The Case for an American History and Heritage Month

It’s time to celebrate the American spirit, heritage, and perseverance with a celebratory month.
The Case for an American History and Heritage Month
The U.S. Army Marching Band appears in the 119th Fourth of July Parade in Huntington Beach, Calif., on July 4, 2023. (Alex Lee/The Epoch Times)
Jeff Minick
Updated:
0:00

Our government has set aside a number of months to honor different ethnic groups in our country.

February, for instance, is Black History Month. Schools, churches, and civic organizations around the country study, honor, and celebrate the contributions of African Americans to our culture and our politics. Men and women such as Harriet Tubman, Marcus Garvey, Rosa Parks, and Martin Luther King Jr. are lauded for their work in civil rights, while other African Americans are remembered for the gifts and talents that they brought to the arts, science and technology, and more.

Besides Black History Month, our government reserves other months as a means of honoring and commemorating the accomplishments of certain groups, such as Native American Heritage Month (November); Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Heritage Month (May); and Caribbean American Heritage Month (June).

All well and good.

Strikingly absent from this list, however, is an American History and Heritage Month.

The Capitol rotunda with visitors in Washington. The frieze that depicts American history is near the top of the photo. (Artem Avetisyan/Shutterstock)
The Capitol rotunda with visitors in Washington. The frieze that depicts American history is near the top of the photo. (Artem Avetisyan/Shutterstock)

Amnesia, American-Style

That the United States is in need of such a program is easily demonstrated. Search online for “knowledge of American history,” and you’ll get a screenful of articles lamenting our decline into ignorance.
In his 2011 article “Knowledge of American History Rapidly Becoming History,” Glen Ricketts reports that the most recent Nation’s Report Card study found that only 20 percent of fourth graders, 17 percent of eighth graders, and 12 percent of high school seniors tested proficient on a rudimentary survey of U.S. history.

Reflecting on this neglect of our nation’s story in our schools, Mr. Ricketts, who teaches history, writes, “I’m not shocked, needless to say, since things have been going south for quite a while.”

Unfortunately, those scores have continued to head south. Just last year, in the Los Angeles Times column “When American students don’t understand history, what are democracy’s chances?” Nicholas Goldberg notes that only 13 percent of eighth graders now test-score as proficient in history, demonstrating an abysmal ignorance of our past that, as he points out, extends to the population at large.

Of this unhappy failure of education, Mr. Goldberg writes: “History matters, as does an understanding of our government and how it works. Especially in times like these. We’re an increasingly polarized country in an increasingly globalized world—and only with informed and engaged citizens can a democracy like ours function.”

Given these dire circumstances, this failure to teach and learn American history begs the question: What are we going to do about it?

An American History and Heritage Month offers one answer to this question. If nothing else, such an initiative would boost our knowledge of the past while at the same time possibly patching up some of our divisions.

The 157th Memorial Day ceremony was held on Soldiers and Sailors Monument Park in Wilmington, Del., on May 30, 2024. (Lily Sun/The Epoch Times)
The 157th Memorial Day ceremony was held on Soldiers and Sailors Monument Park in Wilmington, Del., on May 30, 2024. (Lily Sun/The Epoch Times)

The Threads That Bind

In his 1987 bestseller “Cultural Literacy,” E.D. Hirsch explains that a knowledge of cultural references makes for strong readers, while lack of that knowledge leaves readers lost and confused. They know the words on the page but don’t understand their meaning or context. In this book and other writing, Mr. Hirsch also argues that this knowledge of cultural reference points, recognizing, for instance, that Beethoven was a classical composer or that Aesop wrote fables, makes us more informed citizens.
“We have ignored cultural literacy in thinking about education,” Mr. Hirsch wrote. “We ignore the air we breathe until it is thin or foul. Cultural literacy is the oxygen of social discourse.”
Unfortunately, right now in America we’re breathing the foul air of ignorance, at least in regard to our country’s past.

Here’s the thing: We can only love what we know. Think for a moment about the people you love, your relationships with family and friends. With them you share a history, years of good and bad seasons, a march together through the thick and thin of victories and defeats. That mutual affection you feel is bound up by the threads of this shared past.

