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April 21, 2006

Becoming Americans

Donald B. Hawthorne

As an alumnus of one of The Claremont Colleges, it is with pride that I highlight the mission of the Claremont Institute:

The mission of the Claremont Institute is to restore the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life.

The Claremont Institute finds the answers to America's problems in the principles on which our nation was founded. These principles are expressed most eloquently in the Declaration of Independence, which proclaims that "all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights...."

To recover the Founding principles in our political life means recovering a limited and accountable government that respects private property, promotes stable family life and maintains a strong defense...

The Claremont Institute believes that informed citizens can and will make the right choices for America's future...the Institute engages Americans in an informed discussion of the principles and policies necessary to rebuild our civic institutions...

America's Founders endowed our Republic with sound principles and a framework for governing that is unmatched in the history of mankind. The prosperity and freedom of America can only be made secure if they are guided by a return to these basic principles as our country enters the 21st Century.

Toward that end, the Institute is reprinting three classic essays by Claremont scholars on "Becoming Americans" as the nation debates immigration, American culture and principles, and the nature of citizenship. A version of the first essay - Educating Citizens - addresses multiculturalism and originally appeared in Moral Ideas for America, edited by Larry P. Arnn and Douglas A. Jeffrey and published in 1993. Here are some excerpts:

Democracy requires more of its citizens than any other form of government. It depends on the capacity of the citizens to govern themselves. But the habits and dispositions of self government are difficult to acquire and to sustain. They are rooted in moral and political principles in which each new generation must be educated. It is no accident that history provides so few examples of successful and enduring democracies. In the American democracy today, we have largely lost sight of those moral and political principles which provide the common ground of American political community and inform the civic character required of American citizens. There is widespread recognition of the necessity to restore that private morality which is the source of the public good and to strengthen the common bonds of civility among the diverse citizens of America. Educating citizens in the principles, rights, duties, and capacities of citizenship is the primary purpose of public education in America, and our institutions of higher learning play a critical part in making our public schools capable or incapable of fulfilling their purpose. That America is failing miserably in accomplishing this purpose is apparent to all who have eyes to see and ears to hear...

...To the extent that a single cause may be identified as the primary source of our failure at the task of educating citizens, it can be summed up simply: bad ideas.

Education in America today, at every level, is dominated by doctrines that openly repudiate the principles on which America is founded; indeed, they deny the very capacity of men to distinguish freedom from tyranny, justice from injustice, right from wrong. These doctrines have wholly discredited the perspective of the democratic citizen: they have made self government itself unintelligible as a political phenomenon...The consequence has been a corruption of the political language through which the nation conducts its public deliberations, a citizenry increasingly confused or uncertain about the ground and substance of its rights and duties, and political and educational leaders capable for the most part only of deepening the crisis. These bad ideas are rooted in a profound assault upon human reason and human nature as grounds of human morality, an assault waged over the past two centuries culminating in explicit and assertive nihilism. The popular expressions of these ideas in our time take a wide variety of forms. But as they are professed and practiced in the world of American education today, they converge most faddishly under the banners of "Multiculturalism" and "Diversity."

The multicultural movement and the diversity movement are distinct political and intellectual movements which frequently overlap and reinforce one another. Their stronghold is in the academies of higher learning, whence they have sallied forth into practically every nook and cranny of American life...

The foremost idea of multiculturalism is the equal value of all cultures, or cultural relativism...

This is not just the view of zealots or extremists but of the mainstream, supposedly responsible public officials making policy at the highest levels...

This reigning dogma among professional educators who shape the curriculum of American public schools requires a non-chauvinistic, non-ethnocentric, balanced treatment of Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and Jefferson or Lincoln. Moral relativism prohibits preferring freedom to despotism or believing that there can be a rational ground for preferring one over the other. With Lincolnian firmness, our civics instruction is dedicated to the proposition that "the concept of freedom can mean different things to different people in different circumstances."...

Inherent in the idea of cultural relativism is the idea that culture, race, or ancestry (feminist multiculturalists throw in gender) determines our ideas. Our minds, that is, are locked inside our skins, and the gulf between races or cultures is unbridgeable. There is no such thing as human reason capable of grasping any part of objective moral truth (which also doesn't exist) which is worthy of imparting to a student...Education itself is thus understood to be merely the imposition of one's own ethnically or culturally determined prejudices on others. The relation between teacher and student can be understood only in terms of power.

