Commentary

Teaching the New Generation Why They’re Americans

Since retiring from the Supreme Court, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has been on a mission to overcome the ignorance of far too many students in our schools of the roots of their liberties in American history.

Citing federal education funds appropriated under George W. Bush and Barack Obama based on raising test scores in math, science, and reading, she cites the lack of financial support for learning history and civics.

At a New York conference in May to spread the word for her interactive website — iCivics.org — aimed, along with videogames, at teaching the new generation why they are Americans, Sandra Day O’Connor focused on the civics ignorance of our population at large:

“Barely one-third of Americans can even name three branches of government, much less say what they do.” And, she added, “less than one-fifth of high school seniors can explain how civic participation benefits our government. Less than that can say what the Declaration of Independence is, and it’s right there in the title. I’m worried.”

The president who appointed Sandra Day O’Connor as the first woman Supreme Court Justice, Ronald Reagan, was also worried. In his farewell address he said: “If we forget what we did, we won’t know who we are. I’m warning of an eradication … of the American memory that could result, ultimately, in an erosion of the American spirit.”

During lectures I’ve given at several prestigious graduate schools of journalism, I’ve asked the students to name the five freedoms in the First Amendment. I’ve yet to hear all five. And when I ask them what’s in the Fourth Amendment — and why the absence of its privacy protections helped precipitate the American Revolution — there are nearly always blank stares, though one student hesitantly and cluelessly offered, “The right to bear arms?”

There is, however, an ongoing partial — though perilously insufficient — restoration of our self-identity. Among the organizations agreeing with Justice Louis Brandeis that “the greatest menace to freedom is an inert people” is the Center for Civic Education (civiced.org) whose illuminating curriculum (in its “American Legacy” and other publications) is taught in some public and private schools — climaxed by an annual “We the People: The Citizen and the Constitution” competition in Washington, D.C., participated in by students from around the country who, I am eager to bet, know far more about who we are than a sizeable majority of Congress or the White House.

Also a model force for giving students — and teachers — a sense of recognition of their identities as Americans is The Bill of Rights Institute, which has lectures for teachers (I’ve given one on the history of the First Amendment); online seminars; contests for students on why they’re Americans; and such publications as:

“Founders and the Constitution: In Their Own Words;” “The Bill of Rights and You: Rights and Responsibilities;” and “Citizenship and Character: Understanding America’s Civic Values” (BillofRightsInstitute.org).

While learning our history and how our government works is essential, it’s not enough. We need to engage students in actually participating in making democracy work in their schools and communities. For an example, a recent report from Chicago’s Mikva Challenge (named for former Federal Circuit Judge Abner Mikva) tells of “Hundreds of Chicago and suburban high school students who worked [on opposite sides] for candidates competing in the Gubernatorial, Senatorial, and Cook County Board President primaries. Moreover, one student group helped pass a bill in Springfield for pedestrian safety, another created a new youth center, and other students created workshops around teen dating and violence.” (Not that the two are synonymous).

Contrast this personal educational involvement in real-time civic life with what Sam Charltain (National Director of the Forum for Education and Democracy) says in his 2009 book, American Schools: The Art of Creating a Democratic Learning Community (Rowman and Littlefield):

“Too many children attend school each day without a sense of their own voice being heard — and perhaps even with a horrible sense of their own invisibility.”

In my experience reporting on schools, this sense of lostness often extends from elementary school through high school. Too seldom have I heard a smiling, surprised kid say: “You know what, they know my name here!” And what too many of their teachers know about the individual identities of each of their students is largely limited to how they perform on collective standardized tests.

Moreover, most students have no involvement in the actual governance of their schools — or in the democratic workings, or lack of them, in their neighborhoods, towns, and cities outside of school. On the other hand, one of the students in Chicago’s non-governmental Mikva Project, Karmyn Stewart, says she became a Mikva learner “to allow my voice to be heard, and allow myself to hear others.”

What is most needed if the new generation of Americans are to be — as Thomas Jefferson warned all citizens — the ultimate protector of their liberties is an active, participatory civic curriculum, in addition to involvement in our history. The organization that is most effectively involved in making this experience integral to the core of education is ASCD (the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development) in Alexandria, Virginia (ascd.org).