The same holds true for love of country. The more we know about our country, the more the vast majority of us will appreciate and more deeply love the land we call home. Like Mr. Hirsch’s cultural literacy, historical literacy means knowing a little about a lot, recognizing the names and claims to fame of people such as Dolly Madison, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jimmy Doolittle, and Dwight Eisenhower, or the general meaning of key events such as the Battle of Lexington or the Great Depression.

This is why such an American History and Heritage Month might bring us closer as a people. Here’s how it might work.

American Pride

Just like Black History Month, an American History and Heritage Month could feature certain yearly themes: American artists, American military heroes, early American ideas of liberty and a republic, and so on. Here we’d cast aside divisions such as gender and race, and focus on Americanism.
Suppose, for example, that one year a calendar month was devoted to American inventors and scientists. A look at Ben Franklin’s experiments with electricity might lead us to other Founding Fathers and a deeper appreciation of those who devised the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. George Washington Carver’s work with the peanut, sweet potato, and other agricultural products might introduce us to the Tuskegee Institute, Booker T. Washington, and the Jim Crow policies then in effect in the South. Thomas Edison’s light bulb brought sweeping cultural changes to our country and to the rest of the world. Jonas Salk discovered the polio vaccine and nearly wiped out the terrible virus worldwide, meanwhile demonstrating American generosity by refusing to apply for a patent and thereby making his vaccine readily available to all.
American inventor and industrialist Henry Ford (1863–1947) posing in the driving seat of his first car, the Quadricycle, in New York City in 1910. (Spooner & Wells/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
American inventor and industrialist Henry Ford (1863–1947) posing in the driving seat of his first car, the Quadricycle, in New York City in 1910. (Spooner & Wells/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Elementary school children could celebrate such a month by reading biographies of some of these tinkerers and pioneers, writing poetry or making art about them, and learning early on about the vital connection between inventiveness and freedom. Older students could do the same while mulling over and debating the impact of some of today’s inventions in technology and genetics on our humanity. Their teachers and parents would learn along with them, while other adults might also explore the history of American invention.

Through such a program, millions of Americans would learn more about the civics and history of the United States. Even better, that gain in historical literacy and that focus on a shared past might just help glue our Humpty Dumpty country back together again.

Children have the right to learn about American history to be involved citizens. (BearFotos/Shutterstock)
Children have the right to learn about American history to be involved citizens. (BearFotos/Shutterstock)

Moving Forward

We don’t need to wait for the government to declare an American History Month. Americans have a long history of taking charge of their lives, of looking to themselves and working with their neighbors and their communities to bring about change. Black History Month, for instance, wasn’t invented by Washington politicians, but originated nearly a century ago with the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. Led by historian Carter Woodson and church minister Jesse Moorland, this group selected the second week in February to celebrate Black history because the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass fell within that time frame.

Like that association, we today have the avenues and means to do the same for American history. Some organizations such as the National Association of Scholars might lead the way in this endeavor. If not, private academies and homeschool associations might join together, agree on a month, and then collaborate annually by selecting a theme and supporting it with lists of suggested readings, films, podcasts, visits to museums and national parks, and a variety of hands-on activities limited only by the imagination.

President Ronald Reagan during a news conference held at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Chicago on Aug. 12, 1986. (Mark Reinstein/Shutterstock)
President Ronald Reagan during a news conference held at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Chicago on Aug. 12, 1986. (Mark Reinstein/Shutterstock)
In his 1989 farewell address to the nation, President Ronald Reagan noted that “there is a great tradition of warnings in Presidential farewells, and I’ve got one that’s been on my mind for some time.” His warning? President Reagan was afraid that we were losing our sense of American history, our appreciation of all those who had come before us to make this country. His solution? “Let’s start with some basics,” he said. “More attention to American history and a greater emphasis on civic ritual.”
An American History and Heritage Month would fit perfectly into that wise recommendation.
Would you like to see other kinds of arts and culture articles? Please email us your story ideas or feedback at [email protected] 
Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. He is the author of two novels, “Amanda Bell” and “Dust On Their Wings,” and two works of nonfiction, “Learning As I Go” and “Movies Make The Man.” Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va.