I GO TO AMITY SR. HIGH SCHOOL in Woodbridge, Connecticut--a liberal public school in a liberal state. Conservatives are scarce around here and outspoken ones are scarcer. I am so "unusual" that people (friends and even some I don't know) call me "Dan, Dan, Republican," which is a good-natured joke, sort of.
These days, I never go to school without my Election 2004 battle kit--a hefty red folder that I carry in my backpack titled (on account of my infinite humility) "Proving People Wrong." This folder holds everything from IRS tax return figures to a comparison of Bush versus Gore in terms of college grades (Bush wins). I always have my folder with me, so that when I get into a political discussion (which might happen a dozen times a day and is likely to happen even more often as Election Day approaches), I can confront my opponents with the facts. They hate facts. They prefer to take refuge behind a slogan: Bush is Dumb.
The teachers are predictable liberals; the students are more worrying. In the white-painted low-ceilinged cafeteria with noise echoing off the brick and cinderblock walls, I eat lunch at a table of eight friends among 400 noisy kids. Politics is usually on the menu. Most lunch-table liberals say that they do not love America, and would not defend it. One boy says he'd just as soon live in Canada. They can't understand why I should be so enthusiastic about our country. Isn't it more or less interchangeable with a few dozen other rich western democracies?
As I was writing this article, I chatted online with one of my best friends, a liberal who spent part of his summer working in Washington as a page in the House of Representatives. He asked what my article was about. To put it briefly, I said, "It's about kids who don't love their country." He answered: "Do they have to love their country? Is that a requirement?"
The most striking feature of my political debates is the utter ignorance of traditional values--whether American or Christian or Jewish--shown even by intelligent students. The typical student thinks that morality is a simple matter of doing what is "good for people," and that the way to do this is to vote for Democrats, since the Democratic party stands for "making things better."
Why do students talk and think this way? As computer geeks used to say, garbage in, garbage out.
We are taught U.S. history out of politically correct textbooks. The books are boring and tedious and, what's worse, extremely misleading. The pages are carefully measured to spend equal time on the accomplishments of men and women, whites and nonwhites. They take care not to offend America's past enemies, but don't seem to worry about offending Americans.
My textbook last year, for example, was the 12th edition of The American Pageant by David Kennedy, Lizabeth Cohen, and the late Thomas Bailey. Its chapter on World War II has more than a page on the relocation and internment of Japanese-Americans after Pearl Harbor and one sentence on the Bataan Death March. (What does one infer from this about the value of an American life?) It spends no time at all on the American GI, but gives a comprehensive discussion of the number of women who served, and where. (It carefully refers to "the 15 million men and women in uniform.") The discussion, in short, is warped, incompetent, anachronistic.
Worst of all are The American Pageant's blatantly biased discussions of modern politics. Compare the chapters on Carter and Reagan. Carter's actions are often described as "courageous." For instance: Carter's "popularity remained exceptionally high during his first few months in office, even when he courted public disfavor by courageously keeping his campaign promise to pardon some ten thousand draft evaders of the Vietnam War era." Or: "Carter courageously risked humiliating failure by inviting President Anwar Sadat of Egypt and Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel to a summit conference at Camp David."
The book dramatically describes how Carter, in the summer of 1979, "like a royal potentate of old, summoning the wise men of the realm for their counsel in a time of crisis," went up to Camp David ("the mountaintop") while his people awaited "the results of these extraordinary deliberations." Then he made a "remarkable television address" in which he "chided his fellow citizens for falling into a 'moral and spiritual crisis' and for being too concerned with 'material goods.'" (Everyone else remembers this event as Carter's pathetic "malaise" speech.) The authors sum Carter up as "an unusually intelligent, articulate, and well-meaning president," but one who was "badly buffeted by events beyond his control, such as the soaring price of oil, runaway inflation, and the galling insult of the continuing hostage crisis in Iran." In other words: He did a great job, and the awful things that happened during his administration weren't his fault.
The Reagan chapter starts by describing Reagan's high hopes and goals, but quickly deteriorates: "At first, 'supply-side' economics seemed to be a beautiful theory mugged by a gang of brutal facts" as the economy went downhill. Then there was a "healthy" recovery. But "for the first time in the twentieth century, income gaps widened between the richest and poorest Americans. The poor got poorer and the very rich grew fabulously richer, while middle-class incomes largely stagnated."
This is how the authors describe the largest peacetime economic boom of the 20th century, a period in which the average income of all quintiles from poorest to richest increased. The book then quickly moves on to discuss the deficit: "The staggering deficits of the Reagan administration constituted a great economic failure. . . . The deficits virtually guaranteed that future generations of Americans would either have to work harder than their parents, lower their standard of living, or both, to pay their foreign creditors when the bills came due."
Reagan's most important achievement, ending the Cold War, is never mentioned in the Reagan section. The authors imply that the credit for ending the Cold War goes to none other than Mikhail Gorbachev. My classmates swallow it all. They believe that Gorbachev suddenly decided one day that it was time for his country to lose the Cold War. My history teacher thought it incredible that I refused to credit Gorbachev with "allowing us to win."
Perhaps needless to add, there are no lessons on the virtue of patriotism. Like the textbooks, my teachers are extremely charitable when discussing American enemies; from the Soviet Union to the Vietnamese Communists, they all get the benefit of the doubt. I would like to believe that this is only a temporary situation, perhaps one that a few well-placed educational reformers could begin to correct. But my fear is that it will take a long time to repair our public schools. Meanwhile, what will become of a country whose youngest citizens have been taught to have so little affection for it?
Daniel Gelernter publishes the Republican Dan blog at republicandan.blogspot.com.