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.
— Why is it you can’t become Japanese or French, but you must become American? If I were to emigrate to Japan, I could not become Japanese; I would always be an American living in Japan. But if a Japanese citizen came here, he could become an American, and we would welcome him with open arms. Why? Because our identity is based not on ethnicity but on a creed of ideas and values in which most Americans believe. Historian Richard Hofstadter wrote, “It is our fate as a nation not to have ideologies, but to be one.” To become American citizens, immigrants must take a test demonstrating their knowledge of American history and civics.
— What are the principles that unite us as Americans? In Thanksgiving remarks after the Sept. 11 attacks, President George W. Bush praised our nation’s response to terror. “I call it the American character,” he said. Former Vice President Al Gore, in a speech after the attacks, said, “We should fight for the values that bind us together as a country.” In my Harvard course we put together a list of some of those values: liberty, e pluribus unum, equal opportunity, individualism, rule of law, free exercise of religion, separation of church and state, laissez faire and a belief in progress.
— If we agree on these principles, why is there so much division in our politics? Just because we agree on these values doesn’t mean that we agree on their application. Most of our politics is about the hard work of applying these principles to our everyday lives. When we do, they often conflict. For example, when discussing Bush’s proposal to let the federal government fund faith-based charities, we know that “In God We Trust,” but we also know that we don’t trust government with God. When considering whether the federal government should pay for scholarships that middle- and low-income families might use at any accredited school—public, private or religious—some object that the principle of equal opportunity can conflict with the separation of church and state.
— What does it mean to you to be an American? After Sept. 11, I proposed an idea I call “Pledge Plus Three.” Why not start each school day with the Pledge of Allegiance — as many schools still do — followed by a teacher or student sharing for three minutes “what it means to be an American.” Some of the newest American students will probably be some of the best speakers. I found in teaching my Harvard class that the student who best understood American identity was from the Ukraine.
— Ask students to stand, raise their right hand and recite the Oath of Allegiance, just as immigrants do when they become American citizens. I did this at a speech I gave recently on my American history and civics bill. It’s quite a weighty thing to “absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty” and to agree to “bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law.”
Our history is the struggle to live up to the ideals that have united us and defined us from the very beginning, the principles of the American Character. If that is what students are taught about September 11, they will not only become better informed. They will strengthen our country for generations to come.
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.