Speeches & Floor Statements
Posted on March 3, 2004
Mr. President, over the weekend the United States lost one of its great teachers of what it means to be an American. Daniel Boorstin died at the age of 89. He had served as librarian of Congress and director of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Science and Technology. Daniel Boorstin's books about the American experience earned a Pulitzer Prize in 1974. He believed that America's success came largely because we have been free from the "virus of ideology," free to be flexible and responsive, "free to take clues from the delightful, unexplored and an uncongested world around us." Free from ideology, being an American became its own ideology. Boorstin celebrated Americans for always trying the new. He believed that we have been at our best when we have been "on the verge," encountering new territory - whether it was creating new schools, new crops, new planting techniques, new towns, a new form of English language, new technologies, new cars and trains or John Winthrop's new City on the Hill. He observed that during these encounters with new circumstances, we have been more aware of our American- ness, that our appetite for the new has been whetted, and that we have leaned for support on one another - often organizing new forms of communities to deal with new circumstances. Boorstin believed that America works community by community. He argued that the prototype early American was not the solitary trailblazer but a wagon train community. Despite his erudition and his Pulitzer, Dr. Boorstin was not especially popular with professional historians. Perhaps it was because he was such a booster, as have been most Americans. Perhaps it was because he contented himself with being an "amateur" historian, not shackled by the ruts along which professionals often trudge. Or, perhaps it was because he was a member of a diminishing band of public figures -Senator Pat Moynihan and American Federation of Teachers President Albert Shanker were two others - who believed passionately in American exceptionalism. A growing number of history professionals today reject this idea of exceptionalism. To them, our country is fortunate, rich and large, but not more exceptional than many other countries. These professionals prefer social studies to U.S. History. They take snapshots of our national experience instead of teaching the steady drumbeat of a work in progress toward grand goals. In their enthusiasm for overlooked victims, they themselves overlook heroes. Because of their growing influence we now find American history courses watered down, the great controversies of race and religion "sensitized" from textbooks. Civics is often dropped entirely from the curriculum. As one result, our high school seniors score worse on U.S. history tests than on any other subject. Daniel Boorstin's writings have reminded us of what is truly exceptional about America, warts and all. He emphasized that our greatest accomplishment is that, more than any other country, we have united people from everywhere into a single nation, united by beliefs in a few principles rather than by race, creed and color. He taught that we may be proud of where we came from, but should be prouder to be Americans. He left us one other very special insight. In an essay written in 1962, Dr. Boorstin foresaw that television would create a world in which we would have a hard time telling the difference between heroes - those worth paying attention to because we might learn from their nobility - and celebrities who are "famous primarily for being famous." He invented the term pseudo event, which most of us will recognize as today's photo opportunity. My favorite of Daniel's Boorstin's books was not his Pulitzer winner. It was the Discoverers, a stream of stories about men and women in history who challenged dogma and created a better life for mankind. As we are poised on yet another verge in our national experience, we would do well to remember Dr. Boorstin's advice about what has served us well before: be more aware of our Americanness, whet our appetites for the new, and form new communities so that we might rely better on one another as we deal with changing circumstances.