Tuesday, November 16, 2004

The Bushes on History

Somehow, I missed this earlier. Regardless, the American Heritage magazine interviewed the President and First Lady about their perspectives on history. To me, the following two questions provoked insight and "nuance" that his detractors would have us believe the President does not have:
Question: When you look at American heroes and heroines, some people think they should all be knights in shining armor. But we know that Benjamin Franklin, for example, who did so many great things, didn’t always have a perfect life. Do you think it’s better for us to meet historical figures on a pedestal or see them as they are?

Mrs. Bush: I think it’s better to see people as a whole—

The President: Yes.

Mrs. Bush: Their brilliance and their achievements along with their faults, not in a revisionist sense where you go back and dig up things that you might not know about people, but—

The President: It’s one thing to be factual about a person, but it’s another thing to imply or assume in order to denigrate their contributions. I agree it’s very important to look at the whole, but I also think we should be confident enough about our nation and what we stand for not to denigrate achievement. We should focus on success. Kids need to see that success is possible. Children learning history have to say, “Gosh, maybe I can do that too.” People need to aspire to an ideal, without being Pollyanna-ish about the life of the person.

Question: Mrs. Bush, how should we teach our nation’s history to an increasingly diverse population? As a former teacher, how do you connect with kids who maybe weren’t even born here?

The President: One thing—I’m going to start, and then you can get in here because I feel strongly about this—I’m sure other Presidents have been asked about how we don’t seem to have things in common. That question has been asked throughout our history. There have been other times when waves of immigrants began to change the face of America. Yet what didn’t change were the ideals that united the country. That’s what is essential for kids to learn, that there are common ideals applicable to everybody, regardless of race or religion, that become the principles that bind us together, that make us unique, so that no matter how we diversify, the principles that unite us don’t change. And it says right there on the Presidential Seal, E Pluribus Unum. I didn’t write that. That was here a long time before me. “Out of Many, One.” And that needs to be taught. And we never should lose sight of it, because that is what makes us strong.

Mrs. Bush: And on the other hand, all heritages of all of our citizens, of every immigrant group that has come to the United States, have made our country rich. Each of those heritages is also something to study and know about. I was just reading about the Mayan culture. Probably a lot of Hispanics who are here have some Mayan ancestry. That’s a very interesting heritage for everyone to study with the idea that we are all one.

The President: Yes, in the world in which we live, it is essential that the American ideal be explained to people around the world. If you’re a Muslim living in America, you’re just as free as a Methodist. You’re just as free to succeed. You’re just as free to live a life of peace. You’re just as free to send your kids to school. We honor you just as much. We honor your religion. We honor your individual rights. We honor your dignity just as much as we honor anyone else’s. And that ideal is a powerful message to people who live in areas of the world that lack freedom, that lack a unifying principle.

Young kids need to learn about heroes, heroes from all walks of life. One of the things I try to do when I travel the country is point out acts of generosity and compassion done by average citizens and hold them up as models that we ought to emulate. There are ways to enrich history by setting out examples where youngsters will say, “Gosh, what an exciting figure that person is.”
I couldn't have said it better myself.

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