In more than fifty years of reporting on schools, I have found ASCD to be the most continuously valuable source of information and analysis of just about all dimensions of student learning. Founded in 1943, it is a growing community of teachers, principals, and school board members. In a long report, “Restoring the Balance Between Academics and Civic Engagement in Public Schools,” co-authored by ASCD and the American Youth Policy Forum, the emphasis is on “service-learning” that “is coordinated within schools, institutions of higher education, community service programs, and with the community itself.”

To illustrate how — though such basics as reading and math are obviously essential — direct education in and for democracy also requires, as the report illustrates, such students’ experiences as at Langley Middle School in Langley, Washington, where “all of the school’s 520 students and a majority of their teachers participate in more than 60 classes that incorporate service-learning directly into academic studies.”

The school’s Youth in Philanthropy Project, for instance, “integrates eighth-grade English and Communications instruction into a process that uses interviews of community leaders to identify community needs and locate a range of assets for meeting them.”

It is this kind of student direct involvement in what Chicago’s Mikva Project calls “Democracy in Action” that has led to a National Youth Leadership Council survey of such service-learning education elsewhere. It reports that “83 percent of principals said that service-learning has a ‘very positive’ (32 percent) or ‘somewhat positive’ (51 percent) impact on overall academic achievement.” And more specifically, “42 percent of ‘high poverty level’ schools reported a ‘very positive impact’ from service-learning efforts.”

For another illustration of this kind of what I’d call “whole learning for the whole student,” the ASCD co-authored report on the balance between academics and civic engagement in public schools describes how:

“Students in Springfield, Massachusetts, used service-learning to participate in and affect local-level decision-making. At Pottenger Elementary School (K-5), nutrition students prepared lunches for a local soup kitchen while simultaneously engaging in community survey work to learn why there was a need for such a facility.”

But these days, at Perry Meridian High School in Indianapolis, the report continues, “One program has developed a special relationship with a local shelter for victims of domestic abuse and their children.”

I close this report with a school engaged in fundamental individual citizenship in its own building. On April 22, 2010, Clare Struck testified before the United States Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions. She is a guidance counselor at the Malcolm Price Laboratory School (part of the University of Northern Iowa’s College of Education in Cedar Falls, Iowa.) During her extensively instructive testimony, she spoke about the school’s Elementary Citizenship Program, which began when:

“The elementary staff and administration expressed concerns about the students not transferring the level of respect they demonstrated in the classrooms to the more unstructured areas of recess, lunchtime, hallways, and before and after school. We collectively decided to move forward with a proactive response to instill the core tenets of citizenship. We taught students how to advocate for their own rights and those of others.”

Part of the students’ evolving ownership of democratic citizenship through the Elementary Citizenship Program came from the “teaching and reinforcing the five freedoms of the First Amendment to all of our PreK-5 students.” The practice of those individual freedoms became embedded in their education as they began to be part of their school’s governance.

By contrast, in our schools around the country, students are increasingly under state surveillance, as in Pennsylvania’s Merion School District, where students, including while they were at home, were filmed surreptitiously through school-issued laptops. When parents of a high-school student filed a class-action suit charging invasion of privacy, the federal prosecutor (Raw Story, August 18, 2010) said the school district would not face charges because there was “no evidence of criminal intent.”

That’s how those students learned about the vanishing of the Fourth Amendment, reminding me of Edward R. Murrow’s “A nation of sheep will beget a government of wolves.” Instead of criminal intent, the aim of the Merion School District was to produce a passive citizenry.

The Iowa students in the Elementary Citizenship Program will not be silenced by a government of wolves. Nor will others of the new generation in this report on how some students are learning how to be citizens acting on Justice Hugo Black’s warning: “Don’t be afraid to be free.” But, as Irving Brant adds in his invaluable “The Bill of Rights: Its Origin and Meaning” (Mentor, New American Library): “Men [and women] are only free when they do not have to ask themselves whether they are free.”

How often do you ask?

Nat Hentoff is a nationally renowned authority on the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights. He is a member of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.