Teaching US History: An American Creed

As a retired Army officer, I had always been nagged by my prep school’s rejection of any signs of patriotism. Like most boarding schools, it has never acknowledged several national holidays. Memorial Day has normally been our first day of spring term exams. We have celebrated Martin Luther King Day with a 40-minute program instead of a holiday. Until 9/11, Veteran’s Day was barely recognized, perhaps a quick reference to it during our opening prayer when school assembly fell on the holiday. Our student body has never been asked to say the Pledge of Allegiance.

Therefore, it was with some misgivings that I decided my US History students and I would formulate an American Creed in phases as we progressed through the course. I explained to them that unlike most great powers in history, Americans define themselves by certain words. We have never reposed our trust and identity in an emperor, king, ruler, or political party.

As much as for my students, this would also be a healthy and challenging exercise for me. Having never attempted such an exercise, I held but few preconceived notions about its ultimate composition. I knew clearly it would contain some lines from the Declaration of Independence and probably Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, but beyond these, it was a blank slate. I recognized that it should be neither too long nor too short; the students should be able to memorize it without too much effort. The assessment would come at year’s end with a quiz in which they—with a few prompts—would essentially write the entire Creed. I pictured it containing five to eight statements. I told them that we would not formulate the words; they must come from historical figures—speeches or documents.

 

Abraham_Lincoln_November_1863, Lib, Congress

Since my school is a Catholic-Benedictine boarding school, all students take Western Civilization in their freshman year. They all learn about the Council of Nicea. In 325 CE, Roman Emperor Constantine, the first Christian emperor, troubled by the controversy over heretical Arianism, called a council of church leaders to resolve it. In ultimately condemning Arianism, it also formulated the Nicene Creed, the basic beliefs of Christians which 1700 years later Roman Catholics still recite at every mass. In this age of heightened partisanship which at times evolves into gridlock, could my students and I discover words on which most Americans would or at least should agree?

But then there were the international students. Over 40% of my students were international, mainly Latinos and Koreans. Should I also require them, not only to help formulate but also commit to memory this American Creed? I decided ultimately that they too would be required to know it and be quizzed on it. Equity was one factor; more important was my conviction that it would be a healthy exercise for them which they could replicate for their own countries’ Creeds. I wagered that they would also benefit, perhaps more than the American students, from comparing our ultimate American Creed with their own.

In the end I decided on these elements. One: “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. That, to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed ….” (Declaration of Independence, 1776) Two: “…that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” (Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address, 1863) Three: Emma Lazarus: Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. (Emma Lazarus, 1883) Four: “Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror.” (Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1933) Five: “… ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” (John F. Kennedy, 1961) And finally, six: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” (Martin Luther King, Jr., 1963)

Since I essentially had done the selecting, I asked the students, when assessment time came, to add a seventh quote. I received some interesting ones. Not surprisingly, one student offered the Pledge of Allegiance. Also, “The greatness of a man is not how much wealth he acquires but in his integrity and ability to affect others around him positively.” (Bob Marley) “All great change in America begins at the dinner table.” (Ronald Reagan) “The life of the nation is secure only while the nation is honest, truthful, and virtuous.” (Frederick Douglass)

Toward the end of the musical Don Quixote, a dramatic moment comes when the near-death Quixote, scorned and covered with scars, asks Dulcinea: “Tell me the words.” He has forgotten the words which once actuated him on his quest. This exercise reminded me and my students of timeless key words which have inspired Americans.

George Packer, in his award-winning book, The Unwinding, suggests how America in the last four decades has been in a “vertigo” of “unwinding,” bringing power to organized money, a surfeit of freedom, aloneness, change, and new celebrity icons. As we undergo renewal, only the cacophony of “American voices” has persisted.

Perhaps in our renewal process, we can rediscover the right words from our past, rebalance their inherent conflicts, and find their best application in the 21st century.

 

An educator for 35 years, Fred Zilian teaches history, ethics, and political science at Portsmouth Abbey School and Salve Regina University, RI. Contact: zilianf@aol.com.

 

 

 

 

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