NEW YORK – A New Jersey man's plan to put George Washington's portrait back in the classroom has been chopped down by politicians who didn't find his Yankee Doodle plan so dandy.
"It's absolutely astounding what's going on in our schools," said businessman William Sanders, who created the Portraits of Patriots project in 1998 to reverse what he saw as the decline of American history's place in the classroom.
Working from his home, Sanders frames prints of an original Washington portrait engraved by William Marshall in 1862, and campaigns to distribute them to schools.
"I thought that it would be a fitting project to commemorate Washington's death by reintroducing his portrait back into the schools," he said.
Congress ordered the portraits placed in classrooms as part of a 1932 Washington's birthday anniversary celebration, though the pictures began to disappear by the late 1960s, mainly due to the deterioration of non-archival materials.
Sanders took his proposal to, among others, the New Jersey state Legislature. There it was passed by the state Assembly, but died in a Senate committee. And it's not receiving much support elsewhere.
"We feel it is not a necessary piece of legislation," said Dawn Hiltner, spokesperson for the New Jersey Education Association. "There were so many great men and women throughout U.S. history that it would be an injustice to have George Washington singled out as the one person to have his picture posted in every school."
Hiltner claimed the portraits would "not really do anything to help the children's understanding of what he's done or the role he's accomplished."
That reaction astounded Sanders, who cited surveys showing one in four American students can't even identify George Washington as the man on the dollar bill.
Jeff Pasley, an assistant professor of history at the University of Missouri-Columbia, does believe schools need to improve history education but finds the benefits of hanging a portrait questionable. "One of the problems with the whole portrait idea is choosing one picture or hanging a bunch of different portraits to try and cover all of your bases," he said.
Portraits can also be seen as shrines in schools, he said, adding, "If you build someone up as a kind of saint people get disillusioned very easily."
But Sanders, a father of two teen-agers, won't be persuaded. "We have generations of children now who aren't clear on historical facts, and if we don't clear this up now we'll forget where we came from," he said.
Sanders has charged forward with his crusade to boost students' understanding of the first president. He has personally donated about 20 paintings (at $250 each), and sold off others with the help of various rotary clubs and parent-teacher groups.
Sanders said he believes the teachings of Washington are as timely today as they were when then-Lt. Col. Ulysses S. Grant III, grandson of the 18th president of the United States, delivered a 1930 speech to — of all people — the National Education Association.
"Teach your pupils to know and admire George Washington, to carry his example and companionship in their hearts," Grant said in the speech, "and the country's destiny will be safe in the hands of the next generation."