How American history should be taught

The United States is an exceptional nation because American nationality is not based on race, religion, an ethnic culture or loyalty to a dynasty.  What unites us Americans as a nation are certain foundational ideas, and to a Constitution created to implement these ideas.

These ideas were set forth by the drafters of the Declaration of Independence, who said that —

Writing_the_Declaration_of_Independence_1776_cph.3g09904We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men [1] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness—That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed …

I think the best way to understand American history is to understand what led up to the writing of those words, and the consequences that followed.   The history of the United States is largely an argument over the meaning of those words, and the story of the struggles (not always successful) to live up to them.

The history of the United States, like the history of all nations, is a history of crimes and oppression as well as of glory and achievement.  There is nothing exceptional about that, and no reason to hide it.  What makes us exceptional is that we have created a benchmark by which we judge ourselves and by which others can fairly judge us.

Please don’t be hung up on the phrase “all men.”  The logic of the Declaration’s ideas meant that their application ceased, over time, to be limited to white male property-owners and came to apply to all human beings.   .

The Founders, of course, were very different from 21st century Americans.  They didn’t agree among themselves, some of them hated each other and they didn’t necessarily practice what they preached.  To be loyal to their spirit does not mean to try to recreate the USA as it was in George Washington’s administration.  It means to love liberty as the Founders did.

I don’t believe the teaching of American history should be indoctrination.  I don’t believe students should be required to profess belief in American ideals of freedom and democracy, or anything else, but I do believe they should have a concept of those ideals.  If we disagree on what these ideals are, then teach the controversy.

Because when we Americans cease to be a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal, when we cease to pledge allegiance to a republic with liberty and justice for all, then the United States of America ceases to longer a nation.  It becomes nothing more a labor force and a consumer market with an army.

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