San Jose, California. -- I rode with Paul Revere, and I waved the lanterns, too. "One if by land, two if by sea." I was there. I stood at Bunker Hill, waiting to see the whites of their eyes. I wrote the Declaration of Independence. "All men are created equal." I freed the slaves. I was a slave. I settled the Great Plains, followed the Oregon Trail, sailed clipper ships and whalers. I died with Custer. I killed him.
When I was a kid, I loved to read biography and history, especially American history. Nobody told me I couldn't identify with male heroes, Christians, blacks, Indians or British-Americans, which was good because there's not much on the exploits of Russian Jewish women.
Once I read a biography of a Jewish guy who lent money for the Revolutionary War, and got wiped out. I preferred Thomas Jefferson.
There was Abigail Adams, but I didn't want to sit home and write letters; I went with John to the Continental Congress.
Oh, I got a special kick coming up from steerage to glimpse the Statue of Liberty -- an event theoretically experienced by my grandparents -- but if I'd only been able to "identify" with people like me, history would have been narrow, boring, not worth caring about.
Now "multiculturalists" are trying to broaden education, but sometimes it looks more like narrowing.
A New York committee formed to study the state's history and social studies curriculum just issued its report, titled "One Nation, Many Peoples: A Declaration of Cultural Interdependence."
Many peoples? I thought the deal was that we were all Americans, no matter where our parents or great-great-grandparents came from.
My culture is American culture, which emphasizes values like individual freedom, enterprise and equality, and rejects old-world values like tradition, order and orthodoxy. As immigrants, my great-grandparents chose those values as their own. My particular ethnic heritage is flavor in the melting pot -- not an
Old hat. "Unlike earlier periods in the history of this country," the report says, "the various people who make up our nation, while anxiously embracing many of the advantages, opportunities and mores of this society, seem determined to maintain and publicly celebrate as much of that which is peculiar to the cultures with which they identify."
OK. Go right ahead. Just don't take my kid's history period to do it.
I'd like her to be able to look at Columbus from the Indians' point of view, in addition to (not instead of) Queen Isabella's. That's history. But I don't want her doing esteem exercises for children who are "part of the world's majorities" when she and her classmates could be discussing how America got to be a country so many people want to be part of.
Furthermore, I don't see how a curriculum can turn students of all ages into critical historical analysts weighing multiple perspectives when their books must say "enslaved persons" instead of "slaves," for fear the students will think slaves chose their role (low pay but lots of job security?) as someone would choose to be a "gardener, cook or carpenter."
Perhaps the students will be too busy trying to figure out where Southwest Asia is located. (Hint: There was a war there recently. No, more recently than that.)
Certainly, they'll have to spend a lot of time toting up ethnic mentions and "contribution" points for the Scoreboard of Cultural Value -- see how your group rates! -- which has replaced a sense that we're all people, all in this together.
These vibrant part-of-the-world's-majorities cultures apparently aren't vibrant enough to survive without being taught in the public schools, which previously have taught that America has a common culture predominantly derived from Britain, though greatly influenced by immigration and the unique American experience.
The committee of 24 educators and academics included three )) history professors, who dissented to the report on grounds it slighted America's shared democratic ideals -- predominantly derived from Britain -- to stress ethnic differences.
Kenneth T. Jackson, a Columbia University historian, wrote: "The people of the United States will recognize, even if this committee does not, that every viable nation has to have a common culture to survive in peace."
Nathan Glazer, a Harvard sociologist and co-author of "Beyond the Melting Pot," noted that the report considers people as members of groups but rarely as individuals.
The historian Arthur M. Schlesinger complained that the report slams European colonizers but has nothing to say about good Eurostuff, like democracy or science, and nothing bad to say about world's majorities stuff like human sacrifice, slavery, the subjugation of women, etc.
In his dissent, Mr. Schlesinger wrote that while the curriculum needs to get a lot better, "the underlying philosophy of the report, as I read it, is that ethnicity is the defining experience for most Americans, that ethnic ties are permanent and indelible, that the division into ethnic groups establishes the basic structure of American society, and that a main objective of public education should be the protection, strengthening, celebration and perpetuation of ethnic origins and identities."
The report says students should be "continually" encouraged to ask themselves what their cultural heritage is, Mr. Schlesinger notes, why they should be proud of it, "why should I develop an understanding of and respect for my own culture(s), language(s), religion and national origin(s)."
He asks: "Would it not be more appropriate for students to be 'continually' encouraged to understand the American culture in which they are growing up and to prepare for an active role in shaping that culture?"
If those of us who have made it really want to keep new Americans from competing with our kids, we'll tell their children that their "own" culture is not American culture, that their "own" language is not English.
American history is about uniting people from different backgrounds, cultures, languages, religions, not about celebrating differences. The past doesn't matter much. It's been left behind. What your father and his father did for a living, "who your people were," doesn't determine your future. What counts is what you do in the present. This is America.
Joanne Jacobs is a columnist for the San Jose Mercury News.