Speeches & Floor Statements

Remarks of Sen. Alexander - American History And Civics Education Act Of 2003

Posted on June 19, 2003

Mr. President, this week there was a great celebration of National History Day. There were high school students from all over the country in our offices and at the University of Maryland. Last Friday, when I was sitting where the distinguished Senator from Minnesota now sits, presiding over the Senate, I had the privilege of hearing Senator Byrd deliver an address about Flag Day. Since 9/11, President Bush has spoken more regularly about the American character. Suddenly, in our country there is a lot of interest in what it means to be an American. In the mid-1990s, I read a book by Samuel Huntington, a professor at Harvard, called "Clash of Civilizations." A lot of people read that book in terms of understanding in what conflicts the United States, the West, might find in future years. But I read it for a different reason. It made me think that if the new world order was to be a group of civilizations whose differences began with their cultures, their religions, and a variety of other things that made them unique—it made me think if we were moving into that kind of an era, then maybe we ought to have a better understanding of just what made our culture unique. What did it mean to be an American? I was invited to hold a professorship at Harvard University and taught in the John F. Kennedy School of Government there. And the course I taught was on the American character and on American Government. In that course, the graduate students applied the great principles which unite us as a country to the great controversies which we in the Senate debate - about race-based scholarships, about military tribunals, about faith-based institutions - and the conflicts of those principles. The students were fascinated by that. And then suddenly I found myself, last year, in a Senate race that I did not expect to be in. And like most candidates for the Senate, as the Chair well knows, I spoke about a number of different things. Sometimes I spoke about our colleagues on the other side of the aisle. Sometimes I spoke about taxes, about judges, about education. But, Mr. President, there was one sentence I could say during that campaign to any audience, anywhere in my State of Tennessee, that brought the greatest response. I could barely get it out of my mouth before there would be some response from the audience - of heads nodding or some kind of applause - and it was this sentence: It is time to put the teaching of American history and civics back in its rightful place in our schools so our children can grow up learning what it means to be an American. That is why today I stand before you to support S. 504, the American History and Civics Education Act of 2003, which we will be voting on in the morning as the first order of business. It will help put the teaching of American history and civics back in its rightful place in our schools. It will set up summer residential academies for students and teachers: 2-week academies for teachers - say, at a university - and 4-week academies for students of American history and civics . And it would join the variety of efforts that the President and this Congress on both sides of the aisle have been acting upon with increasing frequency to underscore American history . It is modeled after the Governor's Schools which exist in the State of Tennessee and many other States across this country. And it is premised on the idea that if 200 teachers go to the University of Tennessee or a university in Nevada or a university in California, and spend 2 weeks with outstanding leaders, talking about the great principles and the great stories and the key events of our history , that they will be inspired to do an even better job of teaching that during the next year to their students. I introduced this bill and support it on behalf of 36 Senators, including the Democratic whip, who is the chief cosponsor, and has been from the very first day of its introduction, which I, as a new Senator, greatly appreciate. It also includes Republican and Democratic leaders whom I will mention in just a moment: The majority leader; Senator Gregg, the chairman of the relevant committee; Senator Burns, the chairman of the relevant Appropriations subcommittee; Senator Kennedy, the ranking member of our committee; and Senator Byrd, who has been a pioneer in supporting this kind of legislation. Mr. President, we need this bill, and we need additional attention to American history because, first, when our values are under attack, we need to understand clearly what those values are. And, second, we should understand what unites us as Americans. Our diversity and variety in this country is an enormous strength. It is a tremendous strength. We are a nation of immigrants with people from everywhere, but our greater strength - our greatest accomplishment - is we have been able to take all of that variety and diversity and turn it into one country - "e pluribus unum." We need to understand what those values are. And we need to put into context the terror of the time. I have heard a great many people on television say these are the most dangerous times our country has ever faced. Well, only if you have never had 1 minute of American history would you believe that. We need for our young people to know that there have been struggles from the very beginning. But our young people do not know the story of this country as well as they should. Too many of our children do not know what makes America exceptional. National exams show that three-quarters of our fourth, eighth, and twelfth graders are not proficient in civics knowledge, and one-third do not even have basic knowledge, making them civics illiterates. Until the 1960s, civics education, which teaches the duties of citizenship, was a regular part of almost every high school's curriculum. But today's college graduates probably have less civic knowledge than high school graduates of 50 years ago. Reforms have resulted in the widespread elimination of required classes and curricula in civics education. Today, more than half the States have no requirements for students to take a course even for one semester in American government. That is not the way it has always been. From the beginning of our Nation, we have generally understood what it means to be an American, and that has been a preoccupation of Americans: Think of our Founders, writing those letters, holding those debates, making sure we knew what it meant to be an American; Thomas Jefferson in his retirement years in Monticello taking his guests through his home and pointing to portraits on the wall of the leaders from whom he had gotten many of his ideas so they would understand what he had in mind when he helped create this country. When we had a huge wave of immigration more than a century ago, just as we do today, our national response was to teach new Americans what it means to be an American. Because you don't become an American by your color or by your ethnicity or by being born here. You become one because you believe a few things. If you move to Japan, you don't become Japanese. If you move to France, you don't become French. If you move to America