Article published in The Fredericksburg (VA) Free Lance-Star
George Washington warned the young Republic against entering into “entangling alliances.” Dwight Eisenhower sounded an alarm about the potential influence of a “military-industrial complex.”
Warnings in presidential farewells have become something of an American tradition. In his farewell address, delivered to the nation on January 11, 1989 after eight years in office, Ronald Reagan also delivered a somber warning.
Because of the eloquence and characteristic optimism of the address, the Reagan warning has not been emblazoned on the national consciousness. It should be. It is more timely now than ever.
President Reagan was proud of the resurgence of national pride that occurred on his watch, something he called “the new patriotism.” However, he was worried that it could be short-lived.
“This national feeling is good, but it won’t count for much, and it won’t last,” he said, “unless it’s grounded in thoughtfulness and knowledge.”
A believer in local control of education, Reagan was worried that the teaching of United States history was going into irreversible decline.
His words of warning have a chilling ring now that we know the memory-robber called Alzheimer’s was about to mar the final 10 years of his life. But his warning was not to his own family, but to citizens of his beloved country:
“If we forget what we did, we won’t know who we are,” said Reagan. “I am warning of an eradication of the American memory that could result, ultimately, in an erosion of the American spirit.”
Reagan said the objective should be “an informed patriotism.” He asked: “Are we doing a good enough job teaching our children what America is and what she represents in the long history of the world?”
As Memorial Day weekend began, with its dedication of the National World War II Memorial on the Mall, The Washington Post published a remarkable story by education writer Jay Mathews that suggests the answer to Reagan’s question is “no.”
On the basis of extensive interviews with students and teachers, Mathews found that today’s high school students commonly receive high grades for their history courses without knowing what year World War II ended, or being able to name a single battle or General, or even being able to identify the country’s wartime Presidents – FDR and Harry Truman.
What the students do know in great detail, Mathews found, is the sad story of the internment of Japanese-American families on the West Coast. They also know about “Rosie the Riveter,” the symbol of American women in the wartime workforce. They can discuss discrimination against African-Americans in the armed services and back home.
Although the Post story didn’t say so, the student knowledge gap was very much in keeping with the multicultural ideology that has taken hold widely in U.S. education. Its advocates contend that the “multiple perspectives” of once-oppressed minorities should be the focus of instruction, not the story of national objectives (such as the defeat of fascism) being pursued.
So the lessons of Pearl Harbor, the sacrificial heroism of D-Day, the leadership of Generals from George Patton to George C. Marshall, and other relevant details from The Greatest Generation are ignored. The most radical multiculturalists believe that oppression defines America from Day One to the present. Never mind the millions of people America has freed from tyranny.
Ronald Reagan declared that “we’ve got to teach history based not on what’s in fashion but what’s important: Why the Pilgrims came here, who Jimmy Doolittle was, and what those 30 seconds over Tokyo meant.”
In his 1989 farewell, he recalled that four years earlier, on the 40th anniversary of D-Day, he’d read a letter from a young woman, Lisa Zanatta Henn, writing of her late father, who had fought on Omaha Beach. She wrote: “We will always remember, we will never forget what the boys of Normandy did.”
Urging that Americans help her keep her word, Reagan then delivered the poignant line, “If we forget what we did, we won’t know who we are.”
Was the Great Communicator implying we should remember only the good that America has done? Of course not. After all, he called for an “informed” patriotism. That means the country should learn from shameful episodes in its history such as the Japanese-American internment, the treatment of the Cherokees, the limitations imposed on women, and of course the stain of slavery.
But the real story of America is about its people constantly striving to secure the blessings of liberty for all. Ronald Reagan wanted us to consider the big picture. Now is a good time to take his message to heart.
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