‘If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”
These words come from an 1816 letter written by Thomas Jefferson — one of our most influential Founding Fathers, but not the father of the United States Constitution. That title belongs to James Madison — and less than a third of American college graduates know this.
But it’s not just Madison’s nickname that proves a problem for students. It’s the content and basic principles of the Constitution itself.
Sixty percent of college graduates don’t know any of the steps necessary to ratify a constitutional amendment. Fifty percent don’t know how long the terms of representatives and senators are. Forty percent didn’t know that Congress has the power to declare war.
Such dismal trends continue after graduation: Forty-three percent of Americans don’t know that the First Amendment gives them the right to freedom of speech, and a full third can’t identify a single right it gives them.
Our nation is experiencing a crisis in civic education. A 2016 American Council of Trustees and Alumni report showed that, even though nearly all twelfth-grade students took a course in civics, less than a quarter of them passed a basic examination at “proficient” or above. The crisis extends to higher education as well. In a survey of over 1,000 liberal-arts colleges, only 18 percent include a course in U.S. history or government as part of their graduation requirements. Even at George Washington University, you don’t have to take a course in U.S. history to graduate.
As shocking as the above-mentioned statistics are, they represent only the surface of the problem. What we are facing is not merely a crisis of knowledge, a need to memorize more facts, or a lack of understanding of how to properly engage. What we are really facing is a crisis of worldview.
A government by the people, for the people, and of the people is only as wise, as just, and as free as the people themselves.
The statistics in the ACTA report come after 15 years of concerted investment in civic education. As such appalling numbers show, this investment made little difference: Most Americans fail not only to retain basic facts but also to grasp why understanding these things even matters.
As a nation, we have fallen prey to the impossible expectation Jefferson counseled against over 200 years ago. A government by the people, for the people, and of the people is only as wise, as just, and as free as the people themselves. Ignorance and indifference inevitably erode our freedoms and destroy our republic. It is not without cause that our national discourse in recent years has been so histrionic and hateful.
Indeed, the sheer growth and spread of the federal government shows that we have lost the trail the Founders blazed. The Department of Education exemplifies both this problem and its results. At its core, true education is more than facts and figures. It engages and enriches the soul. It rightly orients one to understand his or her place in the world, to pursue truth and beauty, and, perhaps most important, to understand why the pursuit of these things matters — not just for occupational production, but to know how to live.
It is this knowledge that makes self-governance possible. It is this knowledge that made us the freest nation in the world. It is this knowledge that will maintain our freedoms. All the government money, programs, and agencies in the world cannot teach this knowledge. They’re not equipped to do so, and the Founders understood this.
Over the course of the past century, the role of education in government and the role of government in education have become increasingly muddled. Our current education system little resembles the intent of the Founders. For these men, education was a responsibility delegated to the people, not a right provided by the government. When George Washington petitioned for the creation of a national university, his request was denied on the grounds that education was not a power outlined in the Constitution. Our current Department of Education, with its expansive regulations and reach, would be incomprehensible and insupportable to the Framers of our Constitution.
This refusal to allow the federal government to interfere in education, however, did not stem from a low view of education. Indeed, these men viewed education as vital to forming the kind of virtuous and active citizens who could successfully govern themselves. In 1822 Madison wrote:
A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.
And the organization of education in the early part of our nation’s history indicates this belief as well. The Land Ordinance of 1785 decreed that one 36th of every new township in the territories would be set apart for a locally governed public school. Two years later, the Northwest Ordinance reaffirmed the importance of education for the fledgling Republic:
Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.
Although the Northwest Ordinance is recognized as one of the “organic laws” of our nation’s founding, it is hard to imagine such a statement coming out of today’s Department of Education. For the federal government, education is metrics: an increasingly complex set of measurable, quantifiable standards designed to prepare students for productivity (production) in the workforce. It ignores the soul and is anathema to the development of virtue, which is the lifelong process of seeking and loving truth, and without which no human can live a genuinely satisfying life. Education is fundamentally a spiritual and moral undertaking — and as such, it is well beyond the capabilities of the federal government to teach.
As we seek to reinvigorate our nation’s education, we must consider the Founders’ approach. They wisely left the responsibility for education to local entities. We must return it to its rightful place. We must also recognize, as they did, what the proper end of education is. Merely cramming students with facts about our government or commanding them to engage in community service will not make them the kind of virtuous citizens our republic needs. We need citizens who understand liberty and justice, who objectively pursue truth, and who will ardently champion these values in the public square. Only a holistic form of education that takes the content and the context, the vision and the values, of our Founders into account can create such citizens and preserve their freedom in the generations to come.