Can We Keep Our Republic?
According to legend, a lady stopped Benjamin Franklin as the Framers
of our Constitution emerged from their deliberations. "What
kind of a country have you given us?" the lady inquired. "A
republic, Madame, if you can keep it," came the reply.
You might ask seniors of our top colleges in vain about the country
given to us by the Founding Fathers. On June 27, Senator Joseph
Lieberman (D-Conn.) informed a small gathering of the Washington
Press Corps about the disastrous state of history teaching in today's
America. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni commissioned
a simple, basic quiz consisting of questions normally asked of high
school students. Not even a quarter of those about to graduate from
great liberal arts colleges like Amherst and Williams, or from world-famous
universities such as Harvard and Duke, passed the test.
Flanked by historians, Senator Lieberman spoke eloquently about
"what moved a determined band of patriots to lay down all for
liberty." Alas, he also pointed to the Capitol behind him,
and referred to it as "this great symbol of our Democracy."
References to the United States of America as a "democracy"
have been symptomatic of the gradual, systematic distortion of past
and present, if Benjamin Franklin is to be believed. There are fundamental
differences between a representative republic and a democracy. By
and large, democracy means universal suffrage and free elections.
There are many such countries.
There is but one United States of America and no other country
even comes close.
Ours is a complex, highly sophisticated system of electing representatives
who, in turn, run our affairs for specific lengths of time. As well
as the three independent branches of government, their respective
terms of office - two years for congressmen, four years for the
president, six years for senators (staggered to elect only one-third
every two years) - have produced a stability and continuity unknown
in the annals of history.
Will the generations now growing up in our schools know that?
Those speaking at the press conference bemoaned the lack of history
teaching. My impression is that plenty of "history" is
being taught in our schools. Only, it is not about Yorktown or Valley
Forge; it is not about George Washington or James Madison; it is
not about the Constitution or the Gettysburg Address.
Our young are told plenty about slavery, oppression, exploitation.
They are told how the Europeans have robbed Native Americans of
their land. They are told how Africans arrived in chains and became
the property of European settlers. They are told how women had neither
rights nor possessions. They are told how corporations ruin the
environment. They are told that Americans, by definition, are greedy
racists, sexists, polluters.
Then they are told about all the great deeds, discoveries and inventions
of the aforementioned victims, and how they had been ignored by
previous historians, for "it is always the victors who write
Of course, I, too, was told all those things enumerated in the
last two paragraphs.
But that happened in Hungary, after our proper history books had
been replaced by operatives of the Soviet Union, buttressed by armored
divisions of the Red Army.
Who replaced the history books of America?
The next step might be no books at all. President Clinton is now
promoting oral history. Oral history, of course, is story-telling.
How credible is it? Just line up half-a-dozen people out of earshot
of one another. Tell a story to the first and ask that it be told
to the next person, and so down the line. Then have the last person
in the lineup re-tell the story. Any similarity to the original
will be coincidental.
After Senator Lieberman and the attending historians concluded
with an urgent call for the greatness of the Founding Fathers -
and others of genuine importance - to be taught once again, the
floor was opened for questions. A young black woman reporter asked
the standard "who-would-decide-what-kind-of-history-would-be-taught."
One of the scholars retreated immediately and - instead of informing
the questioner that history will be taught by those who have actually
read it - assured her that the "warts" would all be included,
and that American history would not be presented "in a celebratory
or triumphalist manner."
In one sense, we may call everything that has happened "history."
Clearly, there is no time to inform every student about everything
that has ever happened. Thus, historians select those events and
personalities that have had the most relevance for their own time,
for posterity, or both.
The cultures that have produced written histories are relatively
small in number, and fall into two categories. The larger of these
contains the unreliable, the smaller the reliable ones. Entries
from the English-speaking world tend to be in the latter category.
The reasons are two-fold: there has been a long-standing, honest
attempt to rise above personal bias, and evidence is continually
examined and reexamined.
The great events and deeds did not take place according to a quota
system. A truthful examination of what we use and enjoy reveals
that an extraordinary proportion of them comes to us from what the
intellectually challenged refer to as "dead white males."
There are two possible responses to the facts. One can continue
griping and hope that the resulting free ride will go on indefinitely.
Or one can sit back, relax, and thank Providence for the immense
benefits that are ours to enjoy by the gift of those men.
If America's history survives the fatal blow struck by the so-called
"National Standards for U.S. History," it will surely
take account of everything that mattered. No doubt, slavery will
be thoroughly explored, hopefully including the fact that Africans
came to be - and continue to be - enslaved and sold by other Africans
in the first place. Hopefully, it will report the countless factors
that have changed a woman's position in society, of which the women's
movement was but one.
But if you know history, you will also know that wherever America
has fallen short, it was exclusively by American standards - by
And that is most assuredly something to celebrate, for it is an