Land of the Free ... and the Immigrant

Welcoming immigrants is a grand American tradition.

American flag
By SHARE

We raised the flag, went to church, lit the fireworks, barbecued the beef, grilled the hot dogs, sang Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the USA" or maybe Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind," watched a game, took the day off work (if we had a job at all). The traditions are very American and fun, but without wishing to rain on anyone's parade, there is one addition we should think of making these days – these days when 13 percent of the population is foreign born.

July 4 was a good day to look back on how we got where we are, how a nation that began with the ideals of freedom and equality began by restricting the right of "we the people" to govern themselves to a tiny minority of Americans: white male landowners. Native Americans, here before us, shared in the inequality with slaves brought here in chains and their descendants, with women and with Jews and Catholics (even if they met the other criteria), such was the dominance of the Protestant faith.

The transformation to the America we know and celebrate was long, slow and bloody, but marked, too, by heroes and visionaries in society, business and politics. We should honor them every Independence Day, along with the establishment of religious freedom in the 17th century by Maryland, Rhode Island and Pennsylvania, home to refugees from the theocratic cruelties of Massachusetts, with its hangings of "witches."

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Even well into the United States' maturity, exclusion and persecution persisted: American males of Mexican descent denied the vote into the second half of the 19th century in Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas; blacks in uniform home in 1918 from fighting for America; Irish immigrants wanting to work but confronted with "NINA" (No Irish Need Apply) attitudes; women rejected for college, forbidden to divorce, and prosecuted for campaigning for the vote even into the 20th century. But how they fought: Between 1893 and 1908 they conducted no fewer than 480 campaigns to get the issue on state ballots, succeeded only 17 times in referenda and triumphed then only in Colorado and Idaho. Alice Paul was beaten and jailed for protesting at the White House against the hypocrisy of President Woodrow Wilson, speaking about making the world safe for democracy while denying suffrage to women at home.

American history is iridescent with drama relevant to our lives today. But it is a fair bet that millions of Americans haven't a clue how their freedoms were achieved. Try out a simple quiz on anyone you can corner, young or old. He or she will surely know who Martin Luther King Jr. is, but few will recognize Robert Moses or Moses Wright or know of John Doar. They'll know of Madeleine Albright, but few will know the significance of Jeannette Rankin, Barbara Jordan or Phyllis Schafly; they'll know of Thomas Edison but not Samuel Insull, Daniel Inouye, Amadeo Giannini, Joseph Welch. They'll know of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg but not likely of Gary Kildall or Edwin Armstrong or Jack Kilby, who made their triumphs possible.

Nobody need feel ashamed of not being able to rattle off the references, given that American history is so rich with the exceptional. But the younger generation has suffered from a downgrading of the teaching of U.S. history, which has been subsumed into "social studies" or dropped altogether. The AP reports that a solid grasp of U.S. history was demonstrated by only 13 percent of high school seniors who took the 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress. Fourth and eighth graders did better (22 percent and 18 percent respectively). Secretary of Education Arne Duncan acknowledged, "As a country we are failing to provide children with a high quality, well-rounded education."

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American history has generally lost priority in schools and often suffers, it has to be said, from unimaginative teaching. It has also been too confined to constitutional and political landmarks, to the neglect of much of the business of America, which in fact is business.