When Judith Rizzo, deputy chancellor of New York City schools, was quoted in The Washington Post as saying American schools should do a better job of teaching about Islam and other cultures, Lynne V. Cheney, wife of Vice President Richard B. Cheney, apparently saw red.
In the article, which was published Oct. 1, Miss Rizzo said, “Those people who said we don’t need multiculturalism, that it’s too touchy feely, a pox on them. I think they’ve learned their lesson. We have to do more to teach habits of tolerance, knowledge and awareness of other cultures.”
Mrs. Cheney responded in an Oct. 5 speech to the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Excerpts of her speech, “Teaching Our Children about America,” follow. (A full text is at www.whitehouse.gov.)
Here today among so many people dedicated to education, I thought I would spend a few minutes talking about our schools and about what we should be teaching our children in the wake of the September 11th attacks on our country. Some educators are saying that we need more emphasis on other cultures in our classrooms.
I think we could all agree that in the 21st century, it is important that our children know about the great events and inspiring ideas of the cultures of the world. The standards of learning for world history here in Texas the TEKS, as they are known expect students to be able to “compare the historical origins, central ideas, and the spread of major religious and philosophical traditions including Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism; and to be able to identify examples of religious influence in history and contemporary world events.”
This is an important requirement but it was important on September 10th. To say that it is more important now implies that the events of September 11th were our fault, that it was our failure to understand Islam that led to so many deaths and so much destruction. And this is not the case. As Muslim leaders around the world have affirmed, the terrorists who hijacked airliners and used them to murder thousands of civilians were not following the words of the prophet, but instead were violating some of the most sacred precepts of Islam.
The deputy chancellor’s suggestion that “we have to do more to teach habits of tolerance” also implies that the United States is to blame for the attack of September 11th, that somehow intolerance on our part was the cause. But on September 11th, it was most manifestly not the United States that acted out of religious prejudice. In 1998, Osama bin Laden told ABC news that his mission was “to purify Muslim land of all non-believers.” This was the intolerance that manifested itself on September 11th in the person of fanatics intent on causing as much pain and suffering as possible.
Let me affirm again that our children as they go through school and college should learn about the cultures of the world. They should know classical works of Western civilization like the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey” that the Dallas Institute has so lovingly taught to teachers. There are classical works from other parts of the world, such as the Analects of Confucius and the Bhagavad Gita, and modern works they should know about: the novels of Chinua Achebe and Naguib Mahfouz, the plays of Wole Soyinka, the essays of Octavio Paz, the poetry of Jorge Luis Borges.
But if there were one aspect of schooling from kindergarten through college to which I would give added emphasis today, it would be American history. We are not doing a very good job of teaching it now, as a recent survey of seniors at the nation’s top liberal arts colleges and research universities reveals. Scarcely more than half, the survey found, “knew general information about American democracy and the Constitution.” Vast majorities were ignorant of facts that high school seniors should know: Only a third could identify George Washington as the American general at Yorktown; fewer than a quarter knew that James Madison was the “father of the Constitution.”
The same Washington Post article that quoted Judith Rizzo, the New York deputy chancellor, cited a study indicating that our colleges and universities are insufficiently committed to “internationalism.” Let me suggest that if there is a failure here, it is lack of commitment to this nation’s history. Of the 55 elite institutions whose seniors were polled in the survey described above, not one college or university not a single one required a course in American history.
At a time of national crisis, I think it is particularly apparent that we need to encourage the study of our past. Our children and grandchildren indeed, all of us need to know the ideas and ideals on which our nation has been built. We need to understand how fortunate we are to live in freedom. We need to understand that living in liberty is such a precious thing that generations of men and women have been willing to sacrifice everything for it. We need to know, in a war, exactly what is at stake.
I don’t think it would hurt a bit when we teach them about the Constitution to use the word “miracle.” There were so many interests pulling in so many directions, that the successful result seemed almost miraculous to both Washington and Madison. Catherine Drinker Bowen’s fine book on the Constitutional Convention is called, appropriately enough, “Miracle at Philadelphia.” One of my favorite historians, Bernard de Voto, wrote to Bowen that the accomplishment of the Constitutional Convention was so astonishing that the stars must have danced in the sky when the delegates gathered.
What we tend to do nowadays is tell about the failures of the Constitution, and, to be sure, we should. The document did not end slavery. It did not provide women the right to vote. But it did provide a framework that endured while we struggled and largely succeeded in living up to our ideals. Our children should know that, too.
As I read about the Founders, I am struck by the emphasis that Jefferson and Madison, in particular, put on religious freedom. Both men had seen the pernicious effects of government-prescribed belief and determined it would not be part of the new order of things. Jefferson believed that one of his greatest accomplishments was authorship of the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom. Madison got the Virginia Statute passed and later carried through the Congress of the United States the Bill of Rights, which established freedom of religion as the Constitution’s First Amendment.
Anyone who tries to account for the remarkable creativity of this country needs to consider the forces set in motion when the United States of America decreed that the government could not tell people what to believe or what to think. The freeing up of individual energy and ideas that has resulted has been unparalleled in human history. Try to imagine Thomas Edison, or Steven Spielberg, or Jack Welch, or Bill Gates in an oppressive society. Our children should understand this.
They should also know about the role we have played in the world, about how we have inspired others to seek freedom and gone up against tyrants. We have benefited mightily from our way of life, but so has the world. Our children should know these things as we set out to defend America, “assured of the rightness of our cause,” in our president’s words, “and confident of victories to come.”