As a youngster sitting in my elementary school social studies classes and learning about the history of the United States of America, I vividly recall the phrases my teachers used to describe this country such as a “melting pot,” or “a nation of immigrants.”
What my younger self didn’t recognize until many years later was the awesome power of the composition of America. These many immigrants brought, and still bring, with them a variety of cultural backgrounds, regional heritages, religious traditions, and general frameworks regarding how the world around them works. Despite these differences, this nation of immigrants was, and is, held together by a common entrepreneurial thread that inspired these former-foreigners to leave their native lands and journey to a new land of freedom and opportunity to forge their own paths in the world.
While being part of, and assimilating into their new country, these folks of varying backgrounds could cluster in culturally similar neighborhoods. Doing so afforded them the opportunity to grow more familiar with their new home while maintaining a closeness to their heritage and having a community within which they could instill the importance of their respective traditions in younger generations. Further, they could share the fruits of their culture with others via entrepreneurial ventures such as opening restaurants or operating small businesses where they could highlight cultural arts and craftsmanship.
However, with the advent of policies like compulsory education and institutions such as public schools, the strength and richness of America’s diversity has arguably dissipated. The overwhelming majority of children of this nation of immigrants now find themselves in a similar setting, from childhood through adolescence, for the majority of their waking hours, learning roughly the same concepts. In other words, the majority of time spent in American children’s formative years is fairly similar, regardless of whether they’re in southern California or southeastern Ohio.
Whether by choice or by circumstance, approximately 83% of American children attend public schools. On one hand, it could be considered a benefit that through the public schooling system, we are cultivating a shared cultural ethos among our youth that will be carried into adult life. On the other hand, this same statistic can be considered something of a tragedy as it has dulled the rich and vibrant diversity that once commonly characterized our country.
With the same entrepreneurial spirit that defined the early years of our country, the American school system can be reinvigorated. With the freedom to provide a rich variety of schools of different sizes and specialities, as well as the freedom and ability of families – regardless of income or zip code – to send their children to those schools, we can recapture that rich and vibrant diversity that characterizes our nearly 330 million residents.
Recapturing that childlike wonder toward our differences, and the exercise thereof, in the education of American children is one way we can recommit ourselves to the foundational principles and fundamental rights spelled out in the Declaration of Independence.
Reminiscing on my younger days, a deep appreciation for the diversity and freedom that are fundamental American characteristics were woven into the “melting pot” and “nation of immigrants” descriptions that my social studies teachers used. We maintain that appreciation when making dining or décor decisions, but somehow, it is diminished when we think of educating the youth of our nation.
Dr. Jessi L. Troyan is the Development Director at the Cardinal Institute for WV Policy and has her Ph.D. in Economics from George Mason University.
 Statistics derived from: https://www.edweek.org/ew/issues/education-statistics/index.html