Happy Bill of Rights Day
An estimated 4.5 million young people will vote for the first time in the 2012 presidential election. Is this a good or bad thing?
The popular answer is that it is indeed good. Many people think that the very act of voting is inherently virtuous. But in an age when many political candidates are all too happy to promise the moon to win votes and run roughshod over constitutional limits on their authority, a citizen who votes unwisely can contribute to great harm. He might even help undo the very liberty that affords him the right to vote in the first place.
So, less than 11 months from a critical election, we should ask: What do these 4.5 million young people really know about the principles upon which the American experiment in liberty was founded?
The answer is troubling. According to the most recent National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP for short, also called "the nation’s report card"), a majority of high-school students scored below "basic" in their understanding of U.S. history. A survey two years ago in Oklahoma, meanwhile, found that over three-quarters of high-school students couldn’t name George Washington as the nation’s first president, and almost as many couldn’t name the Constitution as the supreme law of the land.
This is little wonder, given that education standards themselves are often poor. Fourth-graders are taught by the makers of that very same NAEP, for example, that the Declaration of Independence means Americans "are given certain rights," which elides the Founding Fathers’ understanding that those rights come from our Creator. Students are also taught that the message of the Declaration was that people ought to have "some control over their government."
"Some control" is certainly a far cry, however, from what the Declaration of Independence actually says, namely, that "it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish" government when it "becomes destructive" of "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
Poorly educated students, of course, become poorly educated adults. To get a handle on just how bad the problem is, the Bill of Rights Institute, a non-profit dedicated to teaching students about the words and ideas of America’s founders, commissioned a national survey last year to determine what citizens know about the Bill of Rights. We discovered that nearly one in five Americans believe Karl Marx’s famous dictum, "from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs," can be found in the Bill of Rights. What’s more, 60 percent of Americans couldn’t identify the fact that our government derives its powers from its citizens—a feature that distinguishes our nation from most others.
Should we be worried that Americans know so little about the founding and the principles that undergird it? James Madison wrote: "Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives."
And what might be the consequence of a citizenry disarmed of the knowledge of their own rights? We can look again to Madison for an answer, this time to his address at the 1788 Virginia Convention: "Since the general civilization of mankind, I believe there are more instances of the abridgement of freedom of the people, by gradual and silent encroachments of those in power, than by violent and sudden usurpations."
When a people forget their rights, in other words, they run the risk of having those rights gradually eroded.
It won’t by itself fix the problem, but we believe Bill of Rights Day (December 15) is an ideal opportunity for all citizens to get reacquainted with their rights before we lose them through neglect and indifference.
It’s time we remind ourselves that liberty only persists in a land where it is cherished. We need to equip teachers to teach the principles of liberty, and to inspire students to embrace freedom as a precious gift that must be defended at every turn. It’s possible, with enough effort, to restore the constitutional culture that long made this country the land of the free and the home of the brave.
— Dr. Tony Woodlief is president of the Bill of Rights Institute and contributor to The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College.
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