All countries seek to inculcate their youth with values that reflect and enhance their national culture—sometimes with horrific results, such as the goose-stepping Hitler Youth or head-nodding madrassas in the Middle East. America used to welcome the contest of ideas against such closed autocracies—fighting not with their forced demonstrations and coerced sloganeering, but by teaching each generation the nature of elected government, the singularity of Western freedom, and the importance of consensual law. The idea of civic education was that to survive in an often hostile world as well as to keep our democracy vibrant, free Americans had not only to be materially successful but also had to learn in the very first years of school those self-evident truths on which our unique country rests—unlike almost all other nations, which are founded on a shared race, religion, or birthplace.
Going to school in multiracial rural California during the early 1960s, I did not merely hear about the checks and balances of the Constitution or learn a repertoire of patriotic songs and brief life stories of Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln. My classmates and I also developed a sense of American exceptionalism—a deep appreciation for just how distinctive the culture of the United States had proved to be over two centuries and more, and how it belonged to and benefited all of us. After the flag salute and the singing of “America the Beautiful” or “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” in our classroom decked with silhouette figures of Jefferson, the Wright brothers, and Teddy Roosevelt, as well as our own celebratory papier-mâché renditions of themes of the current American holidays, we took up group discussions about our own values and culture, the only common bonds among students who looked quite different from one another and spoke English with a variety of accents.
The Civil War? As fifth-graders we learned that thousands of Americans had died to end an evil institution that was as old as civilization itself. We all admired the romance and pluck of the South. We even drew the “Stars and Bars,” learned to sing “Dixie,” and talked about the Missouri Compromise. Nevertheless we all concluded that the Confederate cause, inseparable from slavery, was morally wrong and to be defeated, through bloodshed if need be.
Unions? Our seventh-grade history teacher sketched out in harrowing detail the struggles of the coal miners and steelworkers. He told us that in a free and capitalist society, the poor always had to organize to protect their rights against the powerful. Other mentors enlightened us pre-teens about the sometimes arduous ordeal of the immigrants—the Irish, the Jews, the Italians, the Chinese, the Mexicans—not to confirm that America was racist and oppressive, but to explain that because our homeland was more tolerant and more welcoming than other countries, more filled with opportunity and liberty, most of our parents and grandparents wanted to live here, and in turn had to take it upon themselves to improve what they found wanting. People, we learned, vote with their feet—and so for a reason had cast their lot to come here.
The class was about 65 percent Mexican-American, 10 percent Asian and African-American, the rest mostly poor rural white whose parents had fled the Dust Bowl. Yet I cannot recall a single reference by our teacher, a native Oklahoman, to race, class, or gender, which might so easily have divided us. Instead, we repeatedly heard that President Lincoln, Mark Twain, and John Henry belonged to a heritage we all shared—that we natives had no more claim on FDR or Guadalcanal than did the new arrivals from Oaxaca or the Punjab.
World War II? We reviewed the “Four Freedoms” to stress how we had no other choice but to destroy the Nazis and Japanese militarists before we could remake their misguided countries on principles similar to our own—which, being far more humane, would ensure that they did not revert to Auschwitz and the Rape of Nanking. The most recent immigrants from Mexico, the Philippines, and India often reminded us more complacent native students just how lucky we were to live in the United States. Even when impoverished newcomers identified with past victims of American intolerance, they still believed that they were beneficiaries of a system that could and would improve and thus always offer them more advantages than any alternative. A sense of humility and balance, achieved through comparison with contemporary societies elsewhere—and confidence in our values, measured against recognition of man’s innate weakness—framed all such debates about the American experience. Contrary to today’s popular mythology about our past, slavery and exploitation were not taboo subjects then. Yes, they were evils, we learned; but their amelioration exemplified the constant moral development that was possible and normal in a country like the United States.
