"Informed Patriotism"

By Cole, Bruce | Humanities, January/February 2008 | Go to article overview
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"Informed Patriotism"

Cole, Bruce, Humanities

We the People. With these words, the framers of the Constitution declared that the government they were creating was built on the consent of the governed, not around titles, bloodlines, or state religion. They had just overthrown British rule and envisioned a democracy-and they, the people, would nurture the nation as it struggled, grew, and triumphed.

Five years ago, when the National Endowment for the Humanities launched an initiative to improve the teaching and understanding of American history and culture, we decided to call it We the People. The words signaled our determination to help Americans learn about the principles and ideals that governed our country's founding and its history. We also wanted to encourage the study of people who helped to forge our nation, the humble and the great, the immigrant and the native born, and the soldier and the mother at home.

The idea for the initiative developed in the months following 9/11. It became apparent to me and others that defending America requires more than a strong national defense. We also need to know our founding principles, our nation's history, our institutions, and our rights and responsibilities. Citizens who cannot define their liberties cannot defend them.

Many others agreed. On September 17, 2002, President Bush announced the launch of We the People at a Rose Garden ceremony. Fittingly, it was Constitution Day. Congress also lent its support, providing NEH with more than $51 million for the program over the next five years. We used that money to strengthen our programs in research, education, public programs, and preservation and access, while introducing new efforts focused specifically on our nation's story.

As part of the Landmarks of American History and Culture Workshops, each summer more than a thousand teachers spend a week studying with scholars and exploring historical sites, such as Mount Vernon and Ellis Island. The We the People Bookshelf program provides thousands of school and public libraries across the country with free sets of fifteen classic works of literature for young readers that convey themes important to American history and culture-"Courage," "Freedom," "Becoming American," "The Pursuit of Happiness," and "Created Equal." In the coming year, another three thousand schools will receive books.

We the People also provides Americans with opportunities to learn about American history in their communities. One hundred libraries across the country are hosting "Forever Free: Abraham Lincoln's Journey to Emancipation," an exhibition documenting Lincoln's role in abolition. Other libraries will be hosting "Benjamin Franklin: In Search of a Better World," an exhibition exploring Franklin's contributions to the founding of the nation. We the People grants also support documentaries, bringing history into living rooms across the nation. Ken Burns's The War chronicles the nation's transformation as it fought the Axis powers. The War Thai Made America looks at the role of the French and Indian War in moving the colonies toward revolution. Other films profile sharp shooter Annie Oakley, naturalist John James Audubon, and statesman Alexander Hamilton.

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