What is america’s common culture? what is our splendid ancient heritage?

Washington Square, New York (NYU)

One writer said:”What is “the common culture and political principles that immigrants once learned to become Americans?”

What is our “splendid ancient heritage”?

Until we can clearly articulate these concepts we are all guilty of ‘sour grapes’.

Thomas Paine wrote: “If there is a country in the world where concord, according to common calculation, would be least expected, it is America. Made up as it is of people from different nations, accustomed to different forms and habits of government, speaking different languages, and more different in their modes of worship, it would appear that the union of such a people was impracticable…” Yet the union endures because of America’s common culture.

What is America’s common culture?

Learning American sports in school and in the neighborhood. I learned the Star-Spangled Banner and patriotic traditions by attending baseball games with my immigrant parents and grandparents for the Fourth of July.

Of course, serving in the American military helped us transfer our allegiance to America.  My father and uncles volunteered for service in the US Army in 1941-1942 and I volunteered for service in the Marines.  When I was in school there was much more emphasis on patriotic military culture than there is today in most schools especially in the big cities though I think it true to say heartland America which produces the bulk of ROTC/NROTC officers and military recruits still embraces a popular patriotic military culture.

All Americans ,regardless of race, creed or national origin, can be, as John F. Kennedy said, “proud of our ancient heritage.” I remember a German who told me that America was a nation had “no past and no culture of its own.” I told him he didn’t know America.

America DOES have an ancient and famous record of fighting for freedom and for individual rights. And Americans as an English speaking people, in particular, have a very ancient history of political freedoms. And in any case those of us who are Christians and Jews DO have a strong connection to a philosophical and religious heritage which is ancient indeed. We are heirs to a great and ancient free and ethical tradition of which we can be proud.

What is American’s common culture?

Certainly to be part of America’s common culture one must learn our national language, English.  English is the key to understanding our free heritage.   There is an old Scottish saying (originally in Gaelic) that said: “‘Tis not good to be an Earl or a servant or a soldier without the Saxon (English) tongue.”   And that was written almost 500 years ago by a Maclean poet.  It is even more true today.

If you can read this short essay you are already a lucky person. Why? Because you can read, write and (probably) speak English. English is the one language that is known and spoken by more people internationally than any other in the world circa 2019.  English is the sine qua non and the lingua franca of today. But it isn’t language alone which makes America special.

Sometimes I am asked the difference between Mexico and the USA and I think it can be summarized to two words: Magna Carta. The USA has a strong tradition of limited government and Mexico does not. The Magna Carta and the legal tradition associated with it came to English North America at Jamestown and at Plymouth. And of course the Mayflower Compact is the seed of what became the United States; there the colonists proclaimed their need to elect their own leaders, and obey laws for the good of the entire community. This helped establish strong notions of popular sovereignty and consent of the governed. This concept of limited government and the rights of Englishmen –such as due process, trial by jury and no taxation without consent were carried into America by the colonial charters issued by the Crown. Most of Latin America did not have this legal and cultural influence. However, New Zealand, Canada and Australia have a very strong democratic heritage because they share this free heritage which comes from England (or Britain as everyone in my family would say).

What is America’s common culture?  Learning about Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, memorizing the Gettysburg Address, learning about the Declaration of Independence and “inalienable rights.”

“What constitutes an American?, wrote Harold Ickes, “Not color nor race nor religion. Not the pedigree of his family nor the place of his birth. Not the coincidence of his citizenship. Not his social status nor his bank account. Not his trade nor his profession. An American is one who loves justice and believes in the dignity of man. An American is one who will fight for his freedom and that of his neighbor. An American is one who will sacrifice property, ease and security in order that he and his children may retain the rights of free men. An American is one in whose heart is engraved the immortal second sentence of the Declaration of Independence.”

And in this America was exceptional. For all the vaunted liberties of the English Bill of Rights there were great flaws in the English system because, for example, religious minorities such as Puritans, Quakers, Jews or Catholics were persecuted or forced to be non-jurors. In America, the Massachusetts Body of Liberties, written 48 years before the English Bill of Rights, was more expansive. America took steps at religious tolerance long before England with the Maryland Toleration Act (1649) which was all the more remarkable because Maryland was a Catholic colony. And of course the American Bill of Rights made defense of religious freedom even stronger.

The whole history of the USA is one of the expansions of rights and educational opportunities. Our country is not perfect I and would not claim for example that every military intervention by the US Marines was “for freedom” alone (sometimes they were protecting US interests and thus “keeping their honor clean” –following orders of civilian leadership). But in the really great wars the U.S. Marines were the tip of the spear for free nations and free societies and they have an exemplary record not only for courage but also for restraint and discipline. Likewise in WWII and WWI American soldiers came as liberators not as conquerors. It is a story that we can all be proud of as Americans.

No one in my family ever voted before they came to America but I recognize the greatness and nobility of George Washington, the Founding Fathers, Lincoln, the Roosevelts, Eisenhower, Kennedy and so on. Their history became OUR history. My immediate ancestors were subject to the whims of monarchs, press-ganging into military service and the oppression of state sponsored established churches.

Of course, there are things of my ancient heritage of which I am proud -our religious faith, our own musical and literary culture- but I do not romanticize the class ridden and undemocratic world of my forebears. My family were “Empire-builders” but they were the common soldiers and sailors in the Merchant Marine, they were the skilled construction workers building dreadnaughts or commercial buildings. Very few had an education beyond elementary school (people forget that universal secondary education was not established by law until 1944). Essentially we were the cannon fodder of empire.

