Years ago, when I was interviewing Justice William Brennan in his Supreme Court chambers for my book, Living the Bill of Rights, he suddenly became somber.
“How,” he asked, “can we take the Bill of Rights off the pages and into the very lives of students?” He was aware, even back then, how little time was spent in our public schools on who we are as Americans and what it keeps taking to protect our individual liberties against overreaching governments. (This was before George W. Obama.)
Were he still with us, Brennan would be even more disturbed by a report from an organization that honors his principles and actions, the Brennan Center for Justice in New York.
On April 13, the center released “A Report Card on New York’s Civic Literacy” by Eric Lane and Meg Barnette. The report received scant attention or follow-up, but a week later in the New York Daily News, Eric Lane–Distinguished Professor of Public Law and Public Service at Hofstra University Law School–did get space to emphasize that here and nationally, “unless we quickly address our disengagement from and ignorance of the way our government works through aggressive teaching of the basics in our schools, the nation’s very strength and prosperity will be at stake.”
And especially such very personal Fourth Amendment rights to privacy against “unreasonable searches and seizure.” Under our Education Mayor and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, this city leads the nation in “stops and frisks,” largely of blacks and Latinos, without the cops first going to a judge. Between January and March of this year, Kelly set a record: 183,326 interrogated with only 12 percent arrested or given a summons (Daily News, June 12).
How would the city’s students know about the Fourth Amendment? Here, and throughout the country, the fixation on collective standardized tests in reading and math has led to the absence of civics classes throughout the country. Early in his tenure, I asked Joel Klein about this most basic educational need if this generation and those that follow are not to be conditioned to accept being in a police state as normal. “I’m working on that,” Klein assured me. If he ever actually was concerned, this Brennan Center report gives him an F for what he did. And I’ve heard nothing from Chancellor Dennis Walcott about bringing the Constitution back to our students.
Let me challenge you, Chancellor Walcott.
What do students know about presidential and Justice Department contempt for the separation of powers, which were intended during the formation of the Constitution to prevent our becoming a kingdom? The rampant use, for a present example, by Bush-Cheney-Obama of “state secrets” to prevent cases against a unilateral federal government from even being heard in our courts?
Also, the almost daily increase in our society being in a state of surveillance. The FBI, for instance, can start an “assessment”–an investigation–of any of us without going to a judge.
In what is reliably called “the nation’s report card,” the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reported on how much citizens know about–and care about–the most dangerous subversions of the Constitution by the Bush-Cheney and now Obama administrations.This is what “the nation’s report card” revealed particularly about students across the country: “Only one in 10 demonstrated acceptable knowledge on the checks and balances [the separation of powers] among the legislative, executive and judicial branches” (New York Times, May 4).
Also: “a smaller proportion of fourth and eighth graders demonstrated proficiency in civics [who we are as Americans] than in any other subject the federal government has tested since 2005.”
What is the subject of which they are most ignorant? History!
Now dig this from the Brennan Center Report on New York’s Civics Literacy: “For years [all of] New York required social studies [civics] assessment tests for its fourth and eighth grade students. The eighth grade assessment consisted mostly of history questions . . . Overall, New Yorkers did not perform well on those tests, and New York City students performed horribly. At a 2005 hearing of the New York City Council’s Education Committee, school officials informed the council members that “more than 80 percent of New York City eighth graders failed to meet state standards in social studies.”
So what happened as a result? “School officials said that they pay little attention to fourth and eighth grade social studies assessment tests ‘because they are not among the criteria used to determine if schools are performing adequately, either under state regulations or the federal No Child Left Behind law.'”
I remember that when Eva Moskowitz was a member of the City Council–before her Success Charter Network of schools had Harlem parents urgently trying to have their children accepted–she was the only council member to keep after Joel Klein about what he was actually doing to restore classes in civics. Klein did help her charter schools, but I recall nothing he actually did to respond credibly to those questions by her.
Hey, Chancellor Walcott, what do you have to say in response to the following urgent concern in the Brennan Center Report?
“Civic literacy is the prerequisite for developing the ties that bind us together as a nation. It enables us to disagree and pursue our interests and the common interest . . . Without these tools, we are now moving in a different direction, heading toward what the philosopher Michael Sandel calls a ‘story-less condition,’ in which ‘there is no continuity between present and past, and therefore no responsibility, and therefore no possibility for acting together to govern ourselves.” While Ray Kelly keeps zealously stopping and frisking citizens.
This column is open to you, Chancellor Walcott, to tell New York students, parents, and other citizens and residents what is being done in real life, real time, to engage students in learning why Thomas Jefferson often warned that the only basic safeguards of our constitutional rights and liberties are in the people themselves.
In one of the last conversations I had with Justice William Brennan, he said to me, “Remember, pal”–he called many people “pal”–“liberty is a fragile thing.”
And if you don’t know what your constitutional liberties are, how will you be able to realize they’re gone?
If I were teaching civics in this public school system, I would ask students to react–after they’d discovered who Jefferson, James Madison, Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black (“Don’t be afraid to be free!”), et al., were–to what an underrated Supreme Court Justice, David Souter, said while declaring his retirement at the National Archives Museum on May 21, 2009: Who we are as Americans “can be lost, is being lost, it is lost.” What’s needed “is the restoration of the self-identity of the American people.”
Imagine Thomas Jefferson in East Harlem seeing cops stopping and frisking people in total disregard of the Bill of Rights’ Fourth Amendment. He’d think King George III had taken back the colonists.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 31, 2011