Tennessean: Op-ed by Sen. Lamar Alexander: Sept. 11 demands grasp of American values

Posted on September 9, 2011

Shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, during my campaign for the Senate, I listened for the words that seemed to resonate most with Tennesseans and found there was one sentence I could not finish without being interrupted by applause: “It is time to put the teaching of American history and civics back in its rightful place in our schools so our children grow up learning what it means to be an American.”

The terrorists who attacked us on Sept. 11 weren’t just lashing out at people — they were attacking who we are as Americans. That’s why there has been a national hunger for leadership and discussion of our values. Parents know children are not being taught our shared culture and values. Tests show a third of fourth-, eighth- and 12th-graders lack basic civics knowledge.

That’s why I made my first Senate speech and bill about strengthening teaching of American history and civics. If I were teaching a class about 9/11, here is what I would ask my students:

Is Sept. 11 the worst thing to happen to the U.S.? No, but I’m surprised how many say yes, because they weren’t taught the history of our country. Many doubted America would win the Revolutionary War. The British sacked Washington and burned the White House to the ground in the War of 1812. In the Civil War, we lost more Americans than in any other conflict. The list goes on. Children should know why we made those sacrifices.

What principles unite us? In a course I taught at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, we put together a list: liberty, “e pluribus unum,” equal opportunity, individualism, rule of law, free exercise of religion, separation of church and state, laissez-faire and a belief in progress.

What makes America exceptional? I began that Harvard course by making a list of 100 ways it differs from other countries — not always better, but unique. America’s exceptionalism has been a source of fascination since de Tocqueville’s trip across America in 1830. His book, Democracy in America, is still the best description of America’s ideals in action.

Why is it you can’t become Japanese or French, but you must become American? If I emigrated to Japan, I couldn’t become Japanese; I would be an American living in Japan. But if a Japanese citizen moved here, he could become an American, and we would welcome him with open arms. Why? Because our identity is based not on ethnicity but on the ideas and values in which most Americans believe.

If we agree on these principles, why is there so much division? Just because we agree on these values doesn’t mean that we agree on their application. Most of our politics is about the hard work of applying these principles to our everyday lives. When we do, they often conflict.

What does it mean to you to be an American? After Sept. 11, I proposed an idea I call the “Pledge Plus Three.” Why not start each school day with the Pledge of Allegiance, followed by a teacher or student sharing for three minutes “what it means to be an American”?

Ask students to stand, raise their hand, and recite the Oath of Allegiance, as immigrants do when they become U.S. citizens. It’s quite a weighty thing to “absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty” and to agree to “bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law.”

Our history is the struggle to live up to the ideals that have united and defined us from the beginning, the principles of the American character. If that is what students are taught about Sept. 11, they will strengthen our country for generations to come.