Teaching the new generation why they’re Americans

Since retiring from the Supreme Court, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has been on a mission to overcome the ignorance of far too many students in our schools of the roots of their liberties in American history.

Citing federal education funds appropriated under George W. Bush and Barack Obama based on raising test scores in math, science, and reading, she cites the lack of financial support for learning history and civics.

At a New York conference in May to spread the word for her interactive website — iCivics.org — aimed, along with videogames, at teaching the new generation why they are Americans, Sandra Day O’Connor focused on the civics ignorance of our population at large:

“Barely one-third of Americans can even name three branches of government, much less say what they do.” And, she added, “less than one-fifth of high school seniors can explain how civic participation benefits our government. Less than that can say what the Declaration of Independence is, and it’s right there in the title. I’m worried.”

The president who appointed Sandra Day O’Connor as the first woman Supreme Court Justice, Ronald Reagan, was also worried.  In his farewell address he said: “If we forget what we did, we won’t know who we are. I’m warning of an eradication … of the American memory that could result, ultimately, in an erosion of the American spirit.”

During lectures I’ve given at several prestigious graduate schools of journalism, I’ve asked the students to name the five freedoms in the First Amendment. I’ve yet to hear all five. And when I ask them what’s in the Fourth Amendment — and why the absence of its privacy protections helped precipitate the American Revolution — there are nearly always blank stares, though one student hesitantly and cluelessly offered, “The right to bear arms?”

There is, however, an ongoing partial — though perilously insufficient — restoration of our self-identity. Among the organizations agreeing with Justice Louis Brandeis that “the greatest menace to freedom is an inert people” is the Center for Civic Education (civiced.org) whose illuminating curriculum (in its “American Legacy” and other publications) is taught in some public and private schools — climaxed by an annual “We the People: The Citizen and the Constitution” competition in Washington, D.C., participated in by students from around the country who, I am eager to bet, know far more about who we are than a sizeable majority of Congress or the White House.

Also a model force for giving students — and teachers — a sense of recognition of their identities as Americans is The Bill of Rights Institute, which has lectures for teachers (I’ve given one on the history of the First Amendment); online seminars; contests for students on why they’re Americans; and such publications as:

“Founders and the Constitution: In Their Own Words;” “The Bill of Rights and You: Rights and Responsibilities;” and “Citizenship and Character: Understanding America’s Civic Values” (BillofRightsInstitute.org).

While learning our history and how our government works is essential, it’s not enough. We need to engage students in actually participating in making democracy work in their schools and communities. For an example, a recent report from Chicago’s Mikva Challenge (named for former Federal Circuit Judge Abner Mikva) tells of “Hundreds of Chicago and suburban high school students who worked [on opposite sides] for candidates competing in the Gubernatorial, Senatorial, and Cook County Board President primaries. Moreover, one student group helped pass a bill in Springfield for pedestrian safety, another created a new youth center, and other students created workshops around teen dating and violence.” (Not that the two are synonymous).