24 May 2006

"American" no more--and no less

So, the Michigan Board of Education is eliminating the term “American” from textbooks.  The attitude expressed by Board members and others is understandable when compared with the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda’s praise (in his “Ode to Walt Whitman”) of Whitman as the one who taught him (i.e., Neruda) “to be an American.”  Clearly, Neruda thought that there was something about being an American in which both he and Whitman could, and did, share.  I happen to think so also.  And I happen to think that at least one of the things we might share is a love and thirst for liberty.

Yes, all the inhabitants of this continent are Americans.  But Neruda wasn’t an American in the sense that American is used in referring to citizens of the U.S.  Neruda was Chilean, not American.  American is simply short-hand for citizen of The United States of America.  That’s all it is, nothing more.  (If it meant more than that, then I would agree that our calling ourselves Americans is obscene.  But I have never met an American who thought that we, and only we, counted as Americans in the continental sense.)  Even if we just use terms like North American or South American, these terms will tell us nothing about national citizenship.  Someone from Brazil may visit the U.S. and tell me he’s an American.  That’s great, but it doesn’t tell me which country he’s from, if that’s what I want to know.  He’s a Brazilian.  And if I tell him that I’m a North American that doesn’t inform him that I am not a Canadian.

Only a simpleton would think that our use of the term American to identify our national citizenship means that we think that we and no one else are the entire continent.  Of course the real purpose may be simply to use language to alter the way students conceive of their citizenship.  (Think about it a moment:  What would be the implications for national citizenship of saying, “We’re all Americans, after all”?)

Besides, the name of our country is, again, The United States of America.  What shall we call ourselves for short?  United Statesians?

Like many other things done by educators these days, this will probably make many people feel good about something.  They will at least feel good about themselves for being such inclusive people.  But it will do nothing to facilitate communication.

Note:  If you think my comment about the use of language to control or alter thought is unbelievable, then you may be interested in reading George Orwell’s 1946 speech, “Politics and the English Language,” as well as this Wikipedia article on Newspeak.

H/T The “Evil” Glenn Reynolds.

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James Frank Solís
Former soldier (USA). Graduate-level educated. Married 26 years. Texas ex-patriate. Ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church in America.
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