The idea of citizenship itself? It went beyond having to be conversant with American history and values. We got marked on our report cards in something actually called “Citizenship.” It had nothing to do, as so often today, with putting in hours of “community service” at various approved social agencies. Our “Citizenship” grades instead measured how “orderly” we were in class; whether we addressed the teachers with the proper courtesy and deference; how well we helped to clean the campus each week; and how presentable our desks and lockers were—along with assessments of our “personal cleanliness and general neatness.” Writing in our textbooks or putting gum under our desks, we were told in first grade, were crimes against “next year’s class, who now will have to use the damaged articles you people left behind.” Not bathing, or wearing the same clothes for a week, were not signs of civil disobedience or unhappiness with mainstream culture but rather indictments of laziness and unconcern for students unfortunate enough to sit near you. Looking back, I don’t think we were being molded into automatons but rather prepared for self-reliance and for assuming the responsibility that the United States puts upon its freethinking people to decide themselves how civil, hygienic, or humane a society they want.
“It is your choice, and the country you get when you leave here is what you deserve,” we were often told. I suspect that our teachers felt civilization was a fragile thing, as if obscene speech in class and dirty bathrooms on campus, like some virus, could spread to the nearby town and by association become endemic in the country.
When we pushed into line at lunch or ignored trash on the basketball court, Mrs. Wilson wrote our names on her clipboard and told us sharply, “We are not a nation of boors.” She was no world traveler, but she sweepingly generalized that societies with disorderly public lines and trashy streets were unpleasant, depressing places inhabited by dependent, selfish, and ignorant people—nations deserving pity rather than respect. In contrast, proud citizens, who crafted their own laws and their own mores, naturally embodied their moral excellence in the physical world about them—heady aspirations for eight-year-olds in a rural central California of dollar-an-hour wages, occasional TB outbreaks, and still-common outhouses.
Guiding the whole enterprise of citizenship education at Jefferson grammar school in the late 1950s and early 1960s was a belief that the multiculti present would dismiss as hopelessly naive and backward. Our teachers believed, and strove to teach us, that virtue was not a relative concept to be defined by each individual or predicated on each student’s own particular environment and differing life experiences; rather it was a vital public concern, and it was more or less easily recognizable, unchanging, and absolute—something the schools, of course, could, and would, teach. But, then, this naive belief in unconditional and transcending values is the bedrock assumption of most great thinkers of the past three millennia.
The results of such a traditional early education—not just at Jefferson grammar school but at similar Washington and Lincoln grade schools all over the nation—were indisputable. Americans well before they got to college knew that their country was not merely different from others, but that it was clearly superior in its rare democratic government, tolerance for religious differences, spirit of liberty, and allowance for dissent. They had a bond, in other words, that transcended their race, parentage, and religion, and was much stronger and deeper than their shared attraction to the delights of popular American consumer culture. The confidence that sprang from such knowledge, tested by criticism and supported with facts, also gave citizens the ability to counter cheap anti-Americanism abroad, and here at home to create a real sense of national harmony.
Faced with the McCarthy era, Jim Crow, and discrimination against women, most Americans as late as the early sixties saw these sins as correctable flaws to be overcome with work and patience, rather than as insurmountable indictments of their society. As for fellow travelers and communist sympathizers, to the extent we rural students knew of them, we imagined them as simply stupid—mostly pampered elites who had not worked with their hands alongside the middling classes, and so knew little about the country about which they pontificated. Few of us who picked grapes—the local schools started a week late in the fall to allow for the raisin harvest—ever believed that there were better answers in other systems elsewhere. None who entered the schools without a word of English looked to Cuba for tolerance of dissent; no one in our multiracial dodgeball games thought China knew more about racial equity. Our female teachers and straight-A girl students did not seem to yearn for the gender parity of the Third World.
