Is Teaching a Common American Identity Indoctrination? Part II

Editor’s Note: This is the second part of a two-part essay. The first can be
found here

In the first half of this two-part essay, I established what a “common cultural identity” and its specific American manifestations are, ascertained the importance of having this common identity, and discovered the fundamental difference in the way left-wing statists and limited-government conservatives perceive the world. Next, there are the three issues raised by the reader who responded to my article that need to be explored and answered. They are, once again:

  • Explaining how teaching a common American identity is different from the political indoctrination performed by some left-wing professors.
  • Explaining that there is little or no contradiction between teaching that common identity and “respecting the inherent worth of individuals.”
  • Explaining that there is a great deal of difference between group rights and individual rights, and that group rights are very much at odds with the American identity and its basic principles, such as liberty.

So, how does teaching the common American identity differ from left-wing indoctrination?

The American identity, as indicated earlier, is the product of specific historical events and the ideas held by our countrymen during those events. To teach it, we need only teach honestly about our civic institutions and the events and ideas of the past. Young Americans must be taught the traditions they inherit, that they have a powerful bond with our forebearers—the people who wrote our great texts, created our specific ideas and inventions, and held certain things dear, for it is our deeds, words, ideas and passions that give us meaning and identity.

Neither sins nor virtues of America’s past should be left out. Either form of denial is false. To ignore past injustices is to live one kind of lie, but to wallow forever in guilt despite great strides to correct those injustices is another. To teach this country’s history honestly is to include the good with the bad, for to say this country has not frequently been a force for good in the world is to be dishonest. There is more to the United States than slavery, colonialism, and robber barons—this needs to be said aloud, often, and to all Americans.

The left, when they seek to indoctrinate, cannot just teach the past accurately and be done with it, for that won’t suit their purposes. Their vision of equality is in conflict with mankind’s naturally unequal abilities and ambitions. Their justifications for a total transformation of society are contradicted by the optimism that comes with an objective understanding of American history. Because they seek to lead us in a different direction than human nature and our traditions have taken us, they wish to erase our national identity, not pass it on. For instance, they do not wish us to continue the traditional sense of American self-reliance, but to look to government to take care of us.

They cannot reveal our real evolution, that a free, self-reliant people have created near-universal prosperity within their nation’s borders, and have spread liberty in an ever-widening circle, for that suggests that a better future lies in our traditional system. The left can only present a view that justifies its adherents’ desire for complete transformation: the United States as oppressor, its future as bleak and hopeless as its past was unjust.

And therefore the left only reveals capitalism’s exploitation, and not its bounty, its innovation, and its synergy with freedom. The left’s proponents gloss over the nightmarish aspects of real collective societies such as the Soviet Union and instead focus on hypothetical socialist theories as if the world has yet to experience socialism. Proof that their system can work does not exist.

This emphasis on such a narrow, negative viewpoint is very different than the support for broad learning favored by those who wish to restore the traditional American identity. Conservatives want to teach the entire spectrum of American thought, and hold the ideas expressed within up to the light for close examination. They crave the opportunity to teach the books written by laissez-faire economists side-by-side with the vapid tomes of left-wing theorists favored in some sectors of academia.

And what of the reader’s second concern about our society’s inclusiveness, that teaching about a common identity is opposed to “respect for the inherent worth of each person?”

It is fair to say that there have been few, if any, societies that have been more inclusive than ours? Our nation’s motto is E Pluribus Unum: “out of many, one.” Americans have welcomed people of every nation to our shores, and asked them to become “one” with us. We have allowed them to vote, to prosper, to live and worship as they please, and have guaranteed their individual rights as equal to the native-born.

And while there were egregious errors of exclusion committed in our past, there have also been equal or greater attempts to overcome them. This country freed its slaves, granted them full equal rights, and in many ways tried to give them a hand up.

Can all injustice and discrimination be stopped? Of course not—man is an imperfect creature. But we have laws against unjust discrimination. We have laws to protect individuals against harassment and libel. We have guaranteed rights to speak freely, and to be reasonably secure in our person and property.

Indeed, our Constitution, Bill of Rights, and many subsequent amendments are essentially celebrations of the individual spirit.

In the third and final issue, the reader appeared to equate group rights with the rights of individuals. However, there is a great deal of difference between the two. While our individual rights serve to safeguard our personal liberty, extending rights and privileges to specific groups creates a quagmire of divisiveness. Such activities threaten many of the individual rights shared by us all.

For instance, the notion that each ethnic group is deserving of some fair share or representation according to its demographic proportion is antithetical to the idea of freedom, which permits each person to rise or fall according to his or her talents and effort.

Perhaps the worst aspect of group rights is the way they tear people apart, for each group’s advantage is another’s disadvantage. It sets groups in opposition, each looking to manipulate the government for gain. We become not one, but many. It is a mistake to believe, as do many on the left, that emphasizing differences somehow makes us more cohesive.

If society is organized into many different groups, all with different sets of basic principles, there will be no agreement on how to conduct the affairs of the nation, only factions competing for advantage. Such a society will eventually break apart—as Abraham Lincoln said, “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” Unless, of course, that society submits to tyranny to maintain the peace among all the conflicting parties.

There are other natural limits to the concept of inclusiveness. The idea that each group (or, for that matter, each individual) can be protected from what its members feel is offensive, by their own definition, is absurd. It is a direct violation of the right to free speech. If our traditions, our language, and our beliefs so offend people that they find life unbearable in our midst, then maybe they should consider relocation, instead of expecting us to change who we are. It is one thing to expect the majority to refrain from job discrimination or from using derogatory ethnic terms, but a very different matter when non-Christians find Christmas displays offensive and seek to have them banned.

Just as minorities should not suffer oppression at the hands of the majority, the majority should not be held hostage by the demands of aggressive minorities—that is a certain path to increasing animosity on both sides. If the majority is expected to exhibit toleration, the same should be required of minorities.

For it should be noted that the worst intolerance today comes not from the majority, but from groups that demand an end to the essential elements of the American identity, such as liberty and self-reliance, in order to give us new identities foreign to our nature. There are in this country many adherents to belief systems that would do so—communism and radical Islam spring to mind. Nobody is forbidden to hold these beliefs, and they are permitted to voice their opinions. They, like everybody else, have their individual rights to freedom of religion and freedom of speech. But to give them group rights to help them spread their ideologies defies the natural instinct for survival. The United States, like every society and every living organism, has a God-given right to defend itself from those who would end its existence.

Still, our tradition of liberty provides a great deal of latitude in thought. The national identity will continue to evolve with new events and new influences. As the Bradley Project explains, “the sort of unity required to maintained the nation is not uniformity, but “agreement on a few basic principles.”

But these few basic principles—the core of our identity—must be respected, or this country will fail. For, as the Bradley Project added, “a nation founded on an idea is inherently fragile.” Ronald Reagan argued that we are only one generation away from losing our liberty at all times. Our identity is inextricably tied to liberty—to keep it intact, it must be taught anew to each generation, or it will fade away due to the complacency that results from the prosperity and security our traditions produce. For without liberty, and many of the other underlying elements of our identity, whatever replaces our current system will be much worse indeed.