On April 15, Freedoms Foundation President and CEO David Harmer delivered these remarks at An Evening with Freedoms Foundation, the fourth annual gala to raise scholarship money for teachers attending the organization’s summer graduate programs. See the video here.
Once, when our daughter Ariel was 10 years old, Elayne and I were preparing for an event much like this one. Seated before a mirror, Elayne was applying finishing touches to her makeup. Elayne is a beautiful woman, and that night she looked especially striking. Ariel was just graduating from fascination with Disney princesses to fascination with real-life glamor. She was mesmerized, staring at Elayne with unbounded admiration. Sensing that Ariel had something to say, Elayne asked, “Yes, dear, what is it?”
“Mom,” Ariel asked, “when you die … can I have those earrings?”
Of all that we might pass along, what will our children and grandchildren value? Will the rising generation appreciate what we bequeath?
Thirty years ago, President Reagan raised those questions in his farewell address. He’d won re-election in a 49-state landslide—a benchmark never since approached. He’d reinvigorated the economy; reasserted our military and moral strength; liberated Eastern Europe; set in motion the dissolution of the Soviet Union; dramatically reduced the risk of nuclear war.
He could have taken a victory lap. Instead, acknowledging “the resurgence of national pride,” President Reagan warned:
it won’t count for much, and it won’t last, unless it’s grounded in thoughtfulness and knowledge.
An informed patriotism is what we want. Are we … teaching our children what America is and what she represents in the long history of the world? Those of us who are over 35 or so … were taught, very directly, what it means to be an American. … we absorbed, almost in the air, a love of country and an appreciation of its institutions. … you could get a sense of patriotism from school … [or] popular culture …
But now … well-grounded patriotism is no longer the style. … We’ve got to do a better job of getting across that America is freedom—freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of enterprise. And freedom is special and rare. It’s fragile; it needs protection.
So, we’ve got to teach history based not on what’s in fashion but what’s important … 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 … in an erosion of the American spirit.
Has the nation heeded his plea?
Not among high-school seniors. The National Assessment of Educational Progress ranks student performance as Advanced, Proficient, Basic, or below. In the latest test of U.S. History, how many 12th-graders ranked Proficient or better? 12%—by far the lowest of any subject. Basic or better? 45%. Not even half of high-school seniors have a basic understanding of American history.
What about college students? Using high-school questions on American history, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni surveyed seniors from 55 elite universities. How many received the equivalent of a C or better? 19%. The other 81% deserved a D or F.
How about all adults? People who want to become American citizens must correctly answer 60 of the 100 questions on the U.S. Citizenship Test. What if we gave the test to existing citizens? Through a nationwide survey, the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation found that two-thirds of American citizens could not pass. The survey found “stark gaps in knowledge depending on age.” Of those 65 and older, 74% passed. Of those younger than 45, only 19% passed.
The retiring generation knows American history; the rising generations do not. “Historical amnesia” is too mild a term; one can’t forget what one never learned. The more accurate diagnosis is historical ignorance, and it’s reached pandemic proportions. The result?
“If a nation expects to be ignorant & free,” warned Thomas Jefferson, “it expects what never was & never will be.”
Contrast today’s political pathologies, from braggadocio to utopianism, with Benjamin Franklin’s humility and practicality:
having lived long, I have experienced many Instances of being oblig’d, by better Information or fuller Consideration, to change Opinions even on important Subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise. … the older I grow the more apt I am to doubt my own Judgment, and to pay more Respect to the Judgment of others. …
In these Sentiments … I agree to this Constitution, with all its Faults, if they are such …
I doubt too whether any other Convention we can obtain, may be able to make a better Constitution … Thus I consent … to this Constitution because I expect no better, and because I am not sure that it is not the best.
The Opinions I have had of its Errors, I sacrifice to the Public Good. …
I cannot help expressing a Wish, that every Member of the Convention, who may still have Objections to it, would with me on this Occasion doubt a little of his own Infallibility, and to make manifest our Unanimity, put his Name to this instrument.
Contrast today’s reflexive partisanship and polarization with the founding father, of whom Michael and Jana Novak wrote:
The genius of George Washington was to shape himself to become a man of high integrity and sober reserve, a man of honor and internal fortitude, who could be trusted by all Americans, of all backgrounds. It was as if he knew that he might one day have to be the only man in the whole country of whom it could be said that everybody trusted him.
Finally, contrast today’s endemic ignorance with the historical insight and civic contributions of tonight’s honorees. Interviewed by a business publication, Alan Miller, founder and CEO of Universal Health Services, said:
Several leaders influence my leadership style, but none more than the first president of the U.S., George Washington. I am a student of history and have carefully studied the courage of our nation’s founding fathers and their bold entrepreneurial style. From George Washington, I have learned the importance of perseverance, the power of remaining calm under pressure and the value of being ambitious.
Indeed, the lessons of the Founding transcend politics, and the examples of the Founders illuminate innumerable fields of endeavor—or would, if more widely known.
The Connelly Foundation is helping. True to the legacy of John and Josephine Connelly, the Foundation shuns recognition; but it enables us to extend educational opportunities to thousands of students each year. We’re grateful, but we want to reach so many more.
That’s where you come in.
Throughout the school year, Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge brings students from around the country to this 75-acre campus for immersive, intensive, multi-day educational experiences in the history, ideals, and continuing relevance of the American Founding. Throughout the summer we do the same for teachers, providing college-accredited, graduate-level, professional-development courses exploring the founding ideals as manifest throughout American history.
This year, 440 teachers will be not merely informed, but transformed, returning to their classrooms reinvigorated with a profound appreciation of American history and entrepreneurship, the rights and responsibilities of citizenship, and the link between character and freedom.
We’ve recruited the teachers; now we need the donors! If what you’ve heard resonates, grasp that pledge card. Fill it out. Sponsor a teacher, or several, or an entire program. Help us inspire informed patriotism and responsible citizenship in the rising generation.
 Michael Novak and Jana Novak, Washington’s God (Basic Books, 2006), p. 163.
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