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Obama's Teachable Moment on American Identity

2:15 PM, Jan 13, 2009 • By MARY KATHARINE HAM
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Obama has shown himself to be perfectly at ease talking about America's pluralism, his unique past, and America's promise as illustrated by his own pluralistic past propelling him to the Presidency. But the Bradley Project on America's National Identity has put in a request for other subjects.

The Bradley Project was started to study and reverse the erosion of a unified national identity that comes from connection to the country's values and history- values and history, that is, without the Ward Churchillian twist they're so often given in public schools and colleges these days.

Their advice for Obama's teachable moment, which will undoubtedly be watched by huge crowds in person and on TV:

The link between our founding principles and self-government in this new century;

The direction and character of civic education including the teaching of history that exposes students to America's great heroes, dramatic achievements and high ideals, and that emphasizes those "mystic chords of memory" that Abraham Lincoln believed held our country together;

The challenge of integrating newcomers into America, as well as engaging future generations, so that they participate fully in America's social, economic and civic life;

The importance of promoting our national unity while appreciating the benefits of diversity; and

The relationship between a strong national identity and the long-term health of American democracy. As historian Gordon Wood observes, "It's our history, our heritage, that makes us a single people."

You had him at Abraham Lincoln. That's one dead, Republican, white guy whom everyone is cleared to laud these days, as Obama has spent the last two years encouraging comparisons between himself and his fellow Illinoisan. As the boss noted, Obama will be sworn in on Lincoln's Bible- a Bible not used since, well, Lincoln used it. He took his family on an unannounced visit to the Lincoln Memorial this week, and even George Bush is getting into the game of Lincoln mantle-claiming:

I don't know why they get angry. I don't know why they get hostile.

It's not the first time, however, in history that people have expressed themselves in sometimes undignified ways. I've been reading, you know, a lot about Abraham Lincoln during my presidency and there's some pretty harsh discord when it came to the 16th president, just like there's been harsh discord for the 43rd president.

BUSH: You know, presidents can try to avoid hard decisions, and therefore avoid controversy. That's just not my nature. I'm the kind of person that, you know, is willing to take -- to take on hard -- hard tasks.

And -- and in times of war, people get emotional. I understand that. I've never really, you know, spent that much time, frankly, worrying about the loud voices.

I, of course, hear them. But they didn't affect my policy, nor did they affect -- they affect how I made decisions.

It's enough to make you wonder what Lincoln did to deserve shouldering the burden of these tough political times after having brought the Union safely through its most divided time in history. But Lincoln's legacy is one worth touting, and one hopes that Obama's uncanny ability to make everything he touches "cool" will extend to biographies of the 16th president and other stalwarts of American history that Obama admires. If Obama mentions him enough, it might be enough to bring such heretofore unspeakable subjects as "American History" and our forefathers back into style on college campuses.

Dare we hope for other positive developments on college campuses during the Obama years? This week, a generally liberal academic group (American Association of Professors) and a generally traditionalist group that fights for students' rights and philosophical balance in college classrooms (American Council of Trustees and Alumni) agreed to fight speech codes together:

In the subsequent question-and-answer session, however, Mr. Nelson seemed downright sympathetic with those present when it came to the subject of campus speech codes. Anne D. Neal, president of the trustees-and-alumni group, asked him whether the AAUP could move beyond its disagreements with organizations like hers and work together on areas of common ground. Mr. Nelson replied that his group would be willing to work with hers to fight speech codes, which it has long opposed.