Maybe Add Values Teaching to Our American History Survey Courses?

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Published and archived on History News Network (hnn.com) on May 15, 2011. Approximately 2079 words.

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. Available from iUniverse, Amazon, etc., the 176 page book consists of 12 speeches, the first delivered May 30, 1963, and two essays.

This essay of advice and guidance will recommend 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. An eighth idea, advancing the idea of patriotism, is brought forward now and then in my 2011 book Speaking Up for America. The first seven will be advanced shortly.

One of the arguments being waged at this time, many will acknowledge, is that between those endorsing the Howard Zinn school of social history content and endorsement, and the historians trained in United States history a generation or  more in the past. This essay is not about that continuing fight but is relevant.

Howsomever, some of those who are waging that battle, or who would be at home in it, may find the case I am about to make either unbearably offensive, or highly desirable and overdue. Either way, this essay creates its own rationale.

          What I am suggesting is that as soon as there is agreement, one direction or another, on the content of our history course, we need to give thought to the values we are instilling.

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What values? Well, as I have said: there are eight that interest me: 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 indicated already, the idea of patriotism.

Already, there can be outcries: that “this is a history course” and that for a very long time it has been considered quite enough to teach the factual narrative. Stick to the task! Also, the God of Objectivity objects to indoctrination!

Taught such basic and even worthy platitudes as basic truth decades ago, I find I no longer can agree. Our state, the United States of America, needs more than the offering of piles of facts in every history course at every level. Historical facts are the heart of history, after all, and they need to be taught and learned as a first consideration. No doubt about it. Still, I’m going to make a case for change.

Our greater Society, now full of immigrant newcomers and at the same time loaded with individuals more or less in the “media” who are unprepared to guide youngsters, youths, and young adults in “the American Way,” is a Society we knew well long ago. We hardly recognize it any longer. It used to be the job of Civics to teach values, I think. Maybe I’m wrong. I do think my Civics course of 1934 has been abandoned! In any case, teaching values needs to be somebody’s assignment—and as soon as possible.

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          Let’s go through some of the values, seriatim. The idea of law. Without grasping this idea our citizens cannot have an accurate impression of American government. In the grades, children learn, it appears, that “democracy” is rule of, or by, the majority. To this must be added “with protection for the minority.” That’s one place where law comes in. Here, our constitutions and laws made under them are the Law of the Land. Yet too many are taught, it seems to me, that they live in a free country where “people can do what they want,” that is, in a “free country.” I’m suggesting the legal constraints need to be emphasized more often.

The rules, the restrictions, can be changed in a variety of ways, but it takes time, patience, and individuals organized into active groups, plus electing those representative persons at every level in our Republic, to change the legal structure. Laws are, to be sure, fundamental to freedoms, but laws also restrict freedoms. Less talk about freedoms–and more emphasis on laws–is what we should seek.

The idea of freedom was 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 of 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, that is precisely when the popular idea of “freedom” down on the street corner takes a big hit.

Closely related here is the very idea of representation. A great nation cannot be governed like a rural town meeting. Those representatives we elect are likely to speak “in the name of the whole people” even when they actually may be responding only to a handful. Always, we must assume that every representative governs for all of us (even when that 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—what they need–as well as what they say they want. This is called statesmanship when leaders make it operate as it should.

The history teacher will want to speak up for 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 toleration in practice and praise for it. Confinement for lawbreakers may result when we reach our limits on tolerance. Misconduct can be endured only to a point. The idea of a Golden Rule is honored on some occasions only to be buried away other times. While we preach tolerance, we still put more people in jail than anybody else. Prisoners come to know that tolerance is likely to end at the jailhouse door. In our Society there is what we believe, what we ought to believe, and what we actually do.

          An idea that makes the wheels turn in our Society is the idea of participation, that is, of volunteerism. Our history books are full of material about what our leaders did, and what other leaders wish they had done. Our Society is somewhere near the top among those where volunteering is considered the way to go. The concept of the volunteer in action is close to being basic to the American way of life. Sometimes it is religiously motivated; sometimes not. Both sexes can boast noteworthy voluntary activities. Any history course that ignores voluntarism as a major part of the American story is a sick one ready for rebuilding.

