Comment: Would a visit to D.C. as students headed off riot?

Too few have benefited from a civics trip to the capital; we should make that happen for all students.

By Petula Dvorak / The Washington Post

“Is this the Capitol or the White House?” one of the people who came to mob the U.S. Capitol asked me.

“Where is the Mall?” another out-of-state rallygoer wondered while standing on the lawn of the Mall, which constantly confounds tourists with its puzzling lack of a Cinnabon or Foot Locker.

There are way too many Americans who have little understanding of the nation’s capital and what happens here. And that was on full display on Jan. 6 and after, when we saw thousands make their first trip to D.C. either to storm the Capitol or to protect it. And it gave me an idea.

I know President Biden is going to be busy bringing the United States back into the good graces of the world, restoring sanity and replanting all the Truffula trees. But I have one more proposal for the new administration to consider in its early days: a mandatory, government-subsidized trip to D.C. for every high school student.

Hear me out.

Sure, many schools across the nation already make the trek, flooding the city with herds of kids in color-coded attire. But let’s be honest: it’s usually the rich kids who get to visit, or the ones who manage to sell a bazillion candy bars to fund the trip.

No, this would be a government program, subsidized by the surplus we’ll have without funding presidential golf trips (around $144 million) or flying the president’s adult children and their security detail around the world. It would be for everyone: the kids who’ve been to Switzerland but not to the Smithsonian, as well as the kids in East Los Angeles who have never seen the ocean 30 minutes away.

D.C. had a banner tourism year in 2018, with 23 million visitors. But that’s half the folks who went to Disneyworld and Disneyland combined, and even fewer than the 49 million who went to Las Vegas that year.

So D.C.’s not on every parent’s vacation wish list. That’s why it should be part of a curriculum that should be expanded to include hands-on, intensive learning about what citizenship means.

Walking through the marble halls of Congress is far more powerful than reading about the institution in textbooks. A teenage Bill Clinton surely felt the weight of history and the promise in his future when he got to shake President John F. Kennedy’s hand after traveling from Arkansas to D.C. on a school trip in 1963.

Hope Luther, a 28-year-old from Illinois, was so moved by her middle school trip to D.C. that she relocated here.

“Living in the Midwest, you learn about these things and see them in books,” she said, but there was nothing like seeing the monuments and the seat of power in person.

Her mom worked overtime, painting a two-story office building to earn enough money so Luther could visit D.C.

In these past few weeks of misguided “Stop the Steal” rallies, which culminated in the violent riot at the Capitol, I witnessed equal displays of awe and ignorance that made me wish all of these folks had a chance to visit the nation’s capital as part of a living civics lesson that teaches respect for our nation, our past, our potential and our promise.

Americans shouldn’t be making their first trip to D.C. in a rage and on a mission to storm the Capitol.

I watched the people gathered in D.C. on Jan. 6 show disrespect for our process while also expressing wonder at the surprising grandeur of the place they call the “swamp.”

“I can’t believe I put my foot on the Capitol,” one rioter in a knit Trump hat with a bouncy pompom yelled after storming a barricade.

On their march from the Ellipse to the Capitol, I heard a group shout down a camera crew trying to do interviews. “Fake news! Fake news!” they screamed.

And immediately after, many of them were struck by the inscription on what used to be the Newseum.

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise,” a platinum blond woman read aloud. “Woo hoo! It says it right there!”

And she took a few pictures of it. “Do y’all know who said that? Whose quote is it?” she asked some of her friends. They had no idea.

A mother and son followed and took pictures of that same inscription: the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

“It looks new,” the son said. “Is this a new law, Mamma?”

“I don’t know,” the mom said. “Maybe. Whoever did it, I like it.”

There were the National Guard troops deployed to protect the Capitol during the inauguration who were also on their first visit to the seat of the federal government.

One National Guard soldier from Virginia told HuffPost reporter Igor Bobic that he’d never been to the Capitol before and asked Bobic whether the gift shop would open.

“We’re tourists, too. This is kind of cool,” he told Bobic.

A citizen patriotic enough to strap on a gun and a helmet should have the opportunity to have a tangible introduction to what he or she is protecting before a crisis.

Every American should stand in the Rotunda, sit in a congressional gallery and listen to a debate, see the White House, walk the Vietnam Memorial’s wall, visit the museums of African American and American Indian history. Students should stand in that towering room of victims at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and understand the danger of extremism and the importance of America’s role on the world stage.

Donald Trump tried to throw one last bomb before his departure from the presidency this week with a whackadoodle report calling for American kids to get a “patriotic education” that excuses slavery and equates progressives with Mussolini.

That’s not what future America needs.

We need a generation of engaged and informed patriots who have a tangible experience with their nation’s birth, progress and process. And the entire capital city — our monuments, our museums, our people and our traditions — is the best classroom.

Petula is a columnist for The Post’s local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. Before coming to The Post, she covered social issues, crime and courts.

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