Perspective: Why understanding America’s exceptional history builds self-reliance
Building agency in the next generation will depend partly on teaching our young people to appreciate and embrace America’s founding principles
My parents, Vincent and Eula, came to the United States in 1968. They were Black immigrants who arrived during the tumultuous year in which both Robert F. Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. were assassinated, and the country suffered through a wave of civil disturbance and race riots. Yet while they had both left their homes and families in Jamaica, my parents were not running from a tyrannical regime or impossible economic conditions. Rather, they were running toward a brighter future in the United States. Although they were fully cognizant of the nation’s struggle with racial discrimination and its legacy of slavery, nevertheless, they wanted to live and raise their children in a “land of opportunity” where anything was possible.
My parents’ focus on family, religion, education and entrepreneurship, their model of hard work and marriage over 48 years — and, yes, their decision to come to this exceptional country with its many opportunities and possibilities — all contributed to what I have become today. I like to think that my mother and father see me now as the embodiment of what they envisioned so many years ago.
My parents, like so many before them, saw the United States as a beacon of hope for billions of people around the world. They believed our founding principles — liberty, equality, personal responsibility — were central to the realization of the American Dream. It strikes me that one building block of agency in young people is that they must believe that they live in a good country, if not a great one; a country that is not hostile to their dreams and that, however flawed, is still full of possibilities that will reward you with great works in return for your great work. This symbiosis of possibility between individual and country is artistically exemplified in the song introducing Alexander Hamilton in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway smash musical “Hamilton”:
Hey yo, I’m just like my country,
I’m young, scrappy and hungry,
And I’m not throwin’ away my shot! ...
I prob’ly shouldn’t brag, but dag, I amaze and astonish.
The problem is I got a lot of brains but no polish
I gotta holler just to be heard.
With every word, I drop knowledge!
I’m a diamond in the rough, a shiny piece of coal
Tryin’ to reach my goal. ...
Ev’ry burden, ev’ry disadvantage
I have learned to manage ...
The lyrics of “My Shot” make plain the critical linkage between the sense of possibility in one’s country and the sense of possibility in one’s own life. You cannot say you are not “throwin’ away my shot” if you think your country doesn’t give people like you — “a shiny piece of coal” — an opportunity to succeed. Learning to manage “ev’ry burden, ev’ry disadvantage” and “tryin’ to reach my goal” will have no meaning if the system is stacked against you.
Are we going to teach our children a narrative of oppression, tyranny and victimization or provide them with the character and tools to thrive?
Building agency in the next generation will depend partly on teaching our young people to appreciate and embrace America’s founding principles rather than teaching them to denigrate and reject those ideas as somehow illegitimate because they have been too often violated in practice. Those principles have been a pathway to success for legions of marginalized groups who have shouldered “ev’ry burden, ev’ry disadvantage.” That is why we must oppose distorted histories that paint America as an irredeemably racist or inherently unjust nation. Meta-narratives of a permanent American malignancy of oppression such as those promoted in The New York Times’ 1619 Project or Howard Zinn’s “The People’s History of the United States” (1980) are not just fraudulent as history, they also hurt kids. They rob our children of agency and turn them into disempowered victims. Again, why worry about not throwing away your shot if the game is rigged anyway?
Consider the 1619 Project. “The 1619 project is a major initiative from The New York Times observing the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery,” the paper said in introducing a special interactive version of the project on its website. “It aims to reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding, and placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.”
The 1619 Project made a series of specious claims: The introduction of slaves in 1619, and not the Declaration of Independence in 1776, marks America’s true founding. The practice of American slavery, and not the principles of the declaration (“all men are created equal”), define the American project to this day. The nation’s founding ideals were “false when they were written” and our “nation was founded on both an ideal and a lie.” According to the 1619 Project, “anti-Black racism runs in the very DNA of the country.”
Dozens of the nation’s most well-respected historians discredited the project’s history, particularly its claim that the American Revolution was fought to defend slavery. In particular, Brown University religious studies professor Michael Satlow drew a bead on the project’s use of the DNA metaphor in a dead-on letter to the Times. “The metaphor is misleading and perhaps pernicious, as it obscures agency,” he wrote. “Every generation receives traditions, found in laws, customs and institutions, but every person in every generation has significant leeway in how to understand and live those traditions. Traditions — perhaps the meaning of ‘DNA’ in this metaphor — make racism easier, but ultimately it is the quotidian choices that we have and continue to make that cause racism, as they will (cause) its eradication.” He is exactly right.
Regrettably, The New York Times was not satisfied with simply putting out a special edition of its publication. It also partnered with the Pulitzer Center to create a curriculum that has now been adopted in thousands of classrooms. School districts in Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Buffalo, New York — interestingly enough, some of the country’s poorest academically performing districts in the country — incorporated the project into their K-12 course materials in early 2020. Sadly, the 1619 Project’s messaging is not an aberration. Young people of all races and ages are being taught to see racism and oppression everywhere. In one enrichment block at Hanover High School in New Hampshire, students were asked to complete a “Race Literacy Quiz.” The quiz included the following question: “The rise of the idea of white supremacy was tied most directly to: A. Indian removal, B. Slavery, C. The Declaration of Independence, D. The U.S. Constitution, E. Ancient Greece.” Astonishingly, the “correct” response was C, the Declaration of Independence. The answer key explained that “it was freedom, not slavery, that gave rise to modern theories of race.”
