A Story Worth Telling

June 29, 2005

By Bruce Cole, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities

WASHINGTON, June 29 /U.S. Newswire/ — The following is an editorial from Bruce Cole, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities:

This summer, countless Americans will emerge from their local bookstore with historian David McCullough’s best-seller ‘1776’ tucked under their arms — an engaging account of the birth year of our freedom.

For many of us with a passion for the humanities, this is something from which to take heart.

Let’s face it. In an age of e-mails, iPods and Xboxes vying for our (and our kids’) attention, history can be a tough sell.

Many of us have seen Jay Leno’s man-on-the-street interviews – the groan-inducing clips of folks unaware of who our first president was, what the Bill of Rights is, or what the branches of our government might be.

All of which might be funny if the consequences weren’t so serious.

While millions of us today raise flags to celebrate the birthday of freedom, a startling number won’t be able to tell us how that freedom came to be.

Recent surveys show most high school students (57 percent) don’t have even a passing knowledge of U.S. history, about 40 percent not knowing who our allies were in World War II. At the university level, a recent study of 50 elite colleges showed that 45 percent of students didn’t know that Abraham Lincoln was President during the Civil War. And a recent study from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education found that just 21 percent of college administrators and 30 percent of students could name religion as one of the freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment.

Such civic and historical amnesia is not only disheartening, it’s dangerous. It’s been said that laying the groundwork for the future without a grounding in the past to trying to plant cut flowers. As a new generation of Americans faces a mounting threat from those who’d seek to deprive us of our democracy and free will, the question must be asked: how can we expect them to confidently defend those liberties and principles if they don’t know how they came to be?

Thankfully, this amnesia is curable. The antidote has three elements: teachers well-versed in history and willing to employ innovative and interesting curricula for their students; historians and scholars willing to take a chance and follow the lead of those like McCullough by publishing works that are not only scholarly, but also accessible to readable for most Americans; and parents willing to invest in their children that rapidly vanishing commodity: time.

President Bush helped prepare the antidote in announcing the "We the People" initiative — a series of path-setting programs through the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) to promote the study and understanding of American history and culture. Thus far, it’s meant millions of dollars in documentaries, museum exhibits, seminars and music and literature preservation. A program called "Landmarks of American History" places teachers in summer seminars at the places in America where history was made, so they can study with scholars and experts and bring that newfound knowledge back to their classrooms.

And a program called the "We the People" bookshelf has delivered more than 1,500 sets of classic literature to school and public libraries nationwide. This past year the theme chosen was ‘Freedom,’ and has included classics like Longfellow’s "Paul Revere’s Ride," Solzhenitsyn’s "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich," and Willa Cather’s "My Antonia." There have even been some unconventional titles sprinkled in there: Potter’s "The Tale of Peter Rabbit" talks about testing the limits of freedom, while Bradbury’s "Fahrenheit 451" explores the liberating power of the written word. A new set of books this coming year will play on the theme of "Becoming American."

All of these books were chosen to spark students’ interest in reading great classics of history and literature, and to spark teachers’ creativity in exploring history with their students. Let’s be honest. History has never been easy — the dates to memorize, and turgid textbook prose. But history is the story of who we are — which is inherently fascinating. And history well taught will be "caught" by students infected with their teacher’s contagious enthusiasm.

Cicero wrote that "History is the witness that testifies to the passing of time; it illuminates reality, vitalizes memory, provides guidance in daily life, and brings us tidings of antiquity."

Around the world, we see brave men and women dying on distant battlefields to bring freedom to people not blessed with the liberties we have. We have seen countless individuals from the Balkans to the Middle East placing their own lives on the line to get their crack at the American experiment — they’ve read our story, and they want to pass down the same opportunities to their kids that our Fathers risked everything to bequeath us.

It’s a wonderful, complicated, and ultimately inspiring story. It’s time we started telling it more often.