Sunday, February 13, 2011

American Founding (1): Who Cares?

Why haven't there been more blockbuster movies about the American founding and Revolution? There were heroes, there were villains, and there was war. Yet moviegoers are likely to know more about Troy, the Spartan 300, and Roman gladiators than they do about George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and the American Revolution.

One reason the American founding lacks entertainment value is that it was more about what did not happen, than what did. As historian John Willson astutely observes, "most of what is really important about the American Founding lies in how a potentially harmful revolution was contained. It was not entirely averted, but it was contained and directed to the ends of limited government and the practice of liberties that had long existed in most American provinces." (There will be more on the proper interpretation of the American founding in the next essay.)

Perhaps because the American Revolution does not attract much attention in Hollywood or among the makers of video games, most young people are uninformed or misinformed about it. Surveys by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute ( show that few college freshmen grasp the significance of the American founding. Informal surveys that I administer to my own classes confirm this finding. Many college students are not particularly curious about the source of their freedom. They don't fully embrace what the American founding means for themselves or for humankind. It's sort of like gravity: just there.

Most of our youth, I've discovered, cannot say why George Washington was a rare leader worthy of our esteem. They cannot identify the most significant passages of the Declaration of Independence or U.S. Constitution. (For comic relief, see the clip of Barney Fife trying to recite the Preamble of the Constitution here.) There is no way they could explain why Thomas Jefferson called the Federalist Papers "the best commentary on the principles of government which ever was written."

Few students have encountered the idea that King George III was arguably more of a rebel than George Washington. Beyond a few vague slogans about freedom and equality, most students are neither conversant with the ideas that animated the Founders, nor the principles by which they sought to govern, nor the succession of events that made independence possible, nor the incredible difficulties involved in founding the new republic, nor the tensions that were left unresolved in 1787 and bequeathed to later generations (e.g., constitutional interpretation, state vs. national sovereignty, and, tragically, the scandal of slavery).

Not only are most American students uninformed about the founding; they are misinformed as well. Most think the Constitution's framers were democrats; they are not aware that the delegates of 1787 loathed or feared direct rule by the many. Most students also fail to understand the founders' view of freedom, especially the notion that it must be ordered so that it does not devolve into licentious behavior or anarchy. Most students don't always appreciate that every right has a corresponding duty. And most are under the mistaken notion that there was everywhere a "wall of separation" between church and state from the get-go.

Do Americans not sufficiently value the founding as it actually happened? Has it been hijacked by ideologues? Does this help explain how uninformed and misinformed students are?

My aim in asking such a question is not to heap scorn on students. I do not blame our youth for what they have not been taught. I cannot hold them accountable for what they do not know when they reach my classroom, only for what they know when they leave it.

Truth is, the students starting my history classes probably know about as much as the leaders who represent them. It is our elected leaders who have no excuse when they are uninspired, uninformed, or misinformed about the founding. How ironic that Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, the Tea Party leader in Congress -- a political movement that consciously identifies with the American Founding -- claimed in a stump speech that New Hampshire was the state famous for Lexington, Concord, and the "shot heard round the world"! It was not her first gaffe regarding basic American history.

As a college professor, my charge is to turn students on to history. It is to help them discover the amazing story of the American founding -- their founding -- and to inspire them to learn about it for the rest of their lives.

Maybe along the way some of our nation's leaders will also be inspired to get our story right.

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