Multiculturalists loudly denounce the emphasis in American schools on American history and culture and western civilization. Everyone has read about this. Perpetuating the American heritage in American public schools falls under the heading of "Eurocentrism," one of the worst forms of cultural or ethnic chauvinism. It discriminates against other cultures by denying them an equal "voice" in the classroom or the textbooks. One might think that it would be a rational and non-controversial approach to teach American students about the American Declaration of Independence and the American Constitution. This is naive. And, again, it is not just the "fringe elements" who protest...American taxpayers are thus required to support the inculcation among American citizens of non-American cultural heritages however antipathetic these cultures may be to democracy or to American institutions...

Bilingualism springs from this fount of multiculturalism...In fact, the animating idea of the bilingual movement today is to preserve the sanctity of the students' "native" language and culture against the imperialistic efforts to force the "foreign" tongue of English upon them...

...The more ardent multiculturalists not only denounce the emphasis on Western civilization as bad but denounce Western civilization and its American variety as uniquely evil in themselves. The very ideas of "humanity" and "reason" are seen in this view as Eurocentric (and for the feminists, patriarchal) prejudices contrived to exploit "oppressed" cultures. This is the real driving force of the multicultural movement.

Multiculturalism has no patience for objective academic standards of excellence. These are merely other means by which the "dominant culture" oppresses "minority cultures." Therefore demonstrably objective tests are denounced as racist...

The multiculturalist replaces education with therapy, insisting that supporting the students' "self-esteem" is the governing object of education. Self-esteem is achieved by teaching the students of "oppressed cultures" to be proud of their particular race or ancestry. Some argue that this should be done by revealing the true greatness of these oppressed cultures which has been systematically repressed by a dominant white, male, European culture. But the more candid or incautious multiculturalists admit or even insist that the self worth of the oppressed must be cultivated by myths where facts will not do the trick...

...But truth must not get in the way of therapy...

The teachers who teach our public school children are graduates of American colleges where such doctrines of multiculturalism are rampant...

Social critic Rita Kramer recently spent a year visiting and studying representative schools of education across the country. Her conclusion: "At present, our teacher-training institutions, the schools, colleges, and departments of education on campuses across the country, are producing for the classrooms of America experts in methods of teaching with nothing to apply those methods to. Their technique is abundant, their knowledge practically nonexistent. A mastery of instructional strategies, an emphasis on educational psychology, a familiarity with pedagogical philosophies have gradually taken the place of a knowledge of history, literature, science, and mathematics."...What matters is not to teach any particular subject or skill, not to preserve past accomplishments or stimulate future achievements, but to give to all that stamp of approval that will make them 'feel good about themselves.' Self-esteem has replaced understanding as the goal of education."...

Educational therapy apparently works. We have succeeded perhaps beyond our expectations in replacing knowledge and skills with self-esteem in our students. American students and even their parents "feel good" about their educations...around 80% of American mothers think their child's school is doing a good or excellent job even as one national study after another headlines the declining academic performance of the nation's students. The prospect in civics, one supposes, is that Americans will feel good about their country as their civic freedoms continue to erode and they turn to tribal warfare.

The not surprising tendency of the multicultural therapy inflicted on America's students at all levels is to produce adult citizens who cannot distinguish between right and wrong; who are ignorant of their rights and duties as citizens and of the foundations and conditions of their political freedom; who have been taught to identify themselves through the skin color or surnames of their ancestors; who are ignorant of American history and the principles of American democracy or have been taught to despise America; who are lacking in basic intellectual accomplishments; and who believe that they should feel good about all this.

Perhaps the most tragic injustice perpetrated against the innocent student by teachers animated by these bad ideas is that he will have been denied his greatest birthright as an American. He will have been intellectually and therefore politically exiled from that community bound together by what Abraham Lincoln called "the principles and axioms of free society": the community originating in 1776 with the bold proclamation of the inalienable rights of man as the foundation of American political existence. Indeed, today's student is in a sense divested of his very humanity insofar as he is taught to understand himself not as a being possessed of the "rights of human nature," but as a member of one tribe asserting his atavistic will against other tribes, while possessing no capacity of distinguishing or choosing between good and evil.

Intelligent liberal critics of such multiculturalism see the problem more or less clearly. As the respected historian of education Diane Ravitch says, American schools should say to students from other cultures "that wherever they have come from, wherever their parents have come from, they are now preparing to be American citizens´┐Ż They must learn about American history, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, because this is now part of their precious heritage as American citizens."...

