Tomorrow, January 11, marks the thirtieth anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s Farewell Address, in which he famously explained his vision of America as a “shining city upon a hill.”
I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.
Often overlooked amidst Reagan’s triumphal post-Cold War rhetoric, however, is his call for a greater emphasis on American history in schools. On the heels of a significant push for education reform during his presidency, Reagan spoke with characteristic folksy alarm about the need to preserve traditional values. “[W]e’ve got to teach history,” he said, “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.” He warned “of an eradication of the American memory that could result, ultimately, in an erosion of the American spirit.”
One could argue, of course, that Reagan was right in a way. I cannot recall ever being taught about Jimmy Doolittle or the “30 seconds over Tokyo” in school, and it seems reasonable to me to say that the “American spirit” (whatever that means, exactly) probably has eroded over the past three decades. Still, it does not necessarily follow that the changes in American society are the result of a supposedly impoverished understanding of American history. (Perhaps what actually eroded the American spirit were the deregulation of corporations and the drastic cuts to social welfare spending that Reagan presided over… but that’s another post for another day.)
No, what I want to focus on is how, even while demanding that Americans learn their history, Reagan butchered it. In my American history courses, John Winthrop’s 1630 sermon “A Model of Christian Charity” is a a sort of foundational text. I teach the concept of the “city upon a hill” early in the year, and we return to it time and time again, as we consider whether or not the U.S. has lived up to its ideals and as we consider America’s evolving role in the world. I often play part of Reagan’s farewell for my students after reading Winthrop’s sermon, and the more perceptive ones note that Reagan while calls for a greater emphasis on American history, in the next breath mislabels Winthrop an “early Pilgrim” and an “early freedom man,” despite his banishing of Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for practicing what we would today call “religious freedom.”
Reagan even went so far as to encourage kids to challenge their parents: “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.” Reagan wanted American students to know their stuff (including “why the Pilgrims came here”), and yet he had no understanding that Winthrop was not, in fact, a Pilgrim. (He was a Puritan.) Oops. So here I am, I guess, thirty years later, to nail him on it. A very American thing to do.
Reagan’s historical missteps go deeper, though. When we read “A Model of Christian Charity,” my students—with a bit of translation assistance on my part—note a certain socialistic tendency in Winthrop’s thinking. If the Puritans were to set the godly example that they intended, he said, “We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities for the supply of others’ necessities.” (Sounds a little Marxist, if you ask me, no?) But wait… I heard that Reagan hated communism and almost single-handedly defeated the Soviet Union in the Cold War! What’s going on here?! Students note the frequency with which Winthrop uses the word “we,” and infer (correctly) that his was a strongly communitarian vision. It falls to me to inform them that this vision was strictly enforced by a theocratic government, which contrasts sharply with Reagan’s anti-government individualism.
In the years since Reagan left office, American education has been remade, and greater emphasis has been placed on American history, to the tune of many millions of dollars (education being one area in which Reagan seemed to favor more, not less, government intrusion). Yet the “Teaching American History” program, funded by Congress at the behest of the late Senator Robert Byrd, has been called a “billion-dollar boondoggle.” Conservatives continue to complain that students are ill-informed about our national heritage, and judging Reagan’s education reforms against his own standard—establishing a bulwark against the “erosion of the American spirit”—it seems to have failed.
Stay tuned for Part II of this post tomorrow, when I’ll explore how revisiting Reagan’s address also allows us to note another remarkable change over the past three decades.