Constitutional Ignorance; Better Civics Education Needed

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), August 29, 2005 | Go to article overview

Constitutional Ignorance; Better Civics Education Needed


Byline: Nat Hentoff, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

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. …

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