America began with a ringing affirmation of a fundamental moral and political truth: "We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights." Certainly, here was no appeal to skin color or ethnicity. The truth of human equality and liberty was asserted against all despotisms of race, class, or religion. Neither is this an appeal to "history" or an invocation of "Anglo-Saxon" roots. America is distinguished by being founded on an idea, the idea of the equal rights of human nature. We do not "live and die" for this idea because "it works for us" or because it is "our own." We make it our own because it is true. And having been elevated by making it our own, we pledge "our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor" to its vindication. No nation or people in history had ever established its political institutions on such principles...

Proclaiming that all men everywhere and at all times possess by nature equal rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, the American Founders undertook the historic effort to secure these rights, so far as they thought they could then be secured, to a small people at a particular place and time. They were acutely conscious of the limits of their ability to secure these rights. When they were able to establish a "more perfect union" they understood full well how far from perfection they remained...

In the course of its history, the American people have many times fallen beneath the high standards they set for themselves at the beginning. They have strayed from those principles, and they have forgotten them, and become confused about them, and allowed misunderstood self-interest to obscure them. The reason that Abraham Lincoln is rightly regarded as the greatest democratic statesman is that he kept America from abandoning those principles as the foundation of American democracy. His statesmanship preserved for future generations of Americans the moral truth of human equality as the pole star of their political life...

To begin to restore American education today, it is necessary to restore the moral and intellectual horizons within which the self evident truths on which America was founded can command the respect and allegiance they deserve...

The "genius" of the American people at the time of the American revolution and founding made it both possible and necessary to establish a regime based on the republican principles proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence. As Jefferson said in explaining the genesis of the Declaration of Independence, the ideas expressed in it were "the common sense of the subject" in America. He was merely expressing "the American mind." It was only because the American people had learned to embrace republican principles that it was possible to establish an American republic. The founders were animated by "that honorable determination which animates every votary of freedom to rest all our political experiments on the capacity of mankind for self-government." But they understood that this was a capacity that Americans would have to demonstrate for themselves, and continue to demonstrate each generation. As the Declaration proclaims, the just powers of government are derived from "the consent of the governed." Only a people prepared to consent to a republic are capable of establishing one. This means a people prepared to recognize their own humanity and that of their fellow citizens; who will neither aspire to be masters nor submit to be slaves; who are prepared to rule and be ruled in turn; who are prepared to abide by the laws they claim the right to make for themselves. A people that means to be free must have the virtues necessary to sustain their freedom. Do we?

It is up to this generation, as it has been up to each generation that preceded us and will be up to each generation that succeeds us, to demonstrate our capacity for self government...

At the end of the American War of Independence James Madison wrote an Address to the States, endorsed by Congress and by George Washington, recommending measures to secure the fragile independence that had just been won. He concluded with a reflection that sheds light on what is at stake in the education of American citizens in our own day: "[T]he citizens of the United States are responsible for the greatest trust ever confided to a political society. If justice, good faith, honor, gratitude and all the other qualities which enoble the character of a nation and fulfill the ends of government be the fruits of our establishments, the cause of liberty will acquire a dignity and lustre, which it has never yet enjoyed, and an example will be set, which cannot but have the most favourable influence on the rights of Mankind. If in the other side, our governments should be unfortunately blotted with the reverse of these cardinal and essential virtues, the great cause which we have engaged to vindicate, will be dishonored and betrayed; the last and fairest experiment in favor of the rights of human nature will be turned against them; and their patrons and friends exposed to be insulted and silenced by the votaries of tyranny and usurpation."

Steven Hayward - a Claremont alumnus - writes about the uniqueness of the American Founding in the Spring 2006 issue of the Claremont Review of Books:

...the idea of American exceptionalism - the idea, as old as the founding itself, that America is a special, even providential nation because it is, in Leo Strauss's words, "the only country in the world which was founded in explicit opposition to Machiavellian principles..."

The posting, Happy Birthday, America!, elaborates on Hayward's argument by further discussing the unique principles guiding the American Founding.

Other related postings include:

We Are Paying Quite a Price for Our Historical Ignorance
To Nurture Greater Ethical Awareness, Students Need Practice in Moral Discernment
Spreading Falsehoods in our Children's Education about Martin Luther King, Jr. and the American Founding