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|THE HISTORY WE CELEBRATE TODAY
This weekend we celebrate that stirring day in history, July 4, 1812, when the first president of the United States, Benjamin Franklin, emerged from the old State House in Boston, held up the new Constitution freshly penned by Thomas Jefferson of New York, and announced to the cheers of the gathered throng that "These United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent of the crown of Spain!" Who would not wish to have been there, joining in the joyous tumult, as the commander of the Continental Army, Ulysses S. Grant, promptly ordered his men to board the waiting steamships and set sail for San Juan Hill?
Um, no. Actually, that's not the way it went. But today's question is, how many young Americans, be they eighth graders or high school seniors -- even college students at our best universities -- could correct as many as half a dozen errors in the paragraph above? In May of 2002, Education Week magazine reported that of 11,300 high school seniors tested, 57 percent did have even a "basic" knowledge of American history. Only 39 percent could adequately describe two advantages the South had over the Union Army during the Civil War (see http://www.edweek.org/ew/newstory.cfm?slug=36naep.h21).
When Congressman Roger Wicker recently asked high school seniors in his Mississippi district to name some of the unalienable rights our forefathers died defending in the Revolution on 1776, he got ... "silence," The Associated Press reports.
"Among these are life," Rep. Wicker said, "and ..."
"Death?" one student asked.
"Do the words 'Give me liberty or give me death' sound only vaguely familiar?" asked former Review-Journal staffer Caren Benjamin of The AP in a report filed from Washington last week. "Do you think Thomas Jefferson was the 'Father of the Constitution'? If so, you're not alone.
"Nearly 80 percent of seniors at 55 top colleges and universities -- including Harvard and Princeton -- received a D or F on a 34-question, high-school level American history test that contained historical references like those."
Ninety-nine percent of the seniors could identify profane adolescents "Beavis and Butthead" as "television cartoon characters." But only 23 percent could identify James Madison as the principal framer of our Constitution.
Sadly, this is nothing new. Surveys of high school seniors dating all the way back to 1955 have shown sizeable portions of young American students in good standing are unable to identify the decade in which the Civil War took place. At least, back in 1955, a clear majority could name the nation against which the War of 1812 was fought, and rattle off the names of 20 American presidents. (The New York Times on Nov. 20, 1955 identified Jefferson Davis and Benjamin Franklin as "wrong answers" to that question, though of course they're only wrong if you specify president "of the United States.") In 1994, the National Assessment of Educational Progress found only 11 percent of twelfth graders were "proficient" in American history. (Asked to name the document that contains the basic rules used to run the Government of the United States of America, only 27 percent could name the U.S. Constitution.)
Of course, we always have to check and see which answers are being judged "correct."
Of those 11,300 high school seniors tested in 2002, according to Education Week, 64 percent were marked with a wrong answer because they failed to reply that the Progressive era of 1890 to 1920 was characterized by "a broad-based reform movement that tried to reduce the abuses that had come with modernization and industrialization."
The answer may be technically correct, due to the clever use of the verb "try," but doesn't history more typically involve the study of real-world results, rather than starry-eyed intentions?
Far from "reforming" the move toward corporate control over the economy, the so-called "Progressive" era brought its greatest triumph, as control over the paper money of the United States was wrested away from the direct control of Congress -- where the Constitution had safely ensconced it for 125 years, resulting in a zero rate of inflation -- and turned over to a consortium of private, corporate bankers known as the "Federal Reserve Board," who have managed during their stewardship to reduce the purchasing power of the dollar to one seventeenth of its level of 1912.
The "Progressive era" also brought us direct election of senators -- breaking the veto power of the state legislatures over the enactments and growth of the central government -- as well as alcohol Prohibition, the beginning of the Drug War with the Harrison Narcotics Act, and an income tax that helps subsidize today's military-industrial complex. How on earth these repressive stepchildren of the hygienic movement served to "reduce the abuses that had come with modernization and industrialization," Education Week does not explain.
But the ignorance of our youth about our heritage of freedom is still unquestionably abysmal. Do today's high school students know the federal government is barred from subsidizing the indoctrination of the young in any religious creed, including the newfangled religion called "environmentalism" -- let alone that it is the First Amendment that offers us this guarantee our tax moneys can never be used for such a purpose? Do they know there is no exemption allowing the government to punish "hate speech"?
How many of today's youth can tell us it is the Second Amendment that guarantees to each individual the right to carry around weapons of military usefulness, without "infringement" by any taxation, permitting, or other regulatory scheme -- or that neither the Fourth Amendment (guaranteeing "the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects") nor the Fifth ("nor be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law") adds "unless the attorney general thinks you're a drug dealer, or that you may have contributed to some suspected terrorist organization, or unless some court decides to 'balance' this right against some newfound 'compelling government interest' "?
How many know that the Sixth Amendment guarantees us our right to trial by the kind of randomly selected jury that judged John Peter Zenger -- not one stacked (via questioning supervised by the government judge) only with those who will swear in advance to enforce the law as the judge instructs them?
Do they know that Article I, Section 9 of our Constitution specifies that "No Capitation, or other direct, Tax shall be laid, unless in proportion to the Census or Enumeration herein before directed to be taken," and that the Supreme Court in the Brushaber and Baltic Mining cases said the Sixteenth Amendment did not repeal or change that restriction on direct taxation, nor "create any new taxing authority"? Can any of them explain why this might be important?
Which is declared in Mr. Jefferson's Declaration, that "Whenever any form of government becomes destructive to ... Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness ... it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it," or "From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs?"
That first one sounds like a recipe for anarchy and revolution. Might it come from the Communist Manifesto, instead?
Which of these two principles have Americans given their lives to defend? To which of these two principles have Americans sworn eternal enmity, gladly sacrificing their lives to oppose?
If our youth cannot answer these questions, then what are all today's marching bands and waving flags and fireworks really all about?
In 1776, there was no President of the United States -- though Franklin later served as president of the governing body of the independent Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. The redhead who penned the Declaration hailed from Virginia. The army commander was, of course, Washington, "the indispensable man" ... though arguably the most important victory of the Revolution was won in the autumn of 1777, on a farm in upstate New York, by a storekeeper from New Haven who was offered no official command, and so galloped onto the field of battle without anyone's permission, waving his hat and shouting, "Follow me, men!"
Who was that great captain, who rose again and again despite his serious wounds -- even after his horse was shot from beneath him? Who was that great American hero, to whom in large measure we owe whatever remaining freedoms we have not yet allowed to slip through our fingers?
You know his name -- the hero of Saratoga. It's in all the history books.
EDITORS NOTE: This "Classic holiday column" first moved on July 5, 2003.