Lynne Cheney

Remarks at Chapman University- Feb. 20, 2002

Lynne Cheney
February 20, 2002— Orange, California
Print friendly

It's a great pleasure to be here today at Chapman University. I remember the warm welcome I received here when I came during my tenure as Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities and I have been looking forward to visiting this lovely campus again. I believe that when I was here before I congratulated you on the thoughtfulness of your curriculum and I remain impressed that you require the study of western civilization, as well as the study of a non-western civilization, and that students are required to study a foreign language. There is no surer way to understand the diversity of human experience than to experience the diversity of ways that human beings communicate their thoughts and aspirations.

I have had history much on my mind of late. Like all Americans, I have a sense of living at a critical moment in time, and, may I add, I also have a strong sense of gratitude for the magnificent leadership of our President through this crucial period.

And without any hint of bias, let me observe that the Vice President is no slouch either.

Times that shape history invite us to consider similar moments in our past, and today, being on a college campus, I thought I would talk about a college professor, a man who spent his life quite far from here geographically, but who, philosophically, would have been quite appreciative of the approach here at Chapman. The professor's name was Joshua Chamberlain and he taught rhetoric, oratory and modern languages at Bowdoin College in Maine. He had a distinguished career as an educator, but what I want to focus on today is not his teaching but his military career. In 1862, he decided that he wanted to take up arms for the Union.

As you will remember, the Civil War did not start out well for the Union. People in the North had expected there would be a quick victory, but the First Battle of Bull Run put an end to that thinking and seemed at the same time to paralyze the Army of the Potomac. In July, 1862, Chamberlain sent a letter to Maine's governor, "I fear this war, so costly of blood and treasure," he wrote, "will not cease until the men of the north are willing to leave good positions and sacrifice the dearest personal interests to rescue our country from desolation." He was quite willing to admit that he was not deeply knowledgeable about military matters, but, he wrote the governor, "What I do not know in that line, I know how to learn."

Neither his wife nor his college was enthusiastic about his going to war, but Chamberlain secured a commission, and on August 8, 1862, became a lieutenant colonel in Maine's Twentieth Infantry Regiment. Moving by train and steamer, Chamberlain and the other men of the Twentieth arrived in the vicinity of Washington, D.C., at an inauspicious time: Union forces had suffered a second defeat at Bull Run and the city was reeling. Robert E. Lee began moving north, and Union troops, including the Twentieth Maine, followed in pursuit. The armies met at Antietam, where the Union halted Lee's advance and inflicted terrible losses on his army but did not destroy it. Three months later, in fact, the rebels defeated Union forces at Fredericksburg. "I am sick and tired of disaster," a Union soldier wrote to his mother. And then came another one, the defeat of the Union at Chancellorsville in May 1863.

The stage was now set for a battle that could decide the outcome of the war. Lee invaded the North for the second time, this time moving into Pennsylvania. The Federal army followed, its leaders no doubt concerned that another victory for the Confederacy, particularly in the North, might cause the Union war effort to collapse. Lee certainly had that hope, even that expectation. He said to one of his men, "If God gives us the victory, the war will be over and we shall achieve the recognition of our independence."

Joshua Chamberlain was now in command of the Twentieth Maine, and although he could not have foreseen what July 2, 1863 held in store, he had prepared both himself and those he commanded for momentous events. He himself had become a student of the art of war, reading basic manuals as well as classical works. "I study, I tell you," he wrote to his wife Fannie, " . . . I am bound to understand every thing." Particularly after Antietam, he and Adelbert Ames, who preceded him as colonel of the Twentieth Maine, required daily drills of their citizens soldiers--men who had recently been fishermen and farmers and shopkeepers. "Hour by weary hour," writes one Chamberlain biographer, "four hours a day and more, the commands rang out in the Twentieth's camp." After Fredericksburg, Chamberlain called upon West Pointers in the Fifth Corps to conduct a series of seminars so that he and other officers could discuss with them the strategy and tactics of war.

The Twentieth Maine marched toward Gettysburg. Twenty miles one day, twenty the next, eighteen the next. And they were exhausted, but disciplined, and they had the utmost trust in and affection for their colonel. Chamberlain had the calm and dignified bearing of a leader and he conveyed to his men what, in fact, he was--a man of honor and integrity who cared about them. One private said, "[He] is almost idolized by the whole regiment."

And so the Twentieth marched on, twenty-three miles, then an unbelievable twenty-six miles, and then they were at Gettysburg, where the great armies were arrayed, their lines stretching for miles, sixty-five thousand men under Lee's command, eighty-five thousand on the Union side.

