“Governments do not make ideals, but ideals make governments. This is both historically and logically true. Of course, the government can help to sustain ideals and can create institutions through which they can be better observed, but their source by their very nature is in the people.
The people have to bear their own responsibilities. There is no method by which the burden can be shifted to the government. It is not the enactment, but the observance of laws, that creates the character of a nation.”
President Calvin Coolidge speaking on the 150th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, Philadelphia Pa.
The idea of this blog, to view current events through the luminance cast by the American Founders, is essential and timely. The “change” now foisted upon the nation is a radical departure from the ideals that animate the US Constitution and limit the powers of government, placing the republic and freedom in jeopardy.
How did this happen?
In 1983, the National Commission on Excellence in Education issued A Nation At Risk. The report concluded that there was little excellence to be found: “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves.”
Among its recommendations, the Commission advocated a redesign of high school social studies to enable students to “understand the fundamentals of how our economic system works and how our political system functions; and grasp the difference between free and repressive societies.” An understanding of each of these areas being necessary, the report said, “to the informed and committed exercise of citizenship in our free society.”
We knew then that Johnny couldn’t read and couldn’t add without a calculator. Now, almost 30 years later, we find that Johnny remains ignorant of history and doesn’t understand his own political institutions.
In 2009, the Goldwater Institute sponsored a survey* of Arizona high school students (public, charter and private) to determine their level of basic civic knowledge. The goal of education in civics and government, the Institute stated, is “informed, responsible participation in political life by citizens committed to the fundamental values and principles of American constitutional democracy.”
Ten questions were drawn at random from the US Citizenship and Immigration Services bank of 100 questions administered to candidates for citizenship. (Citizenship candidates are tested on 10 of these items. Passing requires six correct answers.) Arizona public high school students’ responses are provided below:
It’s not necessary to list all the questions. Suffice it to say, the percent of correct answers is dismal. Charter and private school students performed substantially better than public school students, but “they still performed poorly overall.”
The Institute pointed out that Arizona students are not unique. “The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) administered a grade-level-appropriate civic knowledge exam to a nationally representative sample of 4th-, 8th-, and 12th-graders in 2006. The percentages of students scoring at the proficient level or above: 25 percent of 4th graders, 24 percent of 8th graders, and 32 percent of 12th graders.”
If elementary and high schools are not providing the intellectual backbone for informed citizenship, are the colleges and universities?
Not according to a 2009 report,** issued by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, that concluded, “our colleges and universities have largely abandoned a coherent, content-rich general education curriculum. Almost half do not require a genuine college-level math course: almost 90% do not require students to take a survey course in American government or history; and only two require students to take a basic course in economics.”
All of which partially answers the “how could this happen” question. The other part, what is taught, is a separate but obviously related topic beyond the purview of this essay.
Clearly, the goals of civic education are not being met at any level of education. It follows that if the principles of liberty articulated in the constitution are not taught, the knowledge and commitment to defend them also will be lacking.
John W. Danford in his book, Roots of Freedom (2000), quotes Chief Justice John Marshall in Marbury vs. Madison, the 1803 Supreme Court case that established the primacy of the constitution over any other kind of law:
“The powers of the legislature are defined and limited; and that those limits may not be mistaken, or forgotten, the constitution is written.” Marshall goes on to say that if, at any time, those limits may be bypassed by those they are intended to restrain, “the distinction between a government with limited and unlimited powers is abolished… “
“Between these two alternatives there is no middle ground. The Constitution is either a superior paramount law, unchangeable by ordinary means, or it is on a level with ordinary legislative acts, and like other acts, it is alterable when the legislature shall please to alter it.
If the former part of the alternative is true, then a legislative act contrary to the Constitution is not law, if the latter part be true, than written constitutions are absurd attempts, on the part of the people, to limit a power in its own nature illimitable.”
Danford also cites John Stuart (On Liberty) who warns that when government goes beyond its functions of protecting the security and property of its citizens, it dangerously extends its power. The relevance of his words to today requires no elaboration.
“Every function superadded to those already exercised by the government causes its influence over hopes and fears to be more widely diffused, and converts, more and more, the active and ambitious part of the public into hangers-on of the government, or of some party which aims at becoming the government. If the roads, the railways, the banks the insurance offices, the great joint-stock companies, the universities, and the public charities, were all of them branches of the government; in addition, the municipal corporations and local boards, with all that now devolves on them, become departments of the central administration; if the employees of all these different enterprises were appointed and paid by the government, and looked to the government for every rise in life; not all the freedom of the press and popular constitution of the legislature would make this or any other country free otherwise than in name.”(Emphasis mine.)
“Yes we can,” the candidate enthused; but only if the people allow it.
*Freedom From Responsibility: A Survey of Civic Knowledge Among Arizona High School Students. http://www.goldwaterinstitute.org/article/3211
**What Will They Learn? A Report on General Education Requirements at 100 of the Nation’s Leading Colleges and Universities. https://www.goacta.org/publications/downloads/WhatWillTheyLearnFinal.pdf