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 Home > Mrs. Cheney

Office of Lynne Cheney
October 5, 2001

Mrs. Cheney’s Remarks at the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture
As Prepared
Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture
Dallas, Texas

It is a great pleasure to be here today to celebrate the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture on its twentieth anniversary, and it is a particular joy to help honor Dr. Louise Cowan, whose tireless work on behalf of the humanities has enriched not only Texas, but the nation. Thank you, Louise.

Here today among so many people dedicated to education, I thought I would spend a few minutes talking about our schools and about what we should be teaching our children in the wake of the September 11th attacks on our country. Some educators are saying that we need more emphasis on other cultures in our classrooms. In last Monday's Washington Post, Judith Rizzo, Deputy Chancellor for Instruction in the New York City school system declared, "Those people who said we don't need multiculturalism, that it's too touchy feely, a pox on them.” She went on, "I think they've learned their lesson. We have to do more to teach habits of tolerance, knowledge and awareness of other cultures."

Now, this is not exactly a sensitive expression of the multicultural argument, but I think we could all agree that in the twenty-first century, it is important that our children know about the great events and inspiring ideas of the cultures of the world. The standards of learning for world history here in Texas--the TEKS, as they are known--expect students to be able to "compare the historical origins, central ideas, and the spread of major religious and philosophical traditions including Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism; and to be able to identify examples of religious influence in history and contemporary world events."

This is an important requirement--but it was important on September 10th. To say that it is more important now implies that the events of September 11th were our fault, that it was our failure to understand Islam that led to so many deaths and so much destruction. And this is not the case. As Muslim leaders around the world have affirmed, the terrorists who highjacked airliners and used them to murder thousands of civilians were not following the words of the Prophet, but instead were violating some of the most sacred precepts of Islam.

The deputy chancellor's suggestion that "we have to do more to teach habits of tolerance" also implies that the United States is to blame for the attack of September 11th, that somehow intolerance on our part was the cause. But on September 11th, it was most manifestly not the United States that acted out of religious prejudice. In 1998, Osama bin Laden told ABC news that his mission was "to purify Muslim land of all non-believers." This was the intolerance that manifested itself on September 11th in the person of fanatics intent on causing as much pain and suffering as possible.

Let me affirm again that our children as they go through school and college should learn about the cultures of the world. They should know classical works of Western civilization like the Iliad and the Odyssey that the Dallas Institute has so lovingly taught to teachers. There are classical works from other parts of the world, such as the Analects of Confucius and the Bhagavad Gita, and modern works they should know about: the novels of Chinua Achebe and Naguib Mahfouz, the plays of Wole Soyinka, the essays of Octavio Paz, the poetry of Jorge Luis Borges. There are so many graceful and elegant ways to connect to the human story, and surely we have a duty to make our children aware of them.

But if there were one aspect of schooling from kindergarten through college to which I would give added emphasis today it would be American history. We are not doing a very good job of teaching it now, as a recent survey of seniors at the nation's top liberal arts colleges and research universities reveals. Scarcely more than half, the survey found, "knew general information about American democracy and the Constitution." Vast majorities were ignorant of facts that high school seniors should know: Only a third could identify George Washington as the American general at Yorktown; fewer than a quarter knew that James Madison was the "father of the Constitution."

The same Washington Post article that quoted Judith Rizzo, the New York deputy chancellor, cited a study indicating that our colleges and universities are insufficiently committed to "internationalism." Let me suggest that if there is a failure here it is lack of commitment to this nation's history. Of the 55 elite institutions whose seniors were polled in the survey described above, not one college or university--not a single one--required a course in American history.

At a time of national crisis, I think it is particularly apparent that we need to encourage the study of our past. Our children and grandchildren--indeed, all of us--need to know the ideas and ideals on which our nation has been built. We need to understand how fortunate we are to live in freedom. We need to understand that living in liberty is such a precious thing that generations of men and women have been willing to sacrifice everything for it. We need to know, in a war, exactly what is at stake.

We should teach our children how hard the establishment of this country was. One of the documents they should read is Of Plymouth Plantation, in which William Bradford describes how the pilgrims "brought safe to land ... , fell upon their knees and blessed the God of heaven, who had brought them over the vast and furious ocean." And Bradford went on to report on "this poor people's present condition":

Being thus passed the vast ocean, and a sea of troubles before in their preparation . . . , they had now no friends to welcome them, nor inns to entertain or refresh their weather-beaten bodies, no houses or much less towns to repair to, to seek for succor. . . . And for the season it was winter, and they that know the winters of that country know them to be sharp and violent and subject to cruel and fierce storms, dangerous to travel to known places, much more to search an unknown coast. Besides, what could they see but a hideous and desolate wilderness?

