About the Program

Sen. Lamar Alexander's Announcement of the Grant
Ashland University, Ashland, Ohio
March 23, 2006

Audio of this Speech

…What we're here today to talk about is the teaching of American History. When I ran for the United States Senate in 2002, when you're a candidate, you always listen almost like a musician. You listen to see what resonates with the voters, and that doesn't mean you're making things up. You just want to hear what's on their minds. And to my surprise, the words that I would say that got the greatest reaction from the largest range of people was, "I want to do whatever I can to help put the teaching of American History back in its rightful place in our schools so our children can grow up learning what it means to be an American." I could barely get that out of my mouth without people clapping or wanting to applaud or coming up and saying something to me about it.

And we're here today to talk about the fact that Ashland University and the Ashbrook Center was selected as one of two places in the United States where this summer there will be a Presidential Academy for outstanding teachers of American History and Civics. This was not done by any sort of political competition. In fact, the two sponsors of the bill, I from Tennessee and then the Congressman from Mississippi, had applicants from our states. We hoped they would win them, but they didn't. You won. It was all based on the merit, so it's a really great credit to the years that you have spent helping teachers and students. I see the high school AP students here today. I see students here and faculty members and citizens who care about our country's history. You've got a reputation, you've earned it, and I'm here to congratulate you for winning that award.

Let me start by mentioning a story, talking about American History, and let's go back about 230 years. It was 1778, and George Washington and his officers were still camped at Valley Forge and Washington asked his officers to take an oath which Washington himself took. It was one of the earliest examples of Americans pledging their loyalty to this new nation. Let me read you a part of Washington's oath from Valley Forge: "I, George Washington, Commander-in-Chief of the Armies of the United States of America, do hereby acknowledge the United States of America to be free, independent, and sovereign states, and declare that the people thereof owe no allegiance or obedience to George III, King of Great Britain, and I renounce, refuse, and abjure any allegiance or obedience to him, and I do swear that I will to the utmost of my power support, maintain, and defend the said United States." That's how Washington and his officers swore allegiance to our country.

Much of the language in that oath is still in the oath that new citizens for our country take every year. This year, between 500,000 and a million new citizens of our country will stand up in a courthouse—it's a very moving ceremony—they will have attested that they've lived here five years, that they can speak English, that they know some history, that they've got good character. It doesn't just stop there. They have to say that they renounce the allegiance that they had and they swear to uphold this new allegiance. It's not a matter of turning your back on where you came from. It's more a matter of since the beginning of our country, we have said that new citizens should be proud of where they come from but prouder to be an American. We've also added something new, and that's to ask them to support and defend the Constitution and bear true allegiance to the same, to learn our common language, English, and our common American History.

Learning that history—it's hard to imagine how one could understand how to become an American without knowing our history. Samuel Huntington, a Harvard political scientist, says that most of our politics is about conflicts among the principles that unite us. What principles? The principles from our founding documents that we just recite without even thinking: that all men are created equal; that they're endowed by their Creator with life, liberty, and happiness. So, if we have a debate about abortion, what is it? Some people say life. Some people say liberty. If we have a debate about whether the President is properly authorizing wiretaps of terrorists, some people say, "Yes, I want him to protect my life," and some people say, "No, I want him to protect my liberties." So most of our politics is about conflicts among the principles with which almost all of us agree.

Knowing that history helps us have a better understanding of what's going on today. For example, if we really understood our own history, we might be a little more patient with Iraq. After all, we didn't ratify our Constitution until 13 years after our revolution, and we had to lock the news media out for six months to do it. We didn't get rid of slaves until after the Civil War. We didn't give women the right to vote until 1920. We didn't give people of all colors and backgrounds full access to voting, to lunchrooms, to public accommodations until 1965. We might be a little more patient with other people around the world if we remembered our own history a little better. There are other lessons. Dr. Graham Allison, a well-known professor of American Foreign Policy at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, recently said that the threat we face from Iran is like the Cuban Missile Crisis in slow-motion. Now let's say you're in the White House advising the President on what to do about Iran. Well let's say that you were there in 1962 in October advising President Kennedy about what to do about Russian nuclear weapons pointed at cities in the United States 90 miles away from Florida in Cuba. The options before President Kennedy then and the options before President Bush today aren't much different: air strikes to eliminate the weapons, a blockade or embargo, a quiet deal, or something more dramatic.

I had dinner the other day in Washington, D.C. at the Occidental Hotel where a little plaque marks the spot where newsman John Scally had dinner with an unidentified KGB agent to pass along the note to the Soviet Ambassador that led to the negotiated end of the Cuban Missile Crisis. That's how that one ended. That might be worth advisors to President Bush remembering as they think about what to do. Our ambassador then, Adlai Stevenson, had to make the case against the Russians. Our ambassador today to the U.N hopes to enlist the Russians in making the case against Iran. Robert F. Kennedy in 1962, then in his thirties, the Attorney General, argued against a preemptive strike of Cuba because it was, quote, "against American traditions."

