On Toward a More Perfect Union: The Moral and Cultural Case for Teaching the Great American Story by Timothy S. Goeglein.
If we forget what we did, we won’t know who we are. I’m warning of an eradication of the American memory that could result, ultimately, in an erosion of the American spirit. Let’s start with some basics: more attention to American history and a greater emphasis on civic ritual.
—Ronald Reagan, Farewell Address, 1989
The end of the Cold War three decades ago followed by the terror attacks in 2001 should have ushered in an era of consensus and bipartisan agreement in the United States. That was what people expected at the time, but it was not what happened. Far from it. Over the past few decades Americans have turned on themselves, dividing into hostile tribes and parties with little common ground to hold the national enterprise together. Those conflicts came to a head in 2020 in a crescendo of violence and protest following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and continuing through the coronavirus pandemic and that year’s presidential election.
The United States is more polarized now than at any time since the decades leading up to the Civil War. In contrast to the sectional crisis of the 1850s or the Great Depression of the 1930s, there is no single line of conflict to account for today’s polarized politics and culture wars. We live in a time of relative peace and prosperity, and we do not face any single challenge comparable to slavery or mass unemployment. America is coming apart but it is hard to explain why.
Timothy S. Goeglein supplies an answer in his highly informative yet troubling new book, Toward a More Perfect Union: The Moral and Cultural Case for Teaching the Great American Story.1 Mr. Goeglein, a former special assistant to President George W. Bush, the vice president for Focus on the Family, and the author of several previous books, describes how teachers, professors, and textbook authors have trashed our common heritage to the point that many Americans no longer take pride in their country and know little about its history. The result: Americans are divorced from their cultural heritage and alienated from the land in which they live. It is little wonder, he writes, that Americans are divided against themselves.
This is an issue especially for younger Americans who have been exposed most recently to radical historical doctrines in schools. America, they are told, far from being the land of the free and home of the brave, is a destructive enterprise: the country condoned slavery, mistreated minorities and women, and wrecked the environment. This helps to explain why young people, more than their parents and grandparents, are confused, dispirited, and angry. “Rather than being thankful,” Mr. Goeglein writes, “they are indignant. Rather than proud, they feel ashamed. Rather than feeling free, they feel oppressed.” America, they feel, should be punished for its sins: they emphasize the negatives in our past, tear down statues honoring flawed leaders, demand reparations for victims, and cancel those who think differently about the nation’s past and its problems.
Mr. Goeglein points to a poll taken in 2021 in which just 36 percent of adults aged eighteen to twenty-four said they were “proud to be American,” compared to 86 percent for those over sixty-five. A similar poll taken recently among college students revealed that just 40 percent were proud to be Americans. It has always been true that citizens have lacked knowledge about the nation’s history and institutions. That is nothing new. But today it appears that many Americans, in addition to lacking knowledge about our history, reject it entirely as a story of crime and oppression. They think they already know enough to form hard and fast opinions, though much of what they think they know is profoundly wrong. It is not a good thing that the age cohort with the most negative outlook on America is poised to take over leadership of the country.
Mr. Goeglein traces this outlook to the influence of the late Howard Zinn, a New Left historian at Boston University whom he describes as “the godfather” of the radical interpretation of the American past. Zinn’s textbook, A People’s History of the United States (1980), has been widely assigned to students in high-school and college history courses over the past several decades. The book has sold well over two million copies and continues to be assigned to this day despite its obvious flaws and pro-Marxist viewpoint, though there are other books on the market that are more accurate and faithful to the American experience. Wilfred McClay’s history textbook, Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story (2019), comes to mind as a more precise and patriotic presentation, and thus a better alternative for students, parents, and teachers.
Zinn had little interest in presenting facts or an accurate historical narrative about the American past but rather tried to “reframe” the facts to fit his preconceived point of view. Zinn wrote that the Pilgrims practiced genocide against natives, Americans invented slavery and racism, the Founding Fathers were “rich, white, slaveowners,” Lincoln was a “cowardly racist politician,” President Roosevelt waged World War II to benefit a “wealthy elite,” and the nation in general has been run by rich white people for their own benefit. That this is wrong or one-sided seems to make no difference. People still read and cite Zinn’s book, as did the actor Matt Damon’s character in a well-known scene in the film Good Will Hunting. Mr. Goeglein suggests, citing other historians, that many of the debates in the public square today are shaped in one way or another by Zinn’s left-wing textbook.
