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A Museum That Overcomes Its Correctness


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Not so long ago the very idea of building a museum in Philadelphia to tell the story of the American Revolution would have been laughable, since Philadelphia itself is just such a museum. Here within a few paces are Carpenters Hall, where the Continental Congress first assembled; Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence was debated anxiously and then ratified; the Liberty Bell, with its thrilling injunction from Leviticus: “Proclaim Liberty thro’ all the Land to all the Inhabitants thereof.” These objects speak eloquently of the central event in American history—so long as one knows something of that history.

Those of us over 50 will remember when American history was taught as an instrument of citizenship. The Revolution that gave us our independence also gave us our system of government, and so to learn about the Revolution was to learn citizenship. Between the history lesson in the classroom and the Fourth of July parade, there was a seamless continuity. But American history has since been purged of its civic content. Today’s pupil is taught to look at it with the disinterested detachment of the professional historian, not as a participant with a stake in the outcome. Even the nominally traditional Common Core standards ask pupils to see the Revolution from all sides and to write a broadside representing “the Loyalist perspective.”
Such a widely inclusive approach broadens our understanding of the Revolution even as it diminishes its significance. If all history is simply the perpetual contention between individuals pursuing their naked self-interest, then any invocation of ideals or principles must be suspect. Pupils so trained are hardly likely to regard the American Revolution as a great step forward in human history. They need to be told why the events in Independence Hall were indeed unique—even exceptional—but they are unlikely to learn it from their teachers. At the very moment when a Museum of the American Revolution becomes necessary, it becomes unattainable.:snip:

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