The idea of Progress was once a part of important intellectual discussion about the Meaning of America in the World. I’m not trying to reopen that. Here, it is just important that those engaged in study of the history of the United States understand that our ancestors once entertained the idea that things will almost inevitably get better from now on! The idea of progress embraced a lot more than materialistic matters.   The slaves will eventually be freed. Women will get the right to vote and participate fully. Capitalism will embrace democratic trade unions. New technology will be lifting everybody, not just a few.

It is right here, right now, that our American society may be losing it. Today I write as what the public considers an old man. As such, I have to say that it is time for some kind of rebirth of the idea of progress in America. Demoralization abounds! Our perceptions are sick. The concept of limited resources, of restrictions beyond our ability to rise over them, of limits that we just can no longer surmount—this is what stands in our way. Included here would have to be the suggestion that Asia (or at least the Chinese part of it) is now becoming an obstacle to the American dream of plenty. Maybe the idea of progress is not dead but just in remission. Either way, we need to rebuild our history to talk about it. Maybe we must rebuild the facts pertaining to progress, too, for we can hardly advocate allegiance to a 19th century idea of progress.

Now comes the idea of service. Here we have come to praise ourselves mightily. Maybe we Americans are not as magnificent as we tend to say we are. On the other hand there cannot be the slightest doubt that the service clubs and organizations originated and pushed forward worldwide by citizens of America, funded from private sources or government entities, are one of the worthy things about us. Our voluntary deeds, that is, American performance in war, peace, and disasters of all kinds, is now anticipated by leaders everywhere. When our service becomes substandard it has become a matter for considerable notice. We are easily embarrassed by even quasi-failure.

When in the 1950s I wrote California Social Welfare and then Welfare in America, and scholars like Merle Curti and Roy Lebove began to write and teach in the area of American philanthropy and welfare as I moved on to other areas, history textbooks were silent on themes like Rotary Clubs vs. polio and the Peace Corps in action. (It was early, after all). In any event, many a history course, no doubt, offers minimum space to service as central to the often religiously stimulated American way of helping others to live complete lives.

The history of non-profit groups (Cancer, Heart, various veterans bodies, scouts) is as basic to our national history, now, as subjects long dwelt upon in conventional history pages. Membership rolls of our fraternal bodies may be shrinking, but the Masons, Elks, Moose and the rest (Soroptimist) remain an important part of our national story.

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I have saved the idea of patriotism for last; it was introduced earlier, and it is vital to my book Speaking Up for America, as is evident. Some, I suppose, get queasy when asked if they are “patriotic.” (Give the question a try!)   As for me, I wrote (pp xiii, 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 in 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.”

          The overwhelming bulk of my book is the text of many speeches, accompanied by several essays, all dealing with the meaning of war and peace in America’s history. Justice for veterans of Vietnam is a theme; so is our nation’s past attempts to be helpful to other peoples in war and peace alike. The book is neither a defense of the Vietnam War effort as such, nor a taking of sides (at this late date) on old Southeast Asia quarrels in our capitol. Its appreciation of all our veterans is marked, however, for I observe close to the 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 do appreciate the opportunity offered by HNN to record some atypical views here. (I’m sure they realized that Iraq and Afghanistan are matters for another day.) The viewpoints offered here derive, incidentally, from years of work on my (may I say?) unique book, where I say, “Patriotic speeches delivered to live audiences are seldom published. They tend to be overlooked by historians.”

It was intellectual historian Merle Curti who judged in 1946 that our Fourth of July orations have been little utilized by those who study our past. People in all lands who hope for freedom and a democratic world, he declared, look to the United States for hope. I endorse the views he offers in his book The Roots of American Loyalty that an intelligent and understanding patriotism will help a democratic state to survive.

More directly to the point, I have come to believe during work on SPEAKING UP FOR AMERICA that patriotism is a characteristic that Americans are going to need if they expect to survive in prime condition during the rest of the 21st Century.

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