and want to be a citizen, you must become an American. That is the way our country works. We created the common school, today's public schools, to teach reading, writing, and arithmetic to immigrant children as well as what it means to be an American, with the hope that they might go home and teach their parents. That was what Albert Shanker, former president of the American Federation of Teachers, said about the creation of common schools. Then of course in World War II, President Roosevelt made sure that every GI who stormed the beaches at Normandy understood what the four freedoms are. We have not always been complete in our understanding of what it means to be an American. Sometimes we have gone to excess. We didn't teach the stories of African Americans well. We undervalued the contribution of the Spanish to our culture. And in the 1950s, we were embarrassed, as we look back, by McCarthyism. But that is no excuse for what is going on today: dropping civics, squeezing American history out of the curricula, and when it is in, it is watered down. Too often the textbooks are so dull, that nobody would want to study them. All the talk is about victims and never about the heroes. The schools have become politically correct. The teachers are reluctant to teach the great controversies. But what is American history if it is not the story of great controversies and great conflicts of principles and great disappointments with not reaching our great dreams and great stories and great heroic efforts? Our students need to know that Kunta Kinte came to this country in the belly of a slave ship and that his seventh generation grandson, Alex Haley, wrote the story of Roots about the struggle for equality and freedom. They need to know that Thomas Jefferson owned slaves and that he wrote the Declaration of Independence, as it is taught at the Ben Hooks Center at the University of Memphis. We are a work in progress. We have never been perfect. They need to know about the Pilgrims who were Christians, and they need to know about the Presbyterians, my ancestors, the Scotch Irish who fought a Revolutionary War because they were tired of paying taxes to support the bishop of a church to which they didn't belong. They need to know about the religious character of our country and about the importance of the separation of church and state. They need to know about our love of liberty and about the incarceration of Japanese Americans in World War II. The response to putting the teaching of American history and civics back in its rightful place in our schools has been overwhelming. Not just the Democratic whip, Mr. Reid, has sponsored this, but 36 Senators from both sides of the aisle, leaders of both sides. And in the House of Representatives, Roger Wicker of Mississippi is the lead sponsor of the same bill. He called tonight and said they have 160 sponsors in the House, Democratic and Republican leaders. I offer my special thanks to a few Senators in addition to Mr. Wicker for his leadership. To Senator Frist, the majority leader, for scheduling the bill in the midst of a lot of other important business and for cosponsoring it. To Senator Gregg, chairman of our committee, for moving it through. Especially to Senator Reid, for his understanding of American history, his leadership, his being here tonight, and his serving as the principal cosponsor of the legislation. To Senator Kennedy, who has gone out of his way not just to support the bill but to attract other co-sponsors. He has had a long interest in this subject. To Senator Burns, on the Appropriations Committee, for his strong support. And to Senator Byrd, who took the time to come to the hearing and to testify. Senator Byrd is, of course, the author of the Byrd grants which are already being used in many of our schools. The kind of American history we are talking about is the traditional kind, the study of the key persons, the key events, the key ideas, and the key documents that shape the institutions and democratic heritage of the United States of America. We spell out in our legislation that by key documents, we mean the Constitution and its amendments, and the Declaration of Independence, for example. By key events, we mean the encounter of Native Americans with European settlers and the Civil War and the civil rights movement and the wars. By key ideas, we mean the principles that we almost all agree on in this body: Liberty, equal opportunity, individualism, laissez-faire, the rule of law, federalism, e pluribus unum, the free exercise of religion, the separation of church and state, a belief in progress. We agree on those principles. Our politics is about applying those principles. That is what our politics is about. The key persons, the heroes, the men and women of this country from its founding until today, the scientists, inventors, pioneers, the advocates of equal rights, and artists who have made this United States of America. There are a great many efforts heading in the same direction. This is only one part. The President's efforts, the Library of Congress' efforts, the Byrd grants, the James Madison study, the National Endowment for Humanities which would award these to residential academies, to educational institutions, and nonprofit organizations. All are working hard in this way. We are adding to that. In conclusion, I will mention two things. I was in a Foreign Relations Committee hearing the other day. We were talking about what we might expect with the reconstruction of Iraq. One witness said that we would be fortunate in our nation building there if the three grand divisions of Iraq, the Kurds, the Sunnis, and the Shiites, the geographical areas, could agree on two things: One would be how to split up the oil money, and two would be on a federation that would basically keep them safe and independent in their own areas. And maybe we would have some semblance of democracy so they could choose their leaders. I was thinking about how much we take for granted, how much more we are able to look forward to. There is no chance in Iraq of e pluribus unum, not for the foreseeable future. There is no general agreement on those principles I just read. We have a marvelous country and a great story. We should be teaching it. The last thing I would like to say is the first thing I mentioned: We need to put the terror in which we find ourselves today in context. Those who say this is the most dangerous time in our history have had no American history . What about the Pilgrims who died in the first winter? What about the soldiers at Valley Forge who walked across the ice with their bare feet? What about the Native Americans and the European settlers killing each other's children? That was terror. What about the African Americans who came in the slave ships? What about the brothers who killed each other in the Civil War? What about the millions who stood in line in the Depression? What about in the 1950s and 1960s, when we all stood within 30 minutes of a nuclear missile from the Soviet Union? We have had greater terrors face the United States. This is a time of struggle. It is a time when we should stop and think about what it means to be an American so that we can teach our children and so that we can continue our country.