A sorely needed history primer

The statistics should come as little shock to anyone who reads the paper: About one-third of students in grades four, eight and 12 understand American civics at a “below-basic” level.

U.S. history figures are even worse, as 57 percent of high-school seniors demonstrate a below-basic knowledge.

This means, Charles Smith explained of the National Assessment of Educational Progress at a Senate hearing this summer, that most 12th-graders lack even elementary facts about the Monroe Doctrine or the Great Depression or know that the Soviet Union was America’s ally in World War II.

 
 


At the same hearing, historian David McCullogh said, “We are sadly failing our children, and have been for a long time.”

It is with this in mind that journalist and historian Jonathan Foreman developed the Pocket Book of Patriotism, to “fill some of the void left by the abandonment of traditional civic instruction in America.”

Perhaps because Foreman’s father — who wrote the screenplays for “High Noon” and “Bridge on the River Kwai” — was blacklisted from Hollywood during the McCarthy era and testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee (a committee that sought to out communists in the 1950s), he is careful to distinguish patriotism from nationalism or xenophobia. “No American should confuse America’s good fortune with perfection,” he writes in his introduction.

The London-born Foreman compiles in only 96 pages a short primer on American history and civics, full of facts and original texts, and free of comment or analysis. A similar book, The Pocket Book of British Patriotism, became a best seller last year.

Foreman is interested first and foremost in the simplest aspect of history: the data of dates and chronology. He writes of hearing of a teenage girl at a top Manhattan school who couldn’t tell whether the Italian Renaissance or the Vietnam War came first.

More than half of the volume is nothing more than a timeline, contrasting key moments in American history with happenings abroad and punctuated by significant quotations. It’s certainly comprehensive: The first entry concerns the crossing of the Bering land bridge by ancestors of American Indians in 30,000-20,000 B.C.

The book goes on to present speeches, documents, songs and poems. It concludes with a chronology of presidents and of states’ joining the union, plus a section on flag etiquette and medals for valor.

If there is a criticism to be made here, it’s that Foreman is too quick to cut from the American canon. His section on patriotic texts includes excerpts from only 11 speeches, comprising fewer than seven pages. Although his desire to provide a short, concise handbook on American greatness is admirable, much is glaringly omitted.

Neither Reagan’s Challenger speech nor the famous “Tear down this wall” address is represented. Ditto Washington’s famous Second Inaugural and farewell speech. And Eisenhower’s farewell warning about the “military-industrial complex,” Truman’s declaration of the Truman Doctrine and Nixon’s “Checkers” speech.

Foreman mysteriously includes only the preamble and the Bill of Rights from the Constitution. I wonder why no part of Article 1 get less ink than, say, the irrelevant Third Amendment, dealing with the quartering of soldiers.

And the Federalist Papers are conspicuously absent.

Still, for $10 a pop, perhaps the Senate should consider appropriating the funds for one of these books in every classroom. It sure couldn’t hurt.

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