On Independence Day, liberty and learning each lean on the other

As we celebrate our nation’s independence with hamburgers on the grill, a rousing rendition of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture and the requisite fireworks to round out the day, it’s a good time to ponder what the founding fathers would make of our educational approach today.

A free public education is an American tenet going back to our very beginning. But as we prepare our children to become productive members of society, we should also be making sure they emerge as responsible American citizens who understand and value their rights and, even more so, the heavy burden of responsibility that comes from protecting their liberties in a free and self-governing democracy.

One of the stories we learned in school was that of Benjamin Franklin leaving the Constitutional Convention in 1787. He was asked what kind of government he and the other delegates had decided on. He replied: “A republic, if you can keep it.”

Franklin and the other framers of the Constitution understood that democracies are fragile things and that our ongoing existence could never be taken for granted. Schools, to them, therefore, were not just institutions of knowledge, but also places to create, as founding father Dr. Benjamin Rush would have it, “republican machines” to ensure the very security of the republic.

Thanks to federal policies such as No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, coupled with the Common Core standards, schools are being forced to teach to testing standards focused on English and mathematics and seem to be increasingly shifting resources away from civics. I imagine the founding fathers would see this as shocking, alarming and downright dangerous.

What happens when you don’t teach such things?

A rather disturbing survey, conducted by the Center for the Study of the American Dream at Xavier University, found that one in three U.S. citizens would fail the civics portion of the test taken by those applying for U.S. citizenship.

More than 1,000 Americans over the age of 18 were asked 10 random questions from the civics test, which asks about U.S. history and government topics. A whopping 35 percent were unable to answer five correctly.

Seventy-five percent of respondents didn’t know what the judicial branch does, while 71 percent could not name the U.S. Constitution as the “law of the land.” Other rough patches included naming states’ rights, how long we elect a president for and defining the rule of law. Many failed to name their own state’s senator or capital city and the chief justice of the Supreme Court, or even know how many justices sit on the Supreme Court.

What’s really troubling is that these people will vote without understanding the very system of government under which they live.

According to the U.S. News and World Report, 97 percent of immigrants applying for U.S. citizenship pass the test. Becoming a U.S. citizen means something to them because they have had to earn that privilege and are deeply appreciative of all our remarkable citizenship confers.

I was born in England and came here as a child because my dad thought we would have more opportunity in this country. When I became a naturalized citizen at the age of 21, I was fairly confident I could answer any question on the test since I had gone through American schools with strong history and civics programs, and politics and foreign affairs were hot topics of conversation around the dinner table. Given my background, I found the results of this poll to be disgraceful. But unfortunately, not surprising.

The Jesuits understood the power of reaching and forming a child’s mind. Give me the child for his first seven years, and I’ll give you the man,” went their motto. While a sound education must necessarily prepare a child for future employment, the beliefs, values, understanding and appreciation of American history, principles, documents and function must be transmitted from one generation to the next if we are to survive.

We must develop proud citizens who are joined in a common and national identity, loyalty and unity. This does not come at the expense of creating strong, independent, free-thinking citizens in a pluralistic society. Rather, American exceptionalism must be inculcated in our students if they are being asked to keep, defend and fight for our country.

Founding father and fourth President James Madison wrote in an 1822 letter, “What spectacle can be more edifying or more seasonable, than that of Liberty and Learning, each leaning on the other for their mutual and surest support?”

This isn’t a partisan concern. It is an American concern. Yes, we should be teaching for college and careers. But let’s not forget to also teach for citizenship.

Susan Dench

About Susan Dench

Susan Dench is the founder and president of the fast-growing non-profit, non-partisan Informed Women's Network. Recognizing that many women are tired of "politics as usual," Susan decided to take action and develop strategies that are innovating the way women and politics intersect, nurturing and encouraging women in fun, energetic gatherings where views can be expressed in a supportive environment and then translated into practical solutions that produce results.