Learning What It Means to be American

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Peter Schramm, the late Professor of Political Science at Ashland University, used to tell a moving story about his immigration to the United States. As a child fleeing communist-occupied Hungary, he asked his father where the family would go. “We are going to America,” his father replied. “Why America?” Peter asked. “Because, son,” his father answered, “we were born Americans, but in the wrong place.”

Peter’s father understood something profound. Being American is about more than where we live. It’s about the ideas that live in our minds and in our hearts. And these ideas are available to everyone — regardless of race, class, or place of birth. Whether we are born here or we come here, we learn what it means to be American. Our Declaration of Independence states that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” To be American is to affirm these fundamental ideals.

Of course, this means that being American requires us to know something. It requires us to learn about our country’s founding principles and our Founding Fathers. And it requires us to appreciate how these principles and the Founders’ ideas have contributed to keeping Americans free.

Unfortunately, however, we have been doing a poor job of passing on our history to new generations. As a result, our children are failing to learn what it really means to be American.

Instead of teaching young people the essentials of American history, we’ve been teaching our children revisionist or politically correct history that encourages them to doubt the very things that make us American. Some academic elites have promoted the idea that our Founding Fathers risked their lives out of greed or self-interest, and that they intended our interpretation of the Constitution to “evolve” over time.

As a result of this failure to teach the truth about our history, we are beginning to see our nation’s memory of the past slip away — especially the values and principles for which our founders actually fought.

Recent results of a Department of Education National Assessment of Educational Progress survey suggest how great a challenge we face in correcting this problem. Just 20 percent of fourth-graders, 17 percent of eighth-graders and 12 percent of twelfth-graders are at grade-level proficiency in American history.

Only one in three fourth-graders can identify the purpose of the Declaration of Independence. Fewer than half understand why George Washington was an important leader in American history. And most fourth-graders don’t know why the Pilgrims left England.

These are alarming findings. They suggest that we’re letting our shared understanding of what it means to be American disappear. They also suggest that educating young people about our nation’s past is an urgent task for all of us who care about our future.

The effort to educate our young must begin with working to emphasize American history in our schools, since this is where most children form their ideas about our past. But if the numbers we see in test results tell us anything, it is that we can no longer trust American history education to our schools alone. Each of us has a responsibility to pass on stories about our country’s past to the young people in our lives.

It is in this spirit that I have written a series of bestselling children’s books to help young people learn American history with Ellis the Elephant. Ellis learns about Colonial America, witnesses the birth of our nation with the Founding Fathers, explores the West with Lewis and Clark, and much more. In my latest book, Christmas in America, Ellis discovers the joy of Christmas and how this special holiday has been celebrated throughout our nation’s history.

Visits to historic sites like George Washington’s home at Mount Vernon or Independence Hall in Philadelphia are also wonderful ways to inspire a love for American history. And of course, interactive online courses, television programs like Liberty’s Kids, and educational games like Oregon Trail can teach important history lessons, too.

Each of us is incredibly blessed to live in the United States, whether we were born here or came here from somewhere else. But being American is about more than this. It’s about sharing in the revolutionary ideals that have shaped our country and the world for more than two centuries. Preserving that extraordinary heritage for future generations is one of our most important tasks.