It was a risky thing, coming here, and it was a risky thing a century and a half later when fifty-six men signed the Declaration of Independence. Benjamin Rush, one of the signers, wrote of the "labors and fears and sorrows and sleepless nights" they all suffered, and of "the pensive and awful silence" as they stepped forward to sign what was believed by many of them to be their death warrants.

So many were willing to risk so much because they treasured freedom. The pilgrims wanted to worship God in their own way. The founders, as Jefferson so eloquently put it, wanted to secure "certain unalienable rights," among them "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." The founders had the amazing idea that this could be accomplished through representative government. Instead of a king ruling over them, the people would be sovereign.

Our children should realize that the founders were flying in the face of history with this idea. Earlier attempts at Republican government had been on a small scale or had been short-lived. But the founders had the conviction that they could do what had never been done. They would provide the world an enduring model of a way of life in which human potential would blossom and human happiness thrive. After the British were defeated, George Washington wrote that "the citizens of America . . . are from this period to be considered as actors on a most conspicuous theatre, which seems to be peculiarly designed by Providence for the display of human greatness and felicity."

These are things our children should know. And I don't think it would hurt a bit when we teach them about the Constitution to use the word "miracle." There were so many interests pulling in so many directions, that the successful result seemed almost miraculous to both Washington and Madison. Catherine Drinker Bowen's fine book on the Constitutional Convention is called, appropriately enough, Miracle at Philadelphia. One of my favorite historians, Bernard de Voto, wrote to Bowen that the accomplishment of the Constitutional Convention was so astonishing that the stars must have danced in the sky when the delegates gathered.

What we tend to do nowadays is tell about the failures of the Constitution, and, to be sure, we should. The document did not end slavery. It did not provide women the right to vote. But it did provide a framework that endured while we struggled--and largely succeeded--in living up to our ideals. Our children should know that, too.

As I read about the founders, I am struck by the emphasis that Jefferson and Madison, in particular, put on religious freedom. Both men had seen the pernicious effects of government-prescribed belief and determined it would not be part of the new order of things. Jefferson believed that one of his greatest accomplishments was authorship of the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom. Madison got the Virginia Statute passed and later carried through the Congress of the United States the Bill of Rights, which established freedom of religion as the Constitution's first amendment.

Our children need to know what an achievement it was to enact laws declaring that individuals could be trusted to form their own opinions. The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, Madison said, "extinguished forever the ambitious hope of making laws for the human mind." The issue was not only religious freedom, but intellectual freedom. "Truth is great and will prevail if left to herself," the Virginia statute reads. "She is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from the conflict, unless by human interposition [she is] disarmed of her natural weapons, free argument and debate."

Anyone who tries to account for the remarkable creativity of this country needs to consider the forces set in motion when the United States of America decreed that the government could not tell people what to believe or what to think. The freeing up of individual energy and ideas that has resulted has been unparalleled in human history. Try to imagine Thomas Edison, or Steven Spielberg, or Jack Welch, or Bill Gates in an oppressive society. It's inconceivable that they would flourish. The fact that invention, and entertainment, and business have prospered so remarkably is proof of the power of our ideas and our children should understand this.

They should also know about the role we have played in the world, about how we have inspired others to seek freedom and gone up against tyrants. Bryan Appleyard, writing in the London Sunday Times on September 23rd, assessed our role this way. "Let us ponder exactly what the Americans did in that most awful of all centuries, the 20th," he wrote:

They saved Europe from her barbarism in two world wars. After the second world war they rebuilt the continent from the ashes. They confronted and peacefully defeated Soviet communism, the most murderous system ever devised by man.

And the Americans who were on the front lines when we did this acted with great generosity of spirit. In his book Citizen Soldier, Stephen Ambrose describes how it was in 1945 when twelve-man squads of teenage boys armed and in uniform struck terror into people's hearts all around the globe. "But there was an exception," Ambrose writes:

a squad of GIs, a sight that brought the biggest smiles you ever saw to people's lips, and joy to their hearts. Around the world this was true . . . because GIs meant candy, cigarettes, C-rations, and freedom. America had sent the best of her young men around the world, not to conquer but to liberate, not to terrorize but to help.

We have benefited mightily from our way of life, but so has the world. Our children should know these things as we set out to defend America, "assured of the rightness of our cause," in our President's words, "and confident of victories to come."

Thank you for inviting me to be here with you today.