General Daniel Sickles had been assigned to hold the Union left, but, thinking he knew better than those commanding him, he had shifted his troops so that the left flank and a hill called Little Round Top that overlooked the Union line were unattended. Four regiments were sent to fill in where Sickles should have been, including the Twentieth Maine, which was positioned on Little Round Top at the very end of the Union line and told to hold the ground at all costs.

The 4th Alabama Regiment charged the hill, soon joined by parts of the Alabama 47th. Chamberlain quickly realized that these Confederates were not his only problem. Behind the 4th and the 47th was a flanking column, hooking around to his left. Were these troops to succeed in their effort to get around the Union left flank, they could fire on Union troops already under frontal assault. Writes one of Chamberlain's biographers, "Robert E. Lee and the Confederacy were never so close to victory."

Chamberlain ordered his men simultaneously to lengthen their line and to bend the end of it back at a right angle to meet the flanking Confederates. It was a brilliant move, one reflecting the study and thought that Chamberlain had given to maneuvering men on the field of battle. And the move was executed brilliantly by the men of the Twentieth, who were all the while under fire. It required "coolness as well as heat," Chamberlain later wrote. And it required training and discipline as well.

The Confederates charged the Twentieth again and again. In the withering fire, Chamberlain lost a third of his regiment. And then the men of the Twentieth ran out of ammunition. But they could not retreat. They had been told to hold their position at all costs. And so Chamberlain decided that the regiment would, without ammunition, charge the Confederate forces. Bent back as they were it couldn't be an ordinary charge. It would have to begin with the men on the left and gradually include the rest of the line in a great wheeling movement. Chamberlain explained the maneuver to his men, ordered them to fix bayonets, and down the slope they plunged.

The stunned Confederates fell back. Their ranks broke, and they ran for their lives. Little Round Top held and the Union prevailed at Gettysburg.

Chamberlain received the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions that day, and when Lee's army finally surrendered in 1865, Ulysses S. Grant chose Chamberlain to receive the Confederate battle flags at Appomattox.

I tell you this story today partly because it is a good story and partly because it offers a lesson that history often teaches us. Things didn't have to turn out as they did. They might have gone otherwise. What if Chamberlain's wife or his college had persuaded him to stay in Maine? What if he had not understood that war was a subject to be studied and battle an event to be prepared for? Would another man have been able to inspire his troops to charge forward armed only with bayonets?

Brave men and women remind us of the element of contingency in history. They remind us that it was not certain, to use Lincoln's words, that a nation "conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal" would long endure. And this realization is crucial because it underlies understanding of how precious our freedom is and how well worth defending. Were we to lose it, liberty might not come our way again.

My concern is that in our high schools and colleges and universities we are no longer conveying knowledge of the great events and great figures of the past. One survey of seventeen-year-olds showed them woefully ignorant of the Civil War. Two-thirds could not identify the half-century in which it occurred. A survey of seniors at elite colleges and universities showed that only one out of five was familiar with the words of the Gettysburg Address. Significant numbers of students thought that Ulysses S. Grant was a general in the Revolutionary War.

A West Virginia history professor has published a collection of history as some college students tell it. One student writes about "John F. Kennedy working closely with the Russians to solve the Canadian Missile Crisis." Another writes about "Martin Luther Junior's famous 'If I had a hammer speech.'" Another writes that "Stalin, Roosevelt, Churchill and Truman were known as the 'Big Three.'"

There is a funny side to this, but it is also a serious problem. One way of addressing it is by establishing good standards for the teaching of history, something that this state has done. I frequently hold California's standards up as an example to be emulated. They make it very clear that students are supposed to learn about great events like the Revolutionary War and the Civil War. And even in second grade, students in California are supposed to learn about "extraordinary men and women who made a difference in our national life."

But excellent standards for teaching history are relatively rare. According to one analysis, there are only three states in California's league. And even when good standards are in place, they require teachers who are well prepared to teach them, and this is an area that I think deserves special attention. Particularly in the early grades, teachers have often not studied history in college and even when they have, what they have learned about the American past may be insufficient.

I've spent some time recently reading books assigned in undergraduate history courses and in education courses in California and across the nation, and I have come across some pretty surprising ideas, such as the notion that events like the Civil War, long thought significant, really don't matter very much. Union victory might have meant emancipation for African-Americans, one version of this argument goes, but they and working class Americans of every race were subsequently enslaved by capitalism.

