You and I have a rendezvous with destiny. We will preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on earth, or we will sentence them to take the first step into a thousand years of darkness. If we fail, at least let our children’s children say of us we justified our brief moment here. We did all that could be done. —Ronald Reagan
As Ronald Reagan once said, “America is a shining city upon a hill whose beacon light guides freedom-loving people everywhere.”
No wonder American History is such a favorite among homeschoolers. It is filled with fascinating characters, heroic battles, and turbulent statecraft. It can be entertaining as well as inspirational, and the dilemmas faced by American patriots in every generation provide terrific food for thought.
Perhaps it is because—as many liberty-loving immigrants can testify,—the full significance of American freedoms are most clearly seen from afar. We cannot help loving America because it is our home, but Americans who have never known anything but liberty and prosperity often take much for granted. No matter how a history teacher emphasizes the courage and foresight of our founding fathers, students who have never known oppression or studied civilizations in which American liberties were absent, have a hard time appreciating the full significance of our hard-won rights.
Let me give a vivid example of how learning the history of another civilization can help illuminate American ideas of government. In my high school civics class we studied the 5th amendment—that is the right to “refuse to testify against oneself.” I memorized the terms and passed the test but it was not until I read I Speak for the Silent, a riveting, but horrifying, true account of a Russian scientist who was arrested by the Soviet Secret Police, that I fully understood the importance of such a guarantee. The author of the book was subjected to months of unspeakable tortures in order to force him to “confess” to crimes against the state. Since the state had no evidence against him, they relied on forced confessions; first, to justify an appalling system of slave labor, and second, so the government would have scapegoats when their utopian schemes went amiss. The right to “refuse to testify against oneself” is one of many essential brakes on government power provided by the Bill of Rights, but this is more clearly appreciated by reading Soviet history than studying American civics.
And this is just one instance. Almost everything about how the United States government operates is best understood in light of a deep reading of “non-American” history.
For example, the American founders’ insistence on “separation of church and state” is best understood by studying the period surrounding the English Civil War. England’s commitment to religious tolerance came only after a costly struggle and the loss of many lives. The “Religious liberty” that now strikes most Americans as an obvious good was achieved only after a long conflict in which all other possibilities were exhausted.
Another example of how the history of other nations can illuminate American history is the French Revolution. If students study only the American Revolution they may have difficulty appreciating the dangers faced by the founders or the many ways in which the revolution might have gone wrong. Students who are familiar with the horrors of the French Revolution, on the other hand, are likely to have a better understanding of dangers of anarchy and the difficulties of democracy than those who only study the “successful” revolution.
These are only a few incidents in American History that are best understood with the perspective provided by a broad reading of world history. But this is not surprising. For if America really is “a shining city upon a hill” it is important for all students of American history to get a good look at that city from afar.