This defamation of the nation’s founding document so disturbed New Hampshire Board of Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut that he asked me to testify before the state board in March 2021. Inspired by my colleagues at the Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism, here is part of my testimony:
Increasingly, American institutions — colleges and universities, businesses, government, the media and even our children’s schools — are enforcing a cynical and intolerant orthodoxy. This orthodoxy requires us to view each other based on immutable characteristics like skin color, gender and sexual orientation. It pits us against one another, and diminishes what it means to be human. In many instances, we see faculty forced into professional development or students in their classrooms divided by race, and forced to confess their status as oppressor or oppressed.
Yes, our nation has a flawed and tragic history and we have not always lived up to our founding ideals. Moreover, our schools should address this dark history. But our nation also has a beautiful and an inspiring past. It is a story — a uniquely American story — that chronicles the struggle to live up to those no-less-great principles in practice. Our students should be taught this part of the American story, too. (It is worth noting that in 2018, only 15 percent of all eighth grade students scored as “proficient” on the National Assessment of Educational Progress U.S. History assessment, which examined students’ understanding of historical chronology and differing perspectives across time and their grasp of historical facts and contexts.)
In the middle of his work to overcome the legacy of slavery and reality of that day’s Jim Crow racism, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at the New York Civil War Centennial Commission’s Emancipation Proclamation Observance on September 12, 1962. An excerpt of what he said that day highlights the importance of our founding principles in our nation’s history:
“If our nation had done nothing more in its whole history than to create just two documents, its contribution to civilization would be imperishable. The first of these documents is the Declaration of Independence and the other is that which we are here to honor tonight, the Emancipation Proclamation. All tyrants, past, present and future, are powerless to bury the truths in these declarations, no matter how extensive their legions, how vast their power and how malignant their evil” (italics added).
In his 1835 classic, “Democracy in America,” French writer and sociologist Alexis de Tocqueville explored the norms and culture that made America so unique — observations from his tour of the United States that have stood the test of time. “The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation,” he wrote, “but rather in her ability to repair her faults.” I have always found this statement compelling because it accords with the notion that America is always in pursuit of becoming “a more perfect union.” Our founding principles — principles beautifully set down in the Declaration of Independence — are the measure of perfection, as the Rev. King would come to understand.
While America’s founders laid out inspiring ideals that they themselves did not always personally fulfill as individuals, the legacy they left is a country constantly working to fully live up to those ideals. America’s founding and governing documents — the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the other constitutional amendments — are the tools of national betterment, the mechanisms for national repair and renewal.
We cannot escape the fact that America’s history will forever be scarred by the horrific stories of chattel enslavement. But today’s revisionist history projects ignore the peculiar duality of America. As Hendrik Hertzberg and Henry Louis Gates Jr. wrote in their comment on the 1996 New Yorker special edition “Black in America,” “For African-Americans, the country of oppression and the country of liberation are the same country.”
The peculiar duality can be seen in the fact that this is the country in which enslaved people with a certain skin color at one time were once considered only three-fifths of a human being. Yet it is the same country that twice elected Barack Obama, someone of that same skin color, to the presidency. It is the same country that, in 2020, elected Kamala Harris, a woman of Jamaican and Indian descent, as vice president. That’s the duality. The question is this: What are we going to lead young people to believe they can achieve? Are we going to teach them a narrative of oppression, tyranny and victimization? Or are we going to provide them with the character and tools to thrive? Are we going to promote a mindset of victimization? Or are our schools, families and faith communities going to encourage our young people to prepare themselves to seize the opportunities that are out there and not to throw away their shot?
On March 18, 2008, then-presidential candidate Obama spoke at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. It was an important speech, one that’s even more relevant amid today’s fierce debates over what to teach young Americans about the nation’s origin story and true birthdate. Obama argued that, despite America’s original sin, the abomination of slavery, he was optimistic that future generations would continue to make progress toward “a more perfect union.” Why did he think so? Because our nation was founded on the principles embedded in the Constitution. In closing, Obama described the path toward a more perfect union:
“For the African American community, that path means embracing the burdens of our past without becoming victims of our past. It means continuing to insist on a full measure of justice in every aspect of American life. But it also means binding our particular grievances, for better health care and better schools and better jobs, to the larger aspirations of all Americans. … And it means taking full responsibility for our own lives — by demanding more from our fathers, and spending more time with our children, and reading to them, and teaching them that, while they may face challenges and discrimination in their own lives, they must never succumb to despair or cynicism. They must always believe that they can write their own destiny.”
Just as our founding ideals have allowed America to continue to become a better nation, they also help us as individuals to better ourselves. That is what we need to tell our children — that they also have an inner strength and can learn the tools of self-betterment and self-repair and renewal. That is the mindset and skills that the mediating institutions of family, religion and education need to celebrate and cultivate.
Of course, as it relates to the United States and its young people, our future is still to be written. Here again, Miranda captures the linkage between the promise of America and its people in the closing song that marks Alexander Hamilton’s death:
Legacy. What is a legacy?
It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see.
I wrote some notes at the beginning of a song someone will sing for me.
America, you great unfinished symphony,
You sent for me.
You let me make a difference.
A place where even orphan immigrants can leave their fingerprints and rise up.
Our young people have the power to shape their legacy. As adults, it is our responsibility to prepare them to write the next stanza in their own and their country’s unfinished symphony. Rather than teaching them to lament what was or might have been, we need to teach them that they can make a difference in what is to come. We need to show them that they themselves have the capacity — the agency — to wise up, rise up and leave their fingerprints on what is to be.
Ian V. Rowe is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and author of “Agency: The Four Point Plan for ALL Children to Overcome the Victimhood Narrative and Discover Their Pathway to Power,” a book from Templeton Press