Speeches & Floor Statements
Posted on September 8, 2011
I wish to turn my attention to a different subject. September 11 is Sunday. I listened carefully, as most of us in the Senate do, to words that seem to resonate with my audiences. I have consistently found there is one sentence that I usually cannot finish without the audience interrupting me before breaking into applause, and it is this: "It is time to put the teaching of American history and civics back into its rightful place in our schools so our children can grow up learning what it means to be an American."
The terrorists who attacked us on September 11 were not just lashing out at buildings and people. They were attacking who we are as Americans. Most Americans know this, and that is why there has been a national hunger for leadership and discussion about our values. Parents know our children are not being taught our common culture and our shared values.
National tests show that three-fourths of the Nation's 4th, 8th, and 12th graders are not proficient in civics knowledge, and one-third don't even have basic knowledge, making them civic illiterates. That is why I made making American history and civics the subject of my maiden speech when I first came to the Senate in 2003, and by a vote of 90 to 0 the Senate passed my bill to create summer residential academies for outstanding teachers of American history and civics. Every year I bring them on the Senate floor, and those teachers from all over our country have a moment to think about this Senate. They usually go find a desk of the Senator from Alaska, if they are an Alaskan teacher, or the Senator from Tennessee, or Daniel Webster's desk, or Jefferson Davis's desk, and they stop and think about our country in a special way.
The purpose of those teachers is better teaching, and the purpose of the academy is more learning of key events, key persons, key ideas, and key documents that shape the institutions of the democratic heritage of the United States.
If I were teaching about September 11, these are some of the issues I would ask my students to consider. No. 1, is September 11 the worst thing that ever happened to the United States? Of course the answer is no, but I am surprised by the number of people who say yes. It saddens me to realize that those who make such statements were never properly taught about American history. Many doubted that we 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, with brother fighting against brother. The list goes on. Children should know why we made those sacrifices and fought for the values that make us exceptional.
The second question I would talk about is, What makes America exceptional? I began the first session of a course I taught at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government 10 or 11 years ago by making a list of 100 ways America is exceptional, unique -- not always better but unique. America's exceptionalism has been a source of fascination ever since Tocqueville's trip across America in 1830 when he met Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie on the Mississippi River. His book, "Democracy in America," is the best description of America's unique ideals in action. Another outstanding text is "American Exceptionalism" by Seymour Martin Lipset.
A third question I ask my students is, Why is it you cannot become Japanese or French, but you must become an American? If I were to immigrate to Japan, I could not become Japanese. I would always be an American living in Japan. But if a Japanese citizen came here, they could become an American, and we would welcome that person with open arms. Why? It is because our identity is not based on ethnicity but on a creed of ideas and values in which most of us believe.
The story of Richard Hofstadter wrote:
It is our fate as a Nation not to have ideologies, but to be one.
To become American citizens immigrants must take a test demonstrating their knowledge of American history and civics.
Fourth, what are the principles that unite us as Americans? In Thanksgiving remarks after the September 11 attacks, President George W. Bush praised our Nation's response to terror. "I call it the American character," he said.
Former Vice President Gore, in his speech after the attacks, said:
We should fight for the values that bind us together as a country.
In my Harvard course that I mentioned, we put together a list of some of those values: liberty, e. pluribus unum, equal opportunity, individualism, rule of law, free exercise of religion, separation of church and state, laissez-faire, and the belief in progress, the idea that anyone can do anything. Anything is possible if we agree on those principles.
I would say to my students, Why is there so much division in American politics? Just because we agree on the values doesn't mean we agree on how to apply those values. Most of our politics, in fact, is about the hard work of applying those principles to our everyday lives. When we do, we often conflict.
For example, when discussing President Bush's proposals to let the Federal Government fund faith-based charities, we know, in God we trust -- we have it here in the Senate -- but we also know we don't trust government with God. When considering whether the Federal Government should pay for scholarships that middle- and low-income families might use at any accredited school -- public, private, or religious -- some object that the principle of equal opportunity can conflict with the principle of separation of church and state.
What does it mean to be an American? After September 11, I proposed an idea I call Pledge Plus Three. Why not start each school day with the Pledge of Allegiance -- as many schools still do -- and then ask a teacher or a student to take 3 minutes to explain what it means to be an American. I would bet the best 3-minute statements of what it means to be an American would come from the newest Americans. At least that was the case with my university students. The newest Americans appreciated this country the most and could talk about it the best.
Ask students to stand and raise their right hands and recite the oath of allegiance just as immigrants do when they become American citizens. This is an oath that goes all the way back to the days of George Washington and Valley Forge. It reads like it was written in a tavern by a bunch of patriots in Williamsburg late one night. I recited this with my right hand up during a speech I recently gave on my American history and civics bill. It is quite a weighty thing and startles the audience to say:
I absolutely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty [and agree to] bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law.
The oath to become an American taken by George Washington and his men and now taken today in courthouses all across America is a solemn, weighty matter. Our history is a struggle to live up to the ideas that have united us and that have defined us from the very beginning, the principles of what we call the American character. If that is what students are taught about September 11, they will not only become better informed, they will strengthen our country for generations to come.
I yield the floor and note the absence of a quorum.