The victories of World War II, the reconstruction of Europe, the containment of communism, and the painful effort to ensure racial and sexual equality of opportunity here at home would have been impossible without a united America sure of what it was and aware of what it must do. Yet that self-confidence has largely vanished from our primary schools, and civic education has declined in tandem, as we sense from the national discourse since September 11. It is not just that millions of Americans do not fully understand the brilliantly crafted mechanics of their own government or the seminal events of their history—57 percent of American high school students are now deemed “not proficient” in basic history; worse, they have little idea of what it means to be an American.
Ask a high school student to define an “American”—you will be met either by silence or by cant: “diverse,” “multicultural,” “nonjudgmental,” allowing others “to do their own thing” or “just hang.” Or worse: “bully,” “exploiter,” “racist,” “imperialist.” Such confusion is more than mere intellectual incoherence. Youths who feel no national sense of who they are also lose a valuable spiritual element of social cohesion, which, along with familial and religious ties, encourages them to take emotional pride in their school, community, and country. More important still, they will enter college without either self- or national confidence—and thus ready to accept all the current untruths about the American experience so readily voiced by an often out-of-touch professorate.
After the terrible events of autumn, many Americans were confused about the proper reaction to September 11. I gave many lectures at universities during October and November and often came away depressed that too many in the audience had had no real civic education before college and thus had neither a grasp of the notion of “Western” nor even a vague idea of what “civilization” or “culture” in the most general sense entailed. One student shouted from the audience about American racism toward Arabs and denied my contention that thousands had arrived in America from the Middle East since September 11, while almost no Americans in the last nine months had chosen to emigrate to Egypt or the Gulf. Still other students insisted that onetime or rigged elections held by the Palestinian Authority and Iran were similar to our own, and that Americans had done to al-Qaida in Afghanistan something just as wrong as what al-Qaida had done to us at the World Trade Center.
But most sadly, few students seemed to express real visceral outrage that 3,000 of their fellow countrymen were vaporized on September 11. I asked one questioner if he was not livid that Middle Eastern terrorists violated our borders, invaded our country, butchered 3,000 of our fellow countrymen, and left in their wake lasting disruption of the lives of innocent Americans. That question prompted angry rants about the questioner’s preference for “world citizenship” and his fear of “saber rattling.” None of these privileged university students had ever had a Mrs. Wilson—or had been a part of a wondrous one-year transformation in first or second grade from a polyglot, multicultural classroom into an English-speaking, multiracial, and unified camaraderie.
How, then, can a nation struggle against enemies who do not tolerate dissent, do not allow freedom, when many of its own citizenry, especially in our schools, are not quite sure why or how we as a people are different and therefore can or should succeed? There is a reason, after all, why there is horrific racist imagery and language emanating from the Saudi state-run presses and not from the free media in the United States; why there is an open debate about our response to terror in a way impossible in a closed Egypt; and why we support a consensual democracy like Israel when strategically it perhaps makes more sense to placate or even ally ourselves with its more oil-rich and more populous enemies. Those critical issues of values and ideals that play out in diplomacy on the international scene should be second nature to every American. But sadly they often are not—and cannot be when so many of our youth have neither facts about nor confidence in their own American heritage.
Instead, many of our citizens seemed perplexed when they saw pictures of women being shot for adultery in Kabul or of Danny Pearl being filmed as he was tortured and beheaded—as if such barbarity were atypical or the work of an aberrant few sure to be redressed by responsible government. But did they first ask instead, “Do such peoples vote? Do they have an independent judiciary? Do they believe in the worth and dignity of every individual human life? Are their presses free and their media uncensored? Do they tolerate Christians, Jews, Africans, or Asians?” If we asked such questions, perhaps we would be less surprised at the carnage we witness worldwide—and more appreciative of, and thus willing to defend, our own quite singular country here at home.
Cataclysmic changes in our elite culture, especially at our top-tier universities, have filtered down to our schools to cause the erosion of civic education that we have seen over the last three decades. We have not yet seen all the pernicious ripples caused by the great splash of multiculturalism, authoritarian utopianism, and cultural and moral relativism—ideas that are antithetical to civic education, which historically has been national, realistic, and in some sense tragic in its acceptance of man’s imperfections, rather than therapeutic in its promise to ameliorate all human woes with enough money, education—and coercion.
