Many of us have spent the past year trying to put America back together through the political process. Whether the elections will result in any substantial changes in government policy is still unknown.
But we have other, even more important, tasks to accomplish if we are to recreate the culture that offered hope to the world. Tasks that involve the children of this nation, and reading.
The National Assessment of Adult Literacy has issued several reports in the past 5 years stating that roughly 40% of adult Americans cannot read well enough to meet even minimum standards of proficiency. They report on the impact this deficit has on employment and earnings. Unreported, but also of concern, is the impact it has on any ability to understand and appreciate our American heritage.
We can wring our hands and complain that the schools are not doing their job. We can argue over who is at fault. We can bicker over the amount of money being spent on education. OR, we can resolve that the children in our lives will learn how to read, whether we are parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle, or neighbor.
We can also resolve that they will be introduced to the people, real and fictional, who inspired and challenged this nation. Folk heroes like Paul Bunyan and John Henry and Pecos Bill. Literary heroes like Tom Sawyer and Atticus Finch. Real heroes like Molly Pitcher and Davy Crockett and Harriet Tubman. Bad guys like Benedict Arnold and Billy the Kid and Jesse James.
Each of these characters, and others like them, helped to shape the culture of our nation. They did not belong to the lands that the immigrant settlers came from – they were part of the new culture that we all shared, allowing each incoming group to leave the old hatreds and prejudices behind as they embraced the culture of this new land. A culture that said a hero could come from any background. Erasing them from our collective memories is like cutting away a part of who we are as Americans.
If we are truly serious about rebuilding this nation, we need to ensure that its culture remains intact. We don’t need a new, expensive government program. We just need the books – whether they come from the library, the Web, or our own bookcases. Any web search of American folk heroes will provide an ample list to use as a beginning.
Our children hear an awful lot about what is wrong with America. They need to hear what made this a nation that drew immigrants from every corner of the globe. They need to hear that the American melting pot is both unique and exceptional. They need to hear that in America liberty is not just a word, it is an incredible reality. They need to hear what others sacrificed so they could enjoy the blessing of freedom. And they need to hear where we failed, as well as succeeded, so they can avoid the mistakes of the past.
Making sure they hear those things is up to us. Let’s make our 2011 New Year’s Resolution to introduce our children to the amazing story of the nation in which we live. It’s a resolution that will be worth the effort.