What is the main problem with multiculturalism? it is dishonest and tends to romanticize or misrepresent foreign or ancient cultures. It promotes resentment and a sense of victimhood and exaggerated sense of oppression. Many multiculturalists also flirt, unwisely, with racial and ethnic separatism. My father warned me about romanticizing “the old country.” He also warned me against holding ancient national prejudices. He never told me to marry someone of our racial and ethnic background but to marry someone with similar values. The churches I attended as a boy and young man were never racially segregated. I dated young women from every continent, quite literally. All were young, attractive and reasonably well-educated. Some spoke splendid English. Some spoke not a word of English. But they all had a certain amount of charm.

I understand what America is all about. I, for example, have no English ancestry at all but I identify with an Anglophone or American English-speaking political and cultural heritage. English was, in a very real sense, the language of my mother and father’s liberation. My wife and son-in-law and daughter in-law have no English heritages whatsoever either. But they are americanizing and I have no doubt that my racially mixed grandchildren will consider themselves Americans even though if they have emotional and cultural ties to other nations.  I don’t believe being an American has anything to do with race. My parents both graduated from an American public school in 1933 and so were fluent in English by then.  They were the first people in their families and the only ones of their generation who graduated from high school and then went on to college.

My mother became a Registered Nurse; my father, who trained as an English and French teacher became an American officer and later a a reasonably successful businessman.  He was a natural teacher but never practiced that profession.   His entire teaching experience was as a TA at Brooklyn College and as a substitute in New York City.   I remember him telling me they paid him five dollars a day!  

I will always bless the memory of Mr. Sullivan, my parent’s 11th grade English teacher at the now defunct Manual Training  High School in Brooklyn, N.Y.  Mr. Sullivan was the child of Irish immigrants from the West of Ireland and he was a great encouragement to my parents.  In the old country my parents were ashamed of their social class, their socially declasse religious background (Free Church and Roman Catholic). Their religious and language heritage something the never talked about publically. They were ashamed that their parents and grandparents were illiterate in their native language.   Mr. Sullivan was the first to tell my father if one could understand Gaelic or Italian one could learn, French, Latin and Greek more easily than the average monolingual English-speaking person. Mr. Sullivan was the first person to teach the basics of comparative linguistics to my father, Grimm’s Law and the concept of the interrelationship of Indo-European languages.

And though my father never became a scholar of the academy he became very respectable amateur linguist reading the entire canon of classical Greek, Latin, French, German and Italian literature in the original.  He also found time to learn Spanish and Tagalog during WWII coming to the attention of General Douglas MacArthur.   He corresponded with Gilbert Highet of Columbia University and made his own translations of fragments of Homer, Euripides,Vergil, and Dante.  He loved world literature but I know he loved English literature most of all; he also was well read in history and biography as well.  His true love  was poetry, classical music and opera and he had a vast collection of 78’s, original rare tapes of live operatic recordings and LP’s.   Being born and raised in Scotland (he became a US citizen at age 21) he had a great love for Scottish and Irish songs as well as leider in French, Italian and German. One of the most curious albums I remember was an entire album of Scottish songs arranged by Beethoven and sung in German by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.   I remember my father telling me how close German was to Lowland Scots and conversely how close Highland Scots was to Latin, French and Spanish.  He encouraged us all to study both Romance languages and Germanic languages and all of us became competent in several languages. 

I have primarily made my modest (local) reputation as a language teacher, especially of English. But I encourage multilingualism and praise students who are literate in their respective native languages. There is no reason not to cultivate several trees in our garden: an apple tree (representing English), an orange tree (representing Spanish) or a cherry tree (representing a third language). Authentic bilingualism should not be a closed and narrow goal; it should be the path to achieving competency in several languages and becoming a polyglot.

Should the government promote maintenance of “home languages” other than English? I don’t believe so. I believe it is up to families and private communities to teach “home languages” or “heritage languages” not the State or Local governments.  Nevertheless, the choice of languages taught is up to local communities. I know schools that teach Punjabi as an elective and other schools that are Dual Immersion schools (Spanish and English) . My own daughter is a teacher in a Dual Immersion school; my son is a high school Spanish teacher. We all speak Spanish so we are hardly English-only!

I consider myself a cosmopolitan individual. And I remain an immigration optimist. I see the melting pot bubbling along despite all the ideologues and naysayers of the left and right. I admire and cherish aspects of other cultures and enjoy visiting other places. My family has roots not only in Europe but also Mexico and Latin America. But also know that I owe everything to America. We owe everything to America. Our debt of gratitude for our freedom and opportunities in this great nation is so immense that I would think we should be ashamed if we did not recognize it.

We need to tolerate private differences in language and religion but we should celebrate our common American heritage. As Diane Ravitch has written in her book LEFT BACK “a society that is racially diverse requires….a conscious effort to build shared values and ideals among its citizenry.” These shared values of America’s union will be forged by our public and quasi-public institutions, which include our press and media, voluntary organizations (sports and clubs), our houses of God, our jury box and court house, our armed services as well as our schools, colleges and universities public and private, religious and secular. Yet as we think about national unity we should think of coherence in our lives as families and as individuals. Russell Kirk said, “If you want to have order in the commonwealth, you first have to have order in the individual soul.”

We dare not take our political unity for granted. We dare not take our freedom and prosperity for granted. Our democratic experiment continues but it may yet be defeated by the high birth rate of ignorance by neglect, accident or willful indoctrination.
Theodore Roosevelt wrote “Of all the questions which can come before this nation, short of the actual preservation of its existence in a great war, there is none which compares in importance with the great central task of leaving this land even a better land for our descendants than it is for us.”  Our descendants will be Americans and, God willing, they will know love and live in a free society with liberty and justice for all. I will strive to teach them and pass on to them the best of America’s free heritage the best of our “splendid ancient heritage.”