Why History Is Important
On September 17, Constitution Day, President Bush delivered two speeches
concerning history. In the first speech , given in the Rose
Garden, he announced three new initiatives: (1)We the People,
which will offer grants to improve the teaching of American history and civics,
(2) Our Documents, which
will place online important American historical documents, and (3) White House forum, which will feature conferences early next
year to create new policies to improve the teaching of history and civics.
In his second speech, delivered in Tennessee, he explained why history is an important subject in school.
President Introduces History & Civic Education Initiatives
Remarks of the President on Teaching American History and Civic Education Initiative
The Rose Garden
September 17, 2002
In the last year, in this last year of American history, we have witnessed acts of sacrifice and heroism, compassion and courage, unity and fierce determination. We have been reminded that we are citizens with obligations to each other, to our country, and to our history.
These examples are particularly important for our children. Children reflect the values they see in their parents, and in their heroes. And this is how a culture can be strengthened and changed for the better.
During the last year, our children have seen that lasting achievement in life comes through sacrifice and service. They've seen that evil is real, but that courage and justice can triumph. They've seen that America is a force for good in the world, bringing hope and freedom to other people.
In recent events, our children have witnessed the great character of America.
Yet they also need to know the great cause of America. They are seeing Americans
fight for our country; they also must know why their country is worth fighting
Our history is not a story of perfection. It's a story of imperfect people working toward great ideals. This flawed nation is also a really good nation, and the principles we hold are the hope of all mankind. When children are given the real history of America, they will also learn to love America.
Our Founders believed the study of history and citizenship should be at the core of every American's education. Yet today, our children have large and disturbing gaps in their knowledge of history. Recent studies tell us that nearly one in five high school seniors think that Germany was an ally of the United States in World War II. Twenty-eight percent of eighth graders do not know the reason why the Civil War was fought. One-third of fourth graders do not know what it means to "pledge allegiance to the flag." Graduating seniors at some of our leading colleges and universities cannot correctly identify words from the Gettysburg Address, or do not know that James Madison is the father of the Constitution.
This is more than academic failure. Ignorance of American history and civics weakens our sense of citizenship. To be an American is not just a matter of blood or birth; we are bound by ideals, and our children must know those ideals.
They should know about the nearly impossible victory of the Revolutionary War, and the debates of the Constitutional Convention. They should know the meaning of the Declaration of Independence, and how Abraham Lincoln applied its principles to flight -- to fight slavery. Our children should know why Martin Luther King, Jr., was in a Birmingham city jail, and why he wrote a magnificent letter from that place.
Our children need to know about America's liberation of Europe during World War II, and why the Berlin Wall came down. At this very moment, Americans are fighting in foreign lands for principles defined at our founding, and every American -- particularly every American child -- should fully understand these principles.
The primary responsibility for teaching history and civics rests with our elementary and secondary schools, and they've got to do their job. The federal government can help, and today I'm announcing three new initiatives spearheaded by the USA Freedom Corps and designed to support the teaching of American history and civic education.
The first initiative is called We the People -- it will be administered by the National Endowment for the Humanities -- which will encourage the teaching of American history and civic education. The program will provide grants to develop good curricula; hold training seminars for schoolteachers and university faculty; sponsor a lecture series in which acclaimed scholars -- like David McCullough -- will tell the story of great figures from American history; and enlist high school students in a nation essay contest about the principles and ideals of America. We will use technology to share these important lessons with schools and communities throughout America.
The federal government conserves and protects some of our greatest national treasures, and we need to make them more readily available to Americans in their schools and local communities. Our second initiative is called Our Documents, an innovative project that will be run by the National Archives and the National History Day. This project will use the Internet to bring one hundred of America's most important documents from the National Archives to classrooms and communities across the country, provide lesson plans, and to foster competitions and discussions about these defining moments in our history.
Students and their teachers will see documents online in their original form -- well-known documents such as our Constitution or the Emancipation Proclamation or the Civil Rights Act of 1964. They will also see other important but less widely available documents, such as the Lee Resolution, which first proposed independence for American colonies, and Jefferson's Secret Message to Congress regarding the exploration of the West.
Third, early next year we will convene a White House forum on American history, civics, and service. We will discuss new policies to improve the teaching of history and civics in elementary and secondary schools, and in our colleges and universities. We will hear from educators and scholars about ways to better monitor students' understanding of American history and civics, and how to make more of our great national treasures, how to make them more accessible and more relevant to the lives of our students.
American children are not born knowing what they should cherish -- are not born knowing why they should cherish American values. A love of democratic principles must be taught.
A poet once said, "What we have loved, others will love, and we will teach them how." We love our country, and we must teach our children to do the same. And when we do, they will carry on our heritage of freedom into the future.
by the President on Teaching American History and Civic Education
East Literature Magnet School
September 17, 2002
It is very important for our youngsters to understand history, the history of our country, the ideals that make our country strong. This morning at the Rose Garden I kicked off a national initiative, and I'm going to describe some of what we're going to do to make sure that we teach more history to our children.
