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Henry Kissinger, the former national security adviser and secretary of state, is cautioning that if schools and colleges teach too negative a view of American history, it could hurt America’s ability to lead in the world.

Kissinger, 99, made his comments September 30 in a virtual event with hundreds of members of the Council on Foreign Relations. The event was a conversation with the president of the Council, Richard Haass, about Kissinger’s new book Leadership: Six Studies in World Strategy.

The remarks came in response to a question from an associate professor at the U.S. Naval War College, Michael Poznansky, about whether the attributes of good leaders are constant or depend on the time and situation.

Kissinger responded, unprompted, by raising the education issue. “A minimum condition for great achievement for a society is to believe in its purposes and in its historical record. And if the educational system of a country becomes increasingly focused on the shortcomings of its history and less on the purposes of the society, then its capacity to act internationally will be diverted into its internal struggles,” Kissinger said.

The former diplomat raised the concern that those “internal struggles” could cause both “the international system and the country’s security” to “become impaired in a new way.”

Educators have struggled recently with finding the right balance between instilling a sense of patriotism or national purpose and also conveying an accurate and unvarnished account of historical facts (See “History, Critical and Patriotic,” features, Spring 2020).

And politicians and education reformers have long cited national security as a reason for education reform, dating back at least to the National Defense Education Act of 1958 that boosted federal education spending after the Soviet launch of the Sputnik satellite. The Council on Foreign Relations itself issued a 2012 task force report on U.S. Education Reform and National Security, crafted in part by another former national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice.

That trend is continuing. The lieutenant governor of Virginia, Winsome Earle-Sears, like Kissinger an immigrant to America and a military veteran, recently visited Harvard to speak at a conference of the Program on Education Policy and Governance. “To me it’s a national security issue,” she said, speaking not so much about the history curriculum but more generally about the failure of American schools to consistently teach students the skills needed to do things like operate nuclear submarines.

Kissinger, a former professor of government at Harvard who won the Nobel Peace Price in 1973 for negotiating a cease fire in Vietnam, is reviled on the left for his role in that war and is often also viewed skeptically on the right for his advocacy of détente with the Soviet Union and for his role in opening U.S. relations with Communist China. But as he has aged he’s also become increasingly viewed as a kind of respected senior statesman with accumulated wisdom, as witnessed by the unusually large bipartisan crowd that turned out for the Council on Foreign Relations event, part of a “Lessons From History Series” sponsored by David M. Rubenstein.

Ira Stoll is managing editor of Education Next.

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