President Ronald Reagan was known for his optimism. With Reagan, it was always “morning in America.” But in his 1989 Farewell Address, he saw dark shadows cast over one specific aspect of American life:
He said the country needed “an informed patriotism.” He greatly feared that we were not doing enough to foster it.
“Are we doing a good-enough job teaching our children what America is and what she represents in the long history of the world?” Reagan bluntly asked.
When he was young, the nation’s youth “were taught, very directly, what it means to be an American,” he noted. “And we absorbed, almost in the air, a love of country and an appreciation of its institutions.” Young people learned those lessons from family, in classrooms, and through popular culture.
The Gipper worried that we were not handing down to future generations a responsible love of country. “Parents aren’t sure that an unambivalent appreciation of America is the right thing to teach modern children,” he said. “Well-grounded patriotism is no longer in style” for those media figures who direct the course of popular culture.
“We’ve got to teach history based not on what’s in fashion but what’s important,” he urged parents and teachers. “If we forget what we did, we won’t know who we are. I’m warning of an eradication of the American memory that could result, ultimately, in an erosion of the American spirit.”
We’ve had three decades to observe just how prophetic and accurate Reagan’s warning was. Study after study has shown the shocking ignorance of both young people and adults about American ideals, history, and institutions. In 2017, a poll by the Annenberg Public Policy Center showed that only one-quarter of respondents could name all three branches of government. More than one-third couldn’t name any First Amendment rights.
But ignorance isn’t the only threat to the understanding that Americans have of their country.