Especially important in a time of war that our children understand the context of why we fight. You see, ours is a history of freedom. One of the most precious ideas we have is freedom for everybody. We love our freedoms. We love the idea of being a free society. And throughout our history, people have fought for freedom. Whether it's been in the Revolutionary War, or the heroic struggle to end slavery, or civil rights wars in the United States Congress, or whether it's World War II where we fought to free people from tyranny, the history of this nation has been a history of freedom and justice.
Our children are growing up in a difficult time for America, because they see on their TV screens the fact that America is now a battlefield. When we were kids, a lot of us were kids, growing up, oceans separated us from danger. We were confident in our ability to resist evil because evil could never make it to our shore, unless it was created internally. But now we've entered a new period where we're vulnerable. It's tough for our children to comprehend that, I know.
But you've got to understand why we're vulnerable, and that is because there are people in the world that hate the fact that we love freedom. People cannot stand the fact that your great nation not only allows, but encourages people to worship an almighty God in any way they want to. We welcome that in America. (Applause.)
We speak our mind freely. All you've got to do is remember it's an election year. (Laughter.) We believe in a free press. And we're not going to change. We love our freedoms. Our history has taught us that. And today, we love them just as strongly as others in the past have.
The other thing the children are learning is the notion of people serving something greater than themselves in life. You know, I think one of the most defining moments of the recent American history was Flight 93. Flight 93 is an amazing lesson. Laura and I had the honor of going to the site there in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, the other day to hug and cry and visit with and smile with if they wanted to smile, with the family members of those brave souls who were on that airplane.
But it's a lesson of people loving freedom so much and loving their country so much, that they're willing to drive a plane into the ground to save other people's lives. What a powerful message, that part of being an American is to serve something greater than yourself. Part of being a citizen in this great land is to not only take from the land, but to give.
So today, when you realize there are military people looking in caves in Afghanistan, or moving around the world to try to fight tyranny and terrorism, they do so to serve something greater than themselves -- because of a strong ideal, a strong sense of purpose, a strong sense of country.
You've got to understand there are some in this world that simply do not adhere to the ideals we believe in. In Iraq, they don't put their hand over their heart and say, "Liberty and justice for all." They don't believe in liberty. The dictator who runs Iraq doesn't believe in justice. He only believes in liberty and justice for those who he decides get liberty and justice.
There's a lot of talk about Iraq on our TV screens, and there should be, because we're trying to figure out how best to make the world a peaceful place. There's an old saying in Tennessee -- I know it's in Texas, probably in Tennessee -- that says, fool me once, shame on -- shame on you. Fool me -- you can't get fooled again. You've got to understand the nature of the regime we're dealing with. This is a man who has delayed, denied, deceived the world. For the sake of liberty and justice for all, the United Nations Security Council must act, must act in way to hold this regime to account, must not be fooled, must be relevant to keep the peace.
Part of the American history teaches us that we must lead toward a more peaceful world. Part of the history of the world shows that as threats develop, we must deal with them before they become too acute, unmanageable. Part of our history is, is that we're a peaceful people. We love and long for peace, that we want peace for generations to come. But sometimes we must act in order to achieve the peace.
And all our history says we believe in liberty and justice for all, that when we see oppression, we cry; that when we found out that young girls in Afghanistan could not go to school because they were in the clutches of one of the most barbaric regimes in the history of mankind, we acted not only to uphold doctrine and to fight the war against terror, we acted to liberate people. Our history shows that we're not a nation which conquers; we're a nation which liberates.
History is important for our children to understand, to give them a better sense of how to understand what we do and a sense of what it means to be an American; a sense of importance of serving something greater than yourself in life.
The first initiative that we're going to put out is called We the People, which will encourage American history and civic education all around the country. There will be a grant program to encourage the development of good curricula and a lecture series, and essays by high school students on liberty and justice and freedom.
We've got a great store of documents here in America, and so we're going to put out a program called Our Documents, the National Archivist is going to work with us to make sure all of the archives of America are now on-line, so schools can easily tap in to find out how our history developed through the archives of the country. It ought to be a really interesting way for our students to learn more about America. [Note: White House aides later clarified that officials with the National Archives plan on putting only a small percentage of the millions of documents they possess on-line.]
We're going to have a White House forum there in Washington, D.C. -- obviously; that's where the White House is -- in January or February of next year, to call in experts as to how better teach our history, and at the same time, teach the ideals that make us a great nation. We're going to do our part at the federal level; it's very important that you all do your part here in Nashville, Tennessee, and insist upon good civics lessons, the true lessons of history, to make sure our children understand the ideals that make us great.