Memory assassination

Posted on September 5, 2011. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns |

Facebook pages overflowed the last couple of weeks with “first day of school” photos.

The back-to-school ritual is a well-established one, a rite of passage that transcends generations and geography in the United States.

It is simultaneously a time of great tradition and energetic idealism. New students learn best by building on a foundation of knowledge.

That’s why history is arguably the single most important subject in education. And why the commandeering of history, even in the name of progressive education principles, poses such a serious threat to the national future.

The single greatest travesty in our schools involving history is the ongoing assassination attempt on the memory of George Washington.

Longtime teacher and author Beverly Eakman recently described Washington as the “latest casualty” of progressive education, the now dominant philosophy of education in which the socialization of students is deemed superior to acquiring a common body of knowledge.

Writing in The New American two-weeks ago, Eakman noted that most parents are too young to remember anything but educational progressivism. The notion of a common set of national heroes and villains and images and values as forming the core of the American spirit can seem as strangeand outdated as yesteryear’s fashions.

Time was (and it wasn’t that long ago), that our first president epitomized the American character. So dominant was Washington’s influence that he was regarded as legendary in his own lifetime, and his reputation grew to mythological proportions after his death in 1799.

There can be no real understanding of America that excludes Washington’s extraordinary life, just as no accurate story of Wal-Mart could ever be told without the prominent inclusion of Sam Walton.

In 1932, 200 years after his birth, Washington’s exemplary shadow of leadership, strength and integrity still hung heavy over the country. Congress that year, in commemoration of his birth bicentennial, ordered portraits of Washington hung in every single school in America.

Eakman generously discounts politically correct motivations for the disappearance of Washington’s pictures, blaming instead the momentum produced by the progressivism movement.

Indisputably, developments in education between that congressional acknowledgment and the 200th anniversary of Washington’s death were hostile to the first president’s legacy.

By then New Jersey businessman William Sanders had embarked on a campaign to restore Washington’s portraits in schools, and he met resistance on every front.

The state education association objected, complaining that legislation to honor one person “does a disservice to many individuals. There are so many others who were also instrumental in securing our country’s freedom.”

This zero-sum attitude—the idea that honoring Washington somehow dishonors others—is indicative of progressivism’s anti-individual approach, but it also distorts the truth.

There simply were no others as instrumental in as many ways as Washington was, and it’s disconcerting that some pretend otherwise.

The reliably revisionist American Civil Liberties Union weighed in on Sanders’ project by registering a wariness against what it termed “forced patriotism.”

Admitting that there wouldn’t be anything unconstitutional aboutmandating placement of the first president’s picture in classrooms, an ACLU spokesman said he was suspicious nonetheless about imposing the practice on schools.

A few academics chimed in as well, including an Oklahoma professor who said, “America was not a pretty place for black people when George Washington was president.” The so-called historian didn’t see much from 200 years ago for our country to celebrate, but curiously failed to identify which other parts of the globe would have been pretty places for blacks in the late 1700s. The African continent where slaves were peddled (or worse)? The European empires that financed and enabled the slave trade? The barbaric Asian and middle-Eastern cultures?

Now, nearly a decade later, Joseph Stalin himself could hardly have purged Washington’s watchful countenance more completely from the eyes of our impressionable youth.

It’s unlikely Congress will ever again mandate that Washington’s portrait hang in school hallways.

But a great lesson for all Arkansans would be for our own Legislature to lead the way with a Washington revival.

With 450,000 students attending 180 days of school, Washington pictures in all schools would generate 81 million positive visual impressions every year. And students can do far worse than look up and decide to follow his example.

From a larger constitutional perspective, such an act would also boldly demonstrate the oft-forgotten strength behind our original union, which is the room for true diversity between the states. Let other states’ halls remain bare, and their textbooks barren, when it comes to Washington.

Arkansas can choose to honor and showcase his memory. And it would make a strong statement about far more than just school décor.

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