My God! How little do my countrymen know what precious blessings they are in possession of, and which no other people on earth enjoy.
Many Americans do not know even the basics of how their government works, and that is a long-term threat to our democracy. . . . When people do not understand their rights, it is easy for others to take those rights away.
— Michael S. Greco President, American Bar Association April 12, 2006
Supreme Court Justice William Brennan and I once shared a mutual obsession. “How,” he asked me, “can we get the words of the Bill of Rights off the pages and into the very lives of American students?”
At the time, Brennan was the chief dissenter on the Rehnquist Court, and his frustration was mounting on the failure of our schools to teach the guarantees of individual liberties in the Constitution. The last words William Brennan said to me before his death were: “Liberty is a fragile thing. The Framers knew that.” An invincible optimist, Brennan added: “We’ve gotten our liberties back before. We’ll do it again.”
I remembered those words when last week, at the direction of schools chancellor Joel Klein, I was sent a report from the assessment and accountability section of the Department of Education on how the city’s eighth-grade students do on New York State’s basic social studies exam. How much do they know about what distinguishes our system of government—its liberties and rights—from those of all other nations?
In 2004, only 18.7 percent of the eighth-graders passed that exam. Last year, there was an improvement: 31.8 percent passed.
Hardly a cause for rejoicing when George W. Bush continues to expand his powers over Congress, the courts, and the Constitution. As American Bar Association president Michael Greco warns: “If youngsters don’t get a grounding in civic education, it’s much harder for them to be informed citizens when they do become adults”—in a war on terrorism without end.
Talking with Joel Klein, I know he’s fully aware of how much remains to be done to arm the more than a million public school students here with knowledge of their individual liberties against this and future presidents, to become actively involved citizens.
The beginnings he has made can be seen on the NYC Department of Education’s social studies Web page: nycenet.edu/Offices/TeachLearn/OfficeCurriculumProfessionalDevelopment. There are links to sample curricula, courses, activities, and resources for each grade level, as well as professional development exercises for teachers and administrators.
I now have a huge amount of this material. I doubt—and wait to be corrected—that any other public school system in the country provides students with as wide-ranging an arsenal of knowledge to fulfill the foresight of Thomas Jefferson: “Our liberty can never be safe but in the hands of the people themselves.”
I was glad to see a reference in the curricula to the Magna Carta of all public school students, the 1969 Supreme Court ruling in Tinker v. Des Moines School District:
Neither students nor teachers “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” You can’t learn to be a free citizen without being one in school, since all our liberties follow from the First Amendment.
I have, however, one basic concern about whether the words on the Department of Education’s social studies Web page will actually become part of the lives of this city’s teachers and students.
Among the materials sent me by Joel Klein was a valuable
History for the Future pamphlet called The New York City Council Social Studies Initiative: A Collaboration of Historical Societies, Museums & Educators to Improve Social Studies Education. It contains this warning of the possible failure of this revival of self- defense Americanism:
“In New York City, as elsewhere in the country, many social studies teachers are not formally trained in history and historical methods. This is a result, in part, of the state certification process in which teachers become certified in social studies, not history.” Civics teachers have to know that.
The Second American Revolution started with the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment after the Civil War, allowing Justice Hugo Black, many years later, to get the Supreme Court to incorporate the Bill of Rights into the laws and guarantees of the individual states rather than being limited to the federal Constitution. The Third American Revolution will not take place if the next generations of Americans do not learn and act on the principle that no president or other public official is above the law.
Therefore, as Joel Klein knows, for all the “professional development” parts of his plan, everything depends on the quality of the teaching of civics, and who will monitor that?
As a public service to Joel Klein and the students and teachers of this city, I strongly recommend that he get Bill Gates or others of the wealthy private investors he has recruited for the future of this city’s schools to provide paperback copies to every student, teacher, and administrator of the one book that makes the history of our liberties come fully and vividly alive: Linda Monk’s The Words We Live By: Your Annotated Guide to the Constitution (Hyperion). I know the literature, and have written several such books, but nothing equals the clarity of the writing and exciting research in this illustrated (photographs, prints, original documents) adventure of who we are—and how to stay a free people.
I know it’s a cliché, but this book is hard to put down and connects directly to the present and future debates on such topics as the separation of powers, the CIA’s “black sites,” and the utter lawlessness of our turning into a society under constant surveillance.
The Words We Live By can be ordered at: 800-758-0190. Yale law professor Akhil Reed Amar, author of his own important
America’s Constitution: A Biography (Random House) proclaims Linda Monk’s “a book for ‘We the People’ of all ages!”