Learning Why We’re Americans


The Constitution needs renewal and understanding each generation or it’s not going to last.

Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy

In many, if not most schools, our history is on the back burner. You can have amnesia of society, which is just as detrimental as the amnesia of an individual.

Historian David McCullough, author of 1776


In this city, and around the country, reforming school systems has become a ceaseless process as more and more youngsters are left behind. New York’s chancellor Joel Klein is now extensively restructuring the reforms he’s been intensely involved with since he and the mayor took office.

Klein’s new approach is intended to lessen the excessive classroom rigidities he imposed as well as give principals more autonomy, and most important, the performance of individual students will be tracked as they advance, if they do, from grade to grade—more useful than grading whole grades and whole schools.

But in all of these efforts, including expensive consultants, a crucial omission, especially in the myriad of mandates in Bush’s No Child Left Behind law, is teaching students their individual liberties under the Constitution and what it has taken during more than two tumultuous centuries to rescue those liberties in periods like the present, when they are acceleratingly endangered.

In a war against terrorism with no discernable end, precedents by this president can be harder to dislodge by his successors than at any time in our history. Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe charts the grim future:

“The more people grow accustomed to a listening environment in which the ear of Big Brother is assumed to be behind every wall, behind every e-mail, and invisibly present in every electronic communication, telephonic or otherwise.” The Constitution will be mummified. (Editor’s note: This paragraph has been clarified. See note below.)

But even now, far too many Americans, including the next generation, are ignorant of why they are Americans—or to use the president’s mantra, what basic “American values” are.

In a national study last year, Future of the First Amendment, funded by the Knight Foundation, more than 100,000 high school students were interviewed on what they know of the First Amendment. Seventy-three percent either had no opinion or took the First Amendment for granted, whatever that may mean. More than a third believed that the First Amendment goes too far in its guarantees.

Thirty-six percent of these high school students say that newspapers must obtain government approval before publishing!

And this year, the McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum poll of 1,000 adults revealed that only
of them could name the five freedoms in the First Amendment. Can you name all five freedoms?

Adds Jack Dvorak, director of the High School Journalism Institute at Indiana University: “Even professional journalists are often unaware of all five freedoms.”

In that McCormick Tribune poll, by contrast with its First Amendment tally, 40 percent could name two of the three judges on
American Idol and 25 percent could name all three!

Moreover, in a survey of college students in Buffalo, nearly half had no idea who George Pataki is. (I can’t entirely fault them for that.) But 80 percent were clueless in defining communism, and nearly the same number were at a loss to describe capitalism.

Especially alarming—in view of George W. Bush’s warrantless surveillance, his approval of CIA “renditions” and torture, and his conviction that Congress and the courts get in his way as commander in chief—is an American Bar Association poll last summer in which barely half of the respondents could name the three branches of our federal government. And less than half knew the meaning of the “separation of powers.”

In talking with schools chancellor Joel Klein in the past, I know he recognizes the need for teaching students why they’re Americans, and by next week’s column, I’ll find out what he plans to do about insuring that civics—as it used to be called before it largely disappeared from many school systems around the country—comes alive in New York.

Meanwhile, Eva Moskowitz recently mentioned a hearing she had on civics education while she was on the City Council. In the many years I’ve covered the schools here, there has been no one in government as knowledgeable, penetrating, and perceptive about the needs of students as Moskowitz. She is now practicing what she has been preaching by starting the Harlem Success Academy charter school, about which I’ll be reporting in the Voice.

Recently, in a talk at the Center for Educational Innovation–Public Education Association, Moskowitz told of asking the Department of Education at her hearing on civics: “What should kids know on the workings of government? What should the civics curriculum look like?”

“Why,” she continued, “did we have a civics curriculum in 1950 and no longer have one now? Is someone making a clear, concerted policy decision, or is it just falling through the cracks?”

I have now asked the same questions of Joel Klein. I’ll have his answer here next week, and it will be a model for school systems around the country. Stories about why we have the Fourth Amendment, thanks to Samuel Adams and the committees of correspondence he helped form in Boston before the American Revolution, can start being told in the elementary grades. I’ve talked about the Bill of Rights in schools around the country, but one of the most involved audiences I’ve experienced was in a fifth grade public school class on New York’s West Side.

I found similar acute interest in a sixth-grade class years ago in Ocean Hill–Brownsville when the schools there were besieged during the citywide teachers’ strike. The kids kept wanting to know more as they discovered their liberties and rights.

And once, in Miami, I was asked to speak on the Constitution before a large audience of primarily black and Hispanic high schoolers. Before I went on, a teacher told me not to be disappointed in their indifference because, she said, “all they care about are clothes and music.”

After more than an hour of my stories on how we got the First, Fourth, and Fifth Amendments, I got a standing ovation, because they had discovered America.


Because of a typing error, a quote by Laurence Tribe in this column was inaccurate. We originally quoted Tribe as saying, “The more people grow accustomed to a listening environment in which the ear of Big Brother is assumed to be behind every wall, behind every e-mail, and invisibly present in every electronic communication, telephonic or otherwise, the Constitution will be mummified.” The quote should have ended after “otherwise,” as it now appears. The phrase “the Constitution will be mummified” was Hentoff’s.