Another idea I've encountered is that it is a mistake to study those we think of as leaders--men like Joshua Chamberlain, for example--because doing so perpetrates the myth that he represents something important to all of us--and there is nothing important to all of us. Our society consists of different groups with different interests, according to this view, and those who say otherwise are simply trying to make sure that the oppressed stay that way.

Still another idea I've come across is that the American story is a tale of sound and fury that doesn't signify very much. We haven't made progress, according to this thinking, not even in our technology, which we will likely discover doesn't really fulfill our needs. To believe that we have made progress, so this thinking goes, is to be ethnocentric, to fall victim to a myth that the powerful use to keep everybody else in their place.

Now I think these ideas are easy to refute, but you have to know something in order to dispute them. You have to have some basic information about events like the Civil War, some knowledge of the achievements of leaders like Joshua Chamberlain, some facts about what life used to be like so that you can evaluate whether we have advanced or not. Can anyone who has read what the practice of medicine used to be like have any doubt that technological progress is important? About a year after Gettysburg, Joshua Chamberlain was grievously wounded as he led his men in a charge at the Battle of Petersburg. Field surgeons patched him together but they lacked modern techniques and devices, and while Chamberlain lived a long life, he suffered for the rest of his years from his wound and sometimes endured terrible pain, "unspeakable agony," he called it once and he was not a complainer. Can anyone reading about this doubt that modern medicine is an important achievement?

Provocative ideas ought to be welcome on our campuses because they encourage debate. But provocative ideas are not enough. Students need basic knowledge about the American past in order for there to be a real discussion. They need the breadth of knowledge that I suspect they would get here at Chapman in the survey course of American history. They need to know about great events and brave men and women and what has been achieved in America if they are to respond thoughtfully to claims that none of these things matter.

Unfortunately the broadly conceived courses that would provide this knowledge are, when they exist at all, rarely required. I know the institutional pressures that make requiring American history difficult, but let me say that I think the case for it is very strong, particularly in the case of teachers. If they are to help the next generation learn about the ideas and institutions on which our freedom is founded, they have to be thoroughly knowledgeable about them. I was dismayed recently to read one large California university's advice to students taking the MSAT, the exam that allows prospective elementary teachers to be certified without having to complete a program of liberal studies. Students who wanted to bone up for the history section of the exam by reading a textbook were told to find one "that is both short and simple." It didn't necessarily have to be a college text or even a high school text: "A middle . . . school text would be fine." Now the faculty members and administrators of the education school making this recommendation do not necessarily believe that an eighth- or ninth-grade history education is sufficient for teachers. They may simply be saying that an eighth- or ninth-grade education in history is all that is necessary to pass the exam to become a teacher. But, still, something is very wrong here. Even in the earliest grades, teachers should know more than thirteen- and fourteen-year-olds in order to teach.

Insuring the historical literacy of the next generation is not solely the responsibility of colleges and universities, of course. Parents and other adults should talk to children and young people about the American past, and if we are to do that we should be constantly educating ourselves--and I have a sense that many of us are trying to do exactly that. Consider David McCullough's John Adams. Published nine months ago, it is still near the top of the bestseller lists. It has sold one and a half-million copies. This is amazing and it is heartening. It is testimony, it seems to me, that Americans want to know their national story. And so is the public response to Black Hawk Down, a movie about recent history which for several weeks has been number one at the box office, although it is tough to watch, not exactly what you would call entertainment. When I saw that movie recently, I thought of Joshua Chamberlain. He was one of the first Congressional Medal of Honor recipients, and two of the men whose actions were recreated in Black Hawk Down--Gary Gordon and Randall Shughart--were those honored most recently. Like Chamberlain, Gordon and Shughart were men of awe-inspiring bravery.

We owe it to ourselves as citizens to be knowledgeable about the heroic deeds and great people of this country, but we also owe it to ourselves as individuals. A quarter century after the battle of Gettysburg, Chamberlain visited the battlefield, and speaking not of himself but of the countless acts of bravery that occurred there in early July 1863, he said, "In great deeds, something abides." I take his words to mean that stories of bravery and heroism linger and that they can lift our hearts long after they have happened. They offer inspiration for the journey we are all on, telling us that although we are transitory creatures, we are capable of transcendent acts, deeds that will echo down through history and make life better for those who come after us.

Knowing about the brave men and women who shaped this nation can make us better citizens and better people. Surely we should offer those possibilities to the next generation.

Speech from