- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 29, 2004

He was first in war and first in peace, but George Washington is barely mentioned in school history books.

The first president of the United States is steadily being removed from the nation’s schools. Historians and concerned citizens say the victor of Yorktown is disappearing from both the minds and the books of students, leaving a hole in the education of the country’s upcoming generations.

“The evidence is overwhelming that George Washington is rapidly being short-tripped in the classrooms across the country,” said James Rees, executive director of Mount Vernon, the Founding Father’s historic Virginia estate.

“For instance, my fourth-grade textbook in Richmond had 10 times more coverage of George Washington than the textbook used in that same school in 1982. Imagine what it must be now,” Mr. Rees said.

This displacement of America’s most famous leader, said Matthew Spalding, director of the Heritage Foundation’s B. Kenneth Simon Center for American Studies, is the result of an incorrect understanding of Washington as a man, combined with a trend in historical scholarship.

“There is a general decline in teaching about dead, white, 18th-century males. That’s where we are today, and, as a result, Washington has really suffered,” Mr. Spalding said.

That decline has been met with an outcry from organizations, historians and citizens such as New Jersey businessman Bill Sanders, who has started a one-man campaign to return Washington to classrooms.

Mr. Sanders’ mission is to display Washington’s portrait in every school in the country, a project he started in 1998 in preparation for the 200th anniversary of Washington’s death in 1799.

“This is the role model that our children should be learning about,” he said. “It would instill in them the devotion of country, and they would truly understand what it means to be American.”

In 1933, Congress passed legislation mandating that Washington’s portrait be placed in every public-school classroom in the country, but those pictures since have deteriorated and been removed, Mr. Sanders said, leaving Washington out of sight and out of mind.

Mr. Sanders originally attempted to persuade the New Jersey legislature to allocate funds for the project in that state, hoping that other states would follow suit. Such bills were introduced twice and approved by the New Jersey Assembly, but both were killed by Senate committees — largely, Mr. Sanders said, because of the influence of the New Jersey Education Association and the American Civil Liberties Union

But Mr. Sanders is undeterred. He donates large portraits of Washington — $250 replicas of an 1862 engraving based on the famous painting by Gilbert Stuart — to schools and meets with community organizations to raise money for the project.

The resistance Mr. Sanders encountered in New Jersey is emblematic of a larger trend, Mr. Rees said.

“We have all sorts of statistics all the way up to the college level,” Mr. Rees said. “You cannot overstate how little younger generations know about American history and Washington.”

The neglect of Washington became a central argument in the uproar a decade ago over the national standards for U.S. history.

In October 1994, Lynne Cheney — former chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, whose husband is now vice president — wrote in the Wall Street Journal: “Imagine an outline for the teaching of American history in which George Washington makes only a fleeting appearance and is never described as our first president.”

That federal curriculum guideline ultimately was condemned by a 99-1 vote in the Senate — but the fight to restore Washington’s place in the American pantheon has made little progress.

In part, this is because Washington is misunderstood by many Americans today, Mr. Rees said.

“Americans see Washington as old, stiff and formal,” Mr. Rees said, “but he’s by far and away the most athletic, the most robust, the most exciting of the Founding Fathers. He was our highest ranking colonist in [the French and Indian] war at the age of 23. If Americans today think that George Washington is boring, it’s not his fault, it’s our fault.”

As opposed to Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, Washington isn’t known for his political and written contributions, Mr. Spalding said.

“Washington suffers … in the sense that he’s not seen as being quite as intellectual or serious as the other founders,” he said. “He didn’t write a book or write the Declaration of Independence.”

That, combined with an academic movement to focus on the achievements of society or historical trends, rather than the acts of great men, has resulted in the roles of Washington and the other Founding Fathers being downplayed, says Joseph Ellis, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and author of the upcoming book “His Excellency, George Washington.”

“One of the major trends in history in the last 20 years is something called social history,” Mr. Ellis said. “It’s the study of the ordinary figures, the inarticulate who aren’t the most prominent. There are people … who think that we should identify great achievements not as the product of individuals, but should see it in more collective respects.”

To Mr. Sanders, who has presented portraits of Washington to 250 schools nationwide, the solution to the problem is putting Washington back where schoolchildren can see and remember him. But Mr. Rees said more must be done.

“I don’t think that just putting up that picture is enough,” Mr. Rees said. “It’s a great work of art, but it doesn’t by any means tell George Washington’s story.”

What is needed, he says, is a complete overhaul of how the school curriculum treats America’s founders.

“Somehow, we’ve got to get to the textbook companies and convince them to put more Washington in,” Mr. Rees said.

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