Do you know that our Constitution was signed in Philadelphia on Sept. 17, 1787? That’s a seldom acknowledged national holiday. Sen. Robert Byrd, West Virginia Democrat, knows that date well, and this year he succeeded in getting a law passed that requires all educational institutions receiving federal funds — ranging from elementary schools to colleges and universities — to provide instruction to the Constitution during that day every year. If, like this year, it falls on a weekend, the law takes effect the week before or after.
Commendable as the senator’s intent is, the legislation does not require any curriculum instruction as to why we are Americans (unbeknownst to many of us, it’s a national holiday). Furthermore, whatever is taught on that single day will hardly stay in the minds of many of the nation’s students, who are scandalously undereducated in the liberties and rights of the oldest living constitution in the world, as well as being ignorant of basic events and developments in American history.
Historian David McCullough’s books, including his current “1776” (Simon & Schuster, 2005), have brought our history alive for many readers; but as for our schools, Mr. McCullough laments: “In many, if not most, schools, our history is on the backburner. You can have amnesia of society, which is just as detrimental as the amnesia of an individual.” Mr. McCullough was speaking in support of a new bill, the “American History Achievement Act,” introduced in the Senate on April 20 by Sens. Lamar Alexander, Tennessee Republican, and Ted Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, which would create a new 10-state pilot assessment of the teaching of U.S. History and Civics, administered in grades 8 and 12, though the National Assessment of Educational Programs (NAEP). It would also require a more frequent analysis though the NAEP of the actual extent and depth of the effective teaching of American history.
The bill also emphasizes civic education. As Mr. Kennedy emphasizes:”We need more opportunities for internships and service-learning, and stronger relationships between schools and communities to involve young people more fully in the life of their communities.” Americans, regardless of party or any other affiliation, should be startled to confront the following failure to teach the young how we govern ourselves. As reported by Mr. Alexander and Mr. Kennedy, “The 2001 NAEP assessment in U.S. history has the largest percentage of students scoring below basic (levels) of any subject that was tested, including mathematics, science and reading.” The assessment found that “75 percent of fourth-grade students could not correctly identify the three parts of the federal government of the United States out of four possible choices; 73 percent of fourth-graders could not identify the Constitution from among four choices as the document that contains the basic rules used to run the U.S. government.” And, “91 percent of eighth-grade students could not list the two issues that were important in causing the Civil War, nor list the Northern and Southern positions on each of these issues.”
Mr. Kennedy, during a Senate hearing on this essential bill, explained one of the reasons that American history, including the history of the Constitution, is on the “backburner” in so many schools. He quoted from the research of Sheldon Stern, the chief historian emeritus at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston: “22 states have American history (teaching) standards that are either weak or lack a clear chronology and appropriate political and historical context or lack sufficient information about real events and people. As many as nine states still have no standards at all for American history.”
Mr. Alexander adds: “It is disgraceful that high school seniors (in another survey) score lower on U.S. history than on any other subject. Being an American is not based on race or where you came from, but on a few principles that unite us as Americans.” I would suggest, senator, that there are more than a few principles that unite us as Americans, starting with the 10 sections of the Bill of Rights and moving on to the protection of habeas corpus in the body of the Constitution, and, among other parts, the insistence that there be no religious tests for the office.
As Mr. Alexander correctly notes, “state by state comparisons of the eighth- and 12th-grade scores will help put the spotlight on what our children are and are not learning across this country. This is one more step to putting the teaching of American history and civics back into our classrooms, so our children grow up learning what it means to be an American.”
Mr. McCullough makes the fundamental point: “You can’t be a full participant in our democracy if you don’t know our history.” And James Madison, who had much to do with shaping our Constitution, said looking to the future of this nation: “(Only) a well-instructed people can be a permanently free people.” Parents and other adults across the country should vigorously instruct their local school boards to monitor whether the young are as engrossed in the adventures of American history as they are in the adventures of Harry Potter. Therefore, no child will be left behind in their understanding of what it is to be an American.