That kind of discussion might be heard in the Oval Office today talking about Iran. Not just Iran, but the energy challenge—many challenges—but, for example, the energy challenge. When many of the students here weren't even born, we had another energy crisis. We waited into the middle of the night at gasoline stations to fill our tanks half full. That was because with oil embargo by OPEC to protest American military support of Israel. There were severe energy shortages, so we lowered the temperatures, lowered our speeds, conserved our energy. But we must not have learned our lesson very well because here we are again almost in the same shape. And those who look at that energy crisis and this energy crisis might find some lessons, like conservation works, like conservation is not enough, we may have to go look for natural gas off our shores, and that our short-term look is probably not good enough. We may have to look for long-term changes such as hydrogen fuel cells for our cars.

And one last example. When I go back to Washington next week, the Senate will take up immigration reform. Senators would be well-advised to remember the oath that George Washington took and that I just read at the beginning of my speech. Because what has allowed our country to be a nation of immigrants and to be a nation that last year produced thirty percent of all the wealth in the world for just five percent of the world's people—that's how many of us are Americans—is because of an oath that caused us to put aside our former allegiance and swear allegiance to a new nation, not on the basis of race, ancestry, or background, but on the basis of a few principles. And if you don't learn those principles, you have no idea what it is to become an American. So learning that is critically important to our country.

We used to spend a lot of time on it. The last time we had such a large number of people from other countries coming to America as a percentage of the total was the beginning of the 20th Century, and at that time, we used many devices to try to help new immigrants to this country learn what it meant to become an American. Companies taught English after work. Communities formed Rotary Clubs and Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts clubs, and many organizations have helped teach the principles of Americanism. The single greatest Americanizing institution in this country was the common school, the public school. Albert Schanker, the former President of the American Federation of Teachers, once said that "the common school was created to teach largely immigrant children reading, writing, and arithmetic, and what it means to be an American."

Yet today, our high school seniors score their lowest grades on United States History. And they do that because they're not being taught United States History. The work that you're doing at Ashland will change that. The popularity of your summer programs for teachers shows that there's a hunger for that. The fact that you've been able to win the competition from all over the country to establish a Presidential Academy for outstanding teachers of American History suggests that as well.

Just one example of how far we are from helping our children learn what they need to know. The fourth grade national report card test asked students to identify the following passage, quote, "We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness." Students were given four choices: Constitution, Mayflower Compact, Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation. Less than half the students answered correctly that that came from the Declaration of Independence. Another question said, "Imagine that you landed in Philadelphia in the summer of 1776. Describe an important event that is happening there." Nearly half the students couldn't answer the question correctly that the Declaration of Independence was being signed.

So these Presidential Academies, one of the first two here, are one way to help put the teaching of American History back in its rightful place in our schools. I am confident to entrust this responsibility with Ashland and the Ashbrook Center because of the good work you've done so far. My hope is that the fifty-one teachers—one from every state and the District of Columbia—who will spend two weeks this summer and then three weeks next summer learning about Philadelphia, Gettysburg, the Revolution, the Civil War, Civil Rights. And I'm going to take them on the floor of the United States Senate so they can see where Daniel Webster spoke; where they will see Jefferson Davis's desk that was slashed by the sword of a Union soldier until his commanding officer came up and said, "The purpose of the war is not to destroy the Union but to save the Union," and he stopped him—the desk is still there; to see where Senator Sam Houston came from Texas in 1846 dressed in a panther-skin coat to the floor of the United States Senate. This will give them a sense of our country's history that hopefully they can take home to students all across our country.

And I hope that this next week in the Senate when we begin talking about immigration that we don't have a pro-immigration/anti-immigration debate. That's not what our debates are about. Our debates are about principle, about resolving conflicts of principles with which we agree, which make us Americans. For example, we'll begin with border security, which is the rule of law, but then we should go on to temporary workers and students because those involve the principles of equal opportunity, of the fact that we are a nation of immigrants, and the fact that we based our economy upon the principle of laissez-faire. It is important once we secure our borders to remember that the way we've produced this astonishing standard of living for Americans is by in-sourcing a lot of brain power. Sixty percent of our graduate students in America—post-doctorate students—are foreign students. They either stay here and help us create a better standard of living for ourselves, or they go home and export our values. Sixty of the one-hundred Americans who have won the Nobel Prize in Physics are immigrants or children of immigrants. Wernher von Braun and a team of German scientists helped us win the Space Race with the Soviet Union. So we have constantly replenished our diversity and expanded our standard of living by opening our doors to people from other countries.

But my contribution in the next two weeks there will be on what I hope is the most important principle and the one you'll be teaching about here, and that is the one that's behind the presiding officer's desk in the United States Senate if you ever watch on C-SPAN. It's three words: E pluribus unum. We can take a lesson in that today too from England where three out of four of the citizens who blew up the London subway were British. And we can take a lesson from France where a great many immigrants—teenagers—say they want to become French. Well it's hard to imagine becoming French. It's hard to imagine becoming British or German or Japanese. But if you want to become an American—if you want to become a citizen of this country—you have to become an American. And we do it differently than the other countries. In other countries, it's your race, ancestry, background, where your great-grandparents come from, and here, that's not supposed to matter. Here, it's whether you agree and pledge your allegiance to a set of ideas. We may debate how those ideas apply, but that is the set.

So we're here today to celebrate you. I'm glad to be back at Ashland, I'm glad to be back at Ashbrook and see so many friends, and I'm glad you have the responsibility for this first Presidential Center, this Presidential Academy for American History. The better you do, the more likely we'll be able to enact more—my goal is that we'll have one in every state in this country before we're finished, and the very first one will have been here. Thank you very much.

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