Zinn’s books indirectly influenced the “1619 Project,” written by Nikole Hannah-Jones and promoted by The New York Times, which claims that the United States was founded in 1619 (not in 1776) with the arrival of the first slave on the North American continent. The Founding Fathers, it asserts, led the revolution and wrote the Constitution to preserve slavery. The history of the United States is thus forever scarred by the stain of slavery and racism. The project has at length been turned into a teaching curriculum adopted by school systems around the country.
Yet the story it tells about America is false from beginning to end, as many historians have written: slavery was widely practiced around the globe in 1619, not only in North America; the Revolution began in Boston, hardly a hotbed of slavery, for reasons completely separate from race and slavery; the Founding Fathers wrote and ratified the Constitution to advance liberty and limited government, not to protect slavery. It was the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the federal union that eventually brought slavery to an end. The 1619 Project ignores all of these well-known facts to arrive at preconceived conclusions.
What was the purpose behind the 1619 Project if not to provide an accurate account of American history? That is a good question which admits of various answers. One is that the real purpose was to discredit the United States and her institutions, perhaps as a means of winning support for reparations for victim groups and other measures to revise the Constitution along the lines of redistribution, a larger and more intrusive government, and related measures that will allow victim groups to exact revenge against their countrymen for the alleged crimes of their ancestors.
There are many projects afoot today in progressive circles designed to achieve those ends, including proposals to rewrite the Constitution, pack the Supreme Court, introduce Critical Race Theory in schools, revise museum exhibits and classical music performances so that they comport with evolving views, and the like. All have the same purpose: to prove that we should reject and reframe the past in line with current progressive doctrines.
It has been said the people will readily recognize the “small lie” but swallow the “big lie,” a principle that Mr. Zinn, Ms. Hannah-Jones, and The New York Times appear to exploit in advancing these fictions. Their deceptions are so broad and all-encompassing that they escape detection among those who know little of the nation’s history. The “big lie” is thus accepted and circulated until it is incorporated into the climate of opinion, which seems to be where we are today.
Fortunately, Mr. Goeglein has some ideas for countering and reversing the sad state of affairs that has befallen the United States. He is well aware that people who hate themselves are unlikely to prosper, and that what is true of individuals is also the case with nations. Americans, guided by a false history, are placing everything at risk—their prosperity, their liberties, and their epically successful national enterprise.
Mr. Goeglein advises patriotic parents to take the lead in educating their children by directing them to books that provide honest accounts of the American past, the challenges faced by leaders like Washington, Lincoln, and Roosevelt, and the means by which Americans have addressed problems and corrected wrongs over the course of their country’s tumultuous history. He points to several books that parents can use as reliable sources for themselves and their children, notably The 1776 Report (2021, also known as The 1776 Project), which critiques the works of Howard Zinn and the 1619 Project and sets forth a more positive and accurate portrayal of the American past.
He also writes about friends who have taken their children to visit Revolutionary and Civil War battlefields and other historical sites to give them a better appreciation of the sacrifices made in the past to preserve and advance the nation’s ideals. He strongly approves of something President Reagan said in his Farewell Address: “All great change in America begins at the dinner table. So, tomorrow night in the kitchen I hope the talking begins. And children, if your parents haven’t been teaching you what it means to be an American, let them know and nail them on it. That would be a very American thing to do.”
There are also promising educational alternatives emerging around the country. Hillsdale College is attracting top students from around the country with its own classical and pro-American curriculum. Other schools are beginning to emulate the courageous example of that small institution. The proliferation of charter schools, many with an emphasis on the classics, is a sign that parents are looking for alternatives to ideologically oriented public schools. Many parents with children in public schools are up in arms about the anti-American and anti-family fare dished out in some of those schools. Some governors, like Ron DeSantis in Florida and Glenn Youngkin in Virginia, have taken the lead in scrutinizing the curricula used in the public schools to make certain they are not promoting the doctrines found in Zinn’s textbooks and the 1619 Project.
But there will be no lasting solution until parents and citizens take the problem into their own hands in elections, in communities, and in their own families. As Thomas Jefferson wrote, “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” His warning applies today more than ever. Thankfully, Timothy Goeglein has sounded the alarm: Toward a More Perfect Union is a book that all Americans should read, ponder, and use as a guide to action.
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