military regulars, reserves, and national guard alike, absolutely deserve the words of thanks we offer on national holidays.” (p. 150) I publicly urged “building suitable memorials to those who died in Vietnam” (p. 98) seven years before creation of the D.C. structure.
Both here and in Speaking Up for America, I fear, adventurism in Iraq and Afghanistan are subjects for another day. My self-assigned task is to focus sharply on recommending eight views to be relied on when routinely teaching the facts of the American history survey. The job is uphill, for I have to react vigorously to that serious drive in the vicinity of the Thirties to install and demand total objectivity in the procedures of the history profession.
It was a premier intellectual historian of my day who judged in 1946 that our Fourth of July orations have been little utilized by those who study our past. In his book The Roots of American Loyalty he says that an intelligent and understanding patriotism will help a democratic state to survive! I stated the plain truth of the matter when I wrote, “Patriotic speeches delivered to live audiences are seldom published. They tend to be overlooked by historians.” With my book’s entry into the arena and its surprising availability with modern means such as Amazon and the astonishing Kindle, that is no longer the case. (Maybe the out of date word patriotics will return—as I hint at early in my book.)
I have come to believe during work on Speaking Up for America that much in our beloved Country is nudging us the wrong way, that is, if we intend to continue to cement America semi-permanently in a world leadership role. We must swing into action and soon. Historians can be very helpful by adding profound meaning, when possible, to that vast area of historical facts on which we have a monopoly. My eight ideas may not be the right eight, but my long lifetime has inclined me to believe in them while remaining open to amendments. (My initial conceptualizing of them was in an unpublished manuscript years ago!)
I ask permission to conclude with one sturdy asseveration: I do in fact believe, deeply, that patriotism is a characteristic that Americans are going to need very much if they really expect to survive in prime condition during the rest of the 21st Century. All who depend on the United States had better hope that love of country survives and flourishes on the street corners as well as in the schoolrooms, gardens, and buildings of this troubled nation.
comments powered by Disqus
- Did a historian who said he’s a victim of McCarthyism get the story wrong?
- Stephanie Coontz’s work on the history of marriage cited by the Supreme Court.
- NYT History Book Reviews: Who Got Noticed this Week?
- David Hackett Fischer wins $100,000 prize for lifetime achievement in military writing