These privileged concepts, spawned in our universities and spread by our elite media, our courts, and our politicians, finally have become the assumptions of our public schools, leaving us with the Balkan idea of a racial, cultural, and ideological mosaic rather than a confident American melting pot of shared values. In the process, the core of civic education—mastering the difficult story of the Western experience and Western values—was rejected as racist and sexist. And in its place arose a potpourri of “studies” courses designed to appeal to particular aggrieved minorities on the basis of group identities, not the intrinsic value of ideas—a value dismissed as chimerical. In the new orthodoxy, Aztecs and Zulus, as people of color, were as seminal thinkers as Aristotle and Zeno; the autocratic pharaohs were to be both black and the fountainhead of the Greeks; Toni Morrison spoke more to the contemporary student than did Shakespeare. In the bonfire of values and standards, rejected as tools of the privileged to marginalize the poor and weak and keep them in their places, all traditional distinctions of better and worse, higher and lower, went up in smoke. Academic standards fell, to ensure graduation and certification for as many as possible. A standard civility evaporated; in its place arose the lax idea that no one group’s behavior or particular culture was any more civil than another’s.
The arrogance of the Enlightenment, with its belief that an enthroned and all-knowing Reason could identify and eliminate all social pathologies, played a key, if paradoxical, role in what turned out to be a triumph of unreason and a devaluation of so much that human reason had accomplished over the centuries. In this spirit, because of the rapid material improvement in our daily lives through technological advances and the wonders of mass production, we assumed that the nature of man could similarly be altered in the proper way—albeit with commensurate effort and good intentions. The result was that if poverty or racial insensitivity still existed after such Herculean efforts at enlightened reform and trillions of dollars, then the United States—its values, its history, its institutions, its Constitution—must somehow be totally imperfect and should be condemned outright and drastically altered.
That new ideology of our universities was as negative for our youth as the old civic education had been positive—and our new sophists in the university taught it zealously to our prospective teachers, who passed it on to our public school students. As multiculturalism and relativism filtered down to the elementary grades, such ideas lost whatever urgency they might have had, of course, becoming empty and banal platitudes; “diversity” and “tolerance” degenerated into mere mantras and had as much resonance to their bored audience as the tired slogans in Orwell’s Animal Farm. Even so, the traditional ideals these clichés had replaced were dead and buried.
The Enlightenment cockiness and optimism that made our elites so impatient with the pace of social improvement—which by any historical measure was actually lightning-fast—also led opinion makers to abandon the old sense of the human precariousness that is characteristic in all civilizations, which, after all, are still made up of mere men and women. Rather than confessing that mankind by its very nature is prone to be murderous, larcenous, sexually predatory, and unjust—and that only liberal institutions, such as our own, can rein in such innate proclivities—we again demanded instantaneous perfection both from the present and the past. Slavery, which was not created in the West and exists today only in the non-West, was seen as a peculiarly American institution and proof of our betrayal of our professed ideals, rather than as an immemorial human vice that we dedicated ourselves to ending, even though it required the deaths of tens of thousands of non-slaveholding Americans.
The segregation and oppression of women—as we see today throughout the Islamic world—is a perennial vice common to men of all ages and locales. Yet our cultural mandarins have convinced many that the failure of America to give women the vote until the 1920s, or to grant them their share of tenured professorships and law-firm partnerships until the 1980s, is proof of a peculiarly American bias, rather than evidence of an ongoing humane process of overcoming traditional prejudice through civic efforts at reform. And because America especially has become so successful in providing freedom and material security to its citizens, its own expectations for social perfection have only accelerated—sometimes outpacing the ability of fragile and imperfect humans to meet them. The hearts of men, after all, are not as rapidly improved as the stereo systems and reclining seats in Detroit’s yearly new SUVs and minivans. In all the hurry, the old sense that Americans had a unique and very difficult mission to create a civil society from citizens of all races and backgrounds got left in the dust, and the new conventional wisdom insisted that, because we were not perfect, we are therefore a historically flawed people.
