Fifty-five words sum up the origin and the purpose of America. Yet few Americans know what those words are, let alone what they mean. When the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation commissioned a survey a few years ago to measure Americans' knowledge of the founding, it discovered that only three in 10 of those who responded could identify where the words "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" appear.
This is a problem of education.
Those words are located in the Declaration of Independence, which says:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.
Today, the Declaration is as controversial as it is unfamiliar. And yet recent efforts by courageous state lawmakers in Arizona, Utah and New Jersey to remedy the problem and restore America's founding principles to their rightful authority have met tremendous opposition. Why?
Consider the bill that passed in Arizona's House this week that would require elementary school students to say the Pledge of Allegiance at the start of each school day. That bill also includes a provision to require students in 4th through 6th grades to recite that short passage from the Declaration.
The problem? A liberal contingent fears that such a law even a watered-down version that lets students to opt out of the recitations will invite a slew of lawsuits. Naturally, the American Civil Liberties Union objects, detecting a faint odor of religion ("endowed by their Creator" uh oh) in Jefferson's prose.
New Jersey lawmakers debated a similar recitation bill for 13 years. The bill was tabled once again this February because a number of Garden State Democrats have a problem with such politically incorrect words as "men, "Creator," and "right to life." They say the men who founded the country are bad role models for children (some of them owned slaves) and that their ideas are old hat.
But these laws are not objectionable simply because they contain words that make some people feel uncomfortable. The very idea of teaching children about freedom and patriotism is, to the laws' opponents, unseemly and maybe even un-American.
When California passed a law in 1996 that required high school students to read the Declaration, the Constitution, and other important founding documents, Democrats hammered the bill. In the words of one state assemblyman, the law "contradicts freedom [and] by its nature is calculated to teach fascism, not democracy."
The general objection here is that if kids are somehow compelled to recite patriotic language indeed, the most patriotic language they will be ruined. Besides, isn't it better to teach children the principles of the Declaration rather than make them memorize it?
Only if one believes this is an either-or proposition. It's a cherished doctrine of the education establishment that "facts don't matter." Knowing "how to think" is what counts. Fact is, children today are barely acquainted with the principles on which the country was founded. Results of the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress on Civics, released in November, offer a mountain of evidence on this point.
For example, 93% of 4th graders knew that Bill Clinton is president. But only 43% of them knew that he signs bills into laws. And only 26% could answer a multiple-choice question about a political cartoon that showed how "apathy is bad for democracy."
America's founders knew better than we the importance of a good civic education. They believed that government "by the people" could not survive if the people were ignorant or uninterested in how politics work.
Jefferson outlined what he thought should be the goals of public education in America. Among other things, it should "give every citizen the information he needs for the transaction of his own business," "improve, by reading, his morals and faculties," and teach the citizen to "know his rights; to exercise with order and justice those he retains."
Love and respect for the great American experiment in free government does not appear out of thin air. Freedom and self-government are habits. Habits are formed out of repetition. They must be learned. Let's teach them.
- Coerced Patriotism?, by Larry Arnn