During a previous Senate campaign shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, I listened carefully, as politicians do, for the words that seemed to resonate most with my audiences. To my surprise, I found there was just one sentence I could not finish before every audience interrupted me by breaking into applause: “It is time to put the teaching of American history and civics back in its rightful place in our schools so our children grow up learning what it means to be an American.”
The terrorists who attacked us on Sept. 11 weren’t just lashing out at buildings and people — they were attacking who we are as Americans. Most Americans recognize this, and that’s why there has been a national hunger for leadership and discussion about our values.
Parents know that our children are not being taught our common culture and shared values. National tests show that three-quarters of the nation’s fourth, eighth, and twelfth graders are not proficient in civics knowledge, and one-third do not even have basic knowledge, making them civic illiterates.
That’s why I made American history and civics the subject of my maiden speech and first piece of legislation in the United States Senate. By a vote of 90-0, the Senate passed my bill to create summer residential academies for outstanding teachers and students of American history and civics. Their purpose is to inspire better teaching and more learning of the key events, key persons, key ideas and key documents that shaped the institutions and democratic heritage of the United States.
So if I were teaching about 9/11, these are some of the issues I would ask my students to consider:
— Is Sept. 11 the worst thing to happen to the United States? The answer, of course, is no, but I’m surprised by the number of people who say yes. It saddens me to realize that those who make such statements were never properly taught the history of our country. Many doubted America would win the Revolutionary War. The British sacked Washington, D.C., and burned the White House to the ground in the War of 1812. In the Civil War, we lost more Americans than in any other conflict, as brother fought against brother. The list goes on. Children should know why we made those sacrifices and fought for the values that make us exceptional.
— What makes America exceptional? I began the first session of a course I taught at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government by making a list of 100 ways America is different than other countries — not always better, but unique. America’s exceptionalism has been a source of fascination since Alexis de Tocqueville’s trip across America in 1830, where he met Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie on the Mississippi River. His book, “Democracy in America,” is still the best description of America’s unique ideals in action. Another outstanding text is “American Exceptionalism” by Seymour Martin Lipset.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.