And so we began to tell a new story to ourselves. Even our elementary and high schools too often taught American history—to the small extent that they bothered to teach it at all—as a litany of crimes. The creation of a prosperous society in the unforgiving West by thousands of immigrants from Europe and Asia is overshadowed by the deliberate massacres of the American Indians—without the complexity of explaining that everything that makes life easier and more humane, from eyeglasses and habeas corpus to surgery and trial by jury, was part of the European, not the native-American, tradition; without the truth that native warriors killed one other relentlessly and without mercy well before the arrival of Americans in the West. The transformation of millions of indigent European Irish, Jews, and Italians into prosperous middle-class Americans in less than three generations is the great success story of nineteenth-century civilization, but one that our schools shoulder aside to harp on their miserable exploitation in mines and mills.
Today’s students know the Pilgrims not as the first of our many immigrants in search of religious freedom but as despoilers of the Indians—with whom in fact they lived in remarkable harmony, as we commemorate on Thanksgiving. They accept Washington and Jefferson as slaveholders rather than as lawgivers of genius. They know nothing of Monte Casino, Tarawa, or thousands of B-17s plummeting in flames over Berlin—but quite a lot about the Japanese internment and Hiroshima. The Rape of Nanking, the Bataan Death March, and the bloody nature of Japanese militarism have somehow become the moral equivalent of GIs hating “Japs” and waging a “race war” in the Pacific. But if our complex history is to be deemed so toxic, then young students must wonder why anyone should now defend America at all in its hour of need—and why so many, now or in the past, risked their lives to come here.
The elite culture’s radical revision of our national story and our sense of ourselves as Americans was part of a larger cultural transformation that also completely remade the schools’ teaching of that other large element of civic education—the “Citizenship” we used to get marked on. Four decades ago, the grandees of our culture came to view the virtues that our Founding Fathers had considered essential to the self-governing citizens of a republic as outworn and oppressive. In the “if-it-feels-good-do-it” era, the self-controlled, civic-minded, temperate, and courteous self lost its force as a personal ideal that was so critical to the well-being of others. Henceforth, the true moral persona became the expressive, “authentic” self that was in touch with its inner energies and acted upon them in the most selfish of ways—that let it all hang out regardless of the foolishness and damage that accompanied such an absence of carefully learned cultural restraint.
Civility, dismissed as mere conventionality, became something that people needed to be liberated from: it was an artifact of the 1950s, an era supposedly repressed in sexual matters and in turn repressive in its treatment of minorities, women, and youth. All the proprieties of the ages were reinterpreted as tools for continually reminding women that they were the weaker sex, and blacks and the poor that they were inferiors, who were to stay in their places—where young people were also supposed to remain, voiceless and impotent. In the new cultural order—I witnessed it firsthand at the University of California, Santa Cruz, in 1971, a few months after graduating from a rural high school in central California—the young announced that they had acquired as much (and probably more) wisdom as their elders. Students of 20 assumed that they owed no deference to the adult world and its values—the world that had survived the Depression and Normandy Beach—and indeed that they ought to set the moral tone for an older generation, rather than vice versa.
The idea of multiculturalism, as it took hold, accepted the manners of the underclass—or no manners at all—as no less valid than traditional mainstream protocols, and young people’s behavior changed accordingly. That pernicious legacy endures: at a recent lecture at Berkeley I noticed that the campus plazas, benches, tables, classrooms, and bathrooms—the multimillion-dollar academic landscape of California’s elite students—were all far dirtier and more unsanitary than the meager classroom and splintered lunch tables that we had once used as children at Jefferson elementary school, among an impoverished, mostly nonwhite student body. Somehow the supposed catalysts for civil behavior—wealth, age, education, and urbanity—now operate in reverse.
