October 15, 2014
Elections such as the one approaching in November tend to focus Americans on our differences. We intensely debate competing visions for the future of our country. We listen to a variety of candidates try to persuade us to vote for them. And we watch as intricate coalitions become majorities.
It is a fascinating process, and it’s somewhat miraculous that it works.
This is an enormous country. From the woods of Maine to the streets of Manhattan to the beaches of California, America is an incredibly complex nation that millions of people call home.
What made anyone think more than 200 years ago that such a diverse and expansive country could endure? We weren’t always so large, after all. At the time the Founders wrote the Constitution, we were little more than a cluster of former British colonies clinging to the Atlantic Ocean.
We really owe the vast United States we have today to changes that happened after the American Revolution, beginning with President Thomas Jefferson, who saw that America could become something much greater than it was when he took office.
When Jefferson purchased the Louisiana Territory in 1803, he literally doubled the size of the United States in an instant, buying more than 800,000 square miles west of the Mississippi River at a time when two out of three Americans lived within 50 miles of the Atlantic Ocean.
Jefferson believed that this great country, soon to span an entire continent, could be held together not by force or by a strong personality, but by a shared idea: of liberty protected by a representative democracy. This is the idea we reaffirm each election day, when we head to the polls to vote with millions of fellow Americans, many of whom have very different beliefs.
We owe a debt of thanks to Jefferson for his confidence in this vision. After all, it was far from inevitable that it would come to pass. Some factions strongly opposed his Louisiana Purchase. And in a way, you can understand their point: When Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark on their expedition to explore the Louisiana territory, they were the first American citizens to cross the Continental Divide, to traverse the Rocky Mountains, and to reach the Pacific Ocean by land. He didn’t even know what he was buying!
Today, our sense of this shared history is a crucial part of what holds such a large and diverse nation together. And it’s more important now than ever to pass on these lessons to our children.
Unfortunately, we are doing a poor job of helping the next generation learn American history. As a result, our national memory of what it means to be American is beginning to slip away.
The results of the Department of Education’s National Assessment of Educational Progress suggest a serious challenge. It found that just “20% of fourth graders, 17% of eighth graders, and 12% of 12th graders performed at or above the proficient level on the 2010 U.S. history assessment.”
Students often struggle with the very basics. According to Department of Education data, a majority of fourth graders don’t know the purpose of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Most fourth graders can’t say why the pioneers moved West. And two-thirds don’t understand that westward migration resulted in new states being added to the union.
We have to do a better job of introducing young people to the rich lessons of our country’s past. In President Ronald Reagan’s farewell address at the end of his term in office, he called for an “informed patriotism”–a national effort to help young people appreciate those who came before us, and why what they did mattered.
The effort to promote such an “informed patriotism” can take many forms. In my series of children’s books featuring Ellis the Elephant (my time-traveling pachyderm), Ellis introduces young people to many of the pivotal moments in history, such as the great expedition of Lewis and Clark in my latest book, From Sea to Shining Sea.
Visits to museums, historic sites and even television programs like “Liberty’s Kids” can be great ways to introduce children to American history as well.
As we approach this election during a period when our politics can seem polarized and divisive, take time to introduce the young people in your life to American history: our shared heritage that brings us together.