President Ronald Reagan once said, “freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction.” Riots and chaos in the streets of many American cities today are a reminder of how fragile our freedom is — and what is at stake for the future.
During his final address, our 40th president acknowledged that the resurgence of national pride seen during his tenure might not last unless it’s grounded in thoughtfulness and knowledge. In light of the nonsense going on in many parts of America today, it is worth repeating his warning from the Oval Office.
“An informed patriotism is what we want. And are we doing a good enough job teaching our children what America is and what she represents in the long history of the world? Those of us who are over 35 or so years of age grew up in a different America. We were taught, very directly, what it means to be an American. And we absorbed, almost in the air, a love of country and an appreciation of its institutions.
“If you didn’t get these things from your family you got them from the neighborhood, from the father down the street who fought in Korea or the family who lost someone at Anzio. Or you could get a sense of patriotism from school. And if all else failed you could get a sense of patriotism from the popular culture. The movies celebrated democratic values and implicitly reinforced the idea that America was special. TV was like that, too, through the mid-sixties.
“But now, we’re about to enter the nineties, and some things have changed. Younger parents aren’t sure that an unambivalent appreciation of America is the right thing to teach modern children. And as for those who create the popular culture, well-grounded patriotism is no longer the style. Our spirit is back, but we haven’t reinstitutionalized it. We’ve got to do a better job of getting across that America is freedom — freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of enterprise. And freedom is special and rare. It’s fragile; it needs protection.
“So, we’ve got to teach history based not on what’s in fashion but what’s important — why the Pilgrims came here, who Jimmy Doolittle was, and what those 30 seconds over Tokyo meant. You know, 4 years ago on the 40th anniversary of D-Day, I read a letter from a young woman writing to her late father, who’d fought on Omaha Beach. Her name was Lisa Zanatta Henn, and she said, ‘we will always remember, we will never forget what the boys of Normandy did.’ Well, let’s help her keep her word.
“If we forget what we did, we won’t know who we are. I’m warning of an eradication of the American memory that could result, ultimately, in an erosion of the American spirit. Let’s start with some basics: more attention to American history and a greater emphasis on civic ritual.
“And let me offer lesson number one about America: All great change in America begins at the dinner table. So, tomorrow night in the kitchen I hope the talking begins. And children, if your parents haven’t been teaching you what it means to be an American, let ‘em know and nail ‘em on it. That would be a very American thing to do.”
Unfortunately, it appears, many have fallen short of his charge. Seemingly, each day brings a new story of vandals destroying monuments of leaders like Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant and even Frederick Douglass.
The ignorance exhibited by many involved with the riots shows a fundamental lack of understanding of the great leaders of our country. Were our founders perfect? No, far from it. The only perfect person I know of hasn’t walked on this planet in more than 2,000 years.
Our Founders did, however, create a country based on a remarkable idea that all people are created equal. And they set up a system to enable America to continue to grow to a more perfect version of that idea. It opened the door for the 13th, 14th, 15th and 19th Amendments that extended the full rights of citizenship to everyone in our country.
Are there things we can do to continue to improve opportunities for all Americans? Yes. Which is precisely why we must learn our history — to avoid prior mistakes and to embrace past successes.
Despite our challenges, the United States of America is still the most exceptional country in the world. That’s why more than a million people come here each year. It is why no other nation is even close to the number of foreign-born citizens we have in the U.S.A. People all over the world want what we have, and that’s freedom. We must fight to keep it for ourselves and future generations.
• Scott Walker was the 45th governor of Wisconsin. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him @ScottWalker.
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