The classical idea of civic virtue—the adult citizen accepts responsibilities in exchange for carefully delineated rights—is all but gone. In its place, the new dispensation defined every person (including every young person) as, foremost, a rights-bearing individual rather than a citizen with obligations inseparable from his privileges; thus the era of “citizenship” education truly came to an end, and accordingly the “citizenship” categories had to disappear from the report cards of the nation’s elementary schools. The pupil-citizen no longer was obliged to keep his desk clean for others or to accord his teachers courtesy, but instead sometimes sued to be allowed to wear an obscene T-shirt to school or to demand due process when disciplined for plagiarism, dishonesty, or hooliganism. Who now could even imagine giving a grade in “courtesy” or “civility” to a high schooler in a T-shirt emblazoned pimp? What can one learn of citizenship at schools whose administrators, embracing moral equivalence, suspend bullies and their victims alike when fisticuffs break out?
It is also hard to demand citizenship from kids when parents and teachers often fail to show much evidence of it themselves. Without intellectual or moral authority, teachers seek instead acceptability and friendship at the lowest common denominator, and so often have begun to resemble their students in mind and appearance. Here in California we now at last must insist on dress codes for our pedagogues in order to discourage various body rings, male peroxide hair dyes, and sexually provocative fashions. Old-fashioned teachers who insist on punishing plagiarism and intellectual theft often get no support from their superintendents but plenty of abuse and calumny from parents—witness the recent widely publicized scandal at a Piper, Kansas, high school, where school authorities made the teacher who caught 28 plagiarists lighten their punishment. And former students at an East Palo Alto elementary school recently reported that their teachers helped them cheat on standardized tests—under pressure, a former teacher says, from administrators.
Even school sports have lost their once powerful civic education component. We have abandoned an entire nomenclature of civic sportsmanship—“teamwork,” “unselfish,” and “sacrifice”—to describe the ethics of team sports, which once were about social responsibility as well as individual prowess. Our coaches assumed that the best team would be composed of those kids who learned to work in cohesion, the gifted athletes together with those valuable for their “guts” and “hustle.” Coaches used a creative negative vocabulary—“showboating” and “dirty play,” for instance—to describe stars who failed to honor the ethic of sportsmanship. Today, team competition is geared to the accomplishment of superstars, who more often deliberately use the contest to showcase their own talents—and so enhance their future earnings.
Restoring civic education—from the daily practice of its rituals to real mastery of the elements of Americanism—will not be easy, but such a shared sense of values is critical in such a vast nation that is otherwise not defined by a shared religion, common race, or dominant ethnic affiliation. After September 11, most Americans, in their slogans, flags, and posters, yearned for greater accord: “United We Stand” and “One from Many,” read some of the ad hoc banners. We are coming to realize that we cannot survive as a nation under today’s pernicious conventional wisdom of division and separatist cultural protocols—ideas based on misconceptions and outright untruths about the American past. Even the most jaded among us is beginning to sense that al-Qaida hates Asian, Hispanic, black, and white Americans alike—our women as much as, or more than, our men; Catholics, atheists, Protestants, agnostics, Jews, Buddhists, and Sikhs as infidels all. Our enemies see us as one united people even where we ourselves do not. And we are slowly re-learning the age-old lessons of war, that the spiritual is far more important than the material: that all the F-16s in the world will not guarantee us victory unless our pilots who fly them, mechanics who service them, and taxpayers who pay for them feel that they are shooting, repairing, and working for the preservation of their own common civilization that must not fall prey to barbarism.
Now it is the duty of teachers to harness this natural energy of coalescence into something better. They must transform our natural comfort with uniform and inclusive tastes in food, entertainment, and fashion into a finer and more exalted sense of national purpose and heritage—an informed and heartfelt civic virtue that transcends Taco Bell, Oprah, Britney Spears, and Star Wars.
This originally appeared in the Summer 2002 version of City Journal.