Friday, March 25, 2005

'We the People' -- No, No, That Can't Be Rite

One of my correspondents, a conservative activist who follows Virginia politics and policy issues closely, sent me this note yesterday (which I publish here with his permission):

Wanted to tell you about a conversation I had with Senator Ken Stolle’s office this morning.

In [Wednesday]’s Richmond Times-Dispatch, in responding to Jerry Kilgore’s suggestion that future tax increases be subject to voter approval, Senator Ken Stolle said, "We entrust our legislators with certain responsibilities, and I would not favor an erosion of those responsibilities."

So, I asked a gentleman in the Senator’s office to whom "we" referred.

He said, "The people elect representatives to make decisions for them and once we get that responsibility we’re not going to give it up just because people might disagree with us."

So I asked, "When you say 'we're not going to give it up,' who is 'we'?"

He responded that it was "elected officials."

Finally, I said, "You sound like you are old enough to have finished your education, so I have just one more question. In a democratic republic who is the sovereign?"

His response, "I dunno." (I kid you not.)

Please call Senator Stolle’s office today at (757) 486-5700. It appears that we (the great unwashed) have some work to do in bringing these geniuses up to a remedial understanding of eighth grade civics.

Could this be a failure of the public school system?

To answer that last question, yes and no. It is more a failure of Senator Stolle for hiring ignorant staff members. There are smart people who learn about the U.S. Constitution despite the education they receive from government schools.

The problem of government schools' failure to teach basics in civics and public affairs is not new. A 1987 report from the ERIC Clearinghouse for Social Studies/Social Science Education in Bloomington, Indiana, noted:

Although it is established in the secondary school curriculum, education on the Constitution has suffered from neglect and routine treatment. Assessments of curriculum guides indicate lengthy lists of concepts and topics about American constitutional government. However, there also are long lists of other goals pertaining to a broad range of concerns from environmental issues and global perspectives to social change and futuristic studies. The educational agenda is cluttered, and priorities often are unclear. In many schools, goals for study of the Consitution may be viewed as no more important than a vast array of competing purposes of education in the social studies.

Studies of standard secondary school textbooks have revealed restricted coverage and shallow treatment of basic principles, values, and issues of constitutional government. During the 1960s and 1970s, coverage of social history expanded at the expense of political history (including constitutional history).

It seems that study of the Constitution has all too often been overshadowed by trendy topics and curriculum fads. There is an underemphasis on the Constitution relative to other topics of lesser importance in citizenship education. In a recent study of the Constitution in American culture, historian Michael Kammen concludes: "The Constitution is too often neglected or poorly taught in American schools"

More recently, a Knight Foundation survey of over 100,000 high school students in over 500 schools across the country found woeful ignorance about First Amendment freedoms. As reported by Liz Harper of Online NewsHour:
"These results (of the study) are not only disturbing, they are dangerous," said the Knight Foundation's president, Hodding Carter III. "Ignorance about the basics of this free society is a danger to our nation's future."

. . . The survey illustrated that high school students were not learning enough about First Amendment issues and importance of a free press in their classes.

For instance, 36 percent of students said newspapers should receive government approval before publishing stories and another 32 percent thought the press had "too much freedom to do what it wants."

. . . The survey blamed the lack of awareness on incomplete social studies classes and a lack of high school journalism programs.

More than half of the high schools surveyed described their student media opportunities as low, but 85 percent of school administrators said they would expand media programs if they had the financial resources.

Still, we shouldn't expect too much from politicians or their staff members.

Whenever I get the opportunity, I ask candidates for public office to name the three programs they would eliminate or privatize once they are elected. I use this to gauge their commitment to limited goverment and also to see what their priorities are. When John Hager, for instance, then a candidate for governor, answered without hesitation at a public forum that he would privatize the state liquor monopoly, he sewed up my vote.

I remember once posing this question to a major-party candidate for the Virginia House of Delegates. He had trouble coming up with a response. So I prompted him: "Is there any activity that is not legitimate for the government to do?"

His reply: "I've never thought about that."

He was a Republican. Fortunately, he lost his race and disappeared into obscurity. (I tell the truth when I say I no longer recall the man's name.)


Tim said...

If you're a public school teacher, you learn that it's pretty dangerous to teach teenagers about individual liberty or democratic values. They'll turn what they've learned against you.

Jack said...

Tim, we once had the notion of coming-of-age - a point in our lives at which we ceased being children and took on the responsibilities of adulthood. Up to that time we had no illusions about our personal freedom or rights of expression. We understood somehow that these things were coming to us in our adult life, but for the time being they are what we study, understand and prepare ourselves for, so that when that time comes we will be properly prepared to exercise those privileges responsibly.
In a setting such as I've described you can see that there was no danger in teaching these things to children. In fact the danger would be in not teaching them, and expecting the new adults to know such things just by osmosis.
If children today see no distinction between themselves and their rights and privileges, and those of their adult parents and leaders - then shame on we adults for teaching and leading our children improperly .