“Now, it happens that we meet together once every year, sometime about the 4th of July, for some reason or other,” Abraham Lincoln said in 1858. “These 4th of July gatherings I suppose have their uses,” and he went on to identify some of them. As delightful as backyard barbeques, downtown parades, and fireworks displays may be, those never have been the important reasons for taking the day off.
Of course, July 4 is the nation’s birthday. The holiday marks the occasion, 234 years ago, when brave colonists gathered together in Philadelphia to declare independence from Great Britain and chart a course for the boldest experiment in self-government the world has ever seen.
But everybody knows that, right?
Wrong. Just 28 percent of eighth graders can explain the historical purpose of the Declaration of Independence, according to the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress in civics from 2006.
Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who is traveling the country and making the case for a renewed emphasis on civics education, paints an even grimmer picture. “Less than one-fifth of high school seniors can explain how civic participation” is beneficial, O’Connor recently told a New York City audience. “Less than that can say what the Declaration of Independence is, and it’s right there in the title. I’m worried.”
We should be worried, too. Too many Americans have no idea what they’re celebrating on July 4 or why. Many will vote in November, some for the first time.
O’Connor blames the sharp drop in civic knowledge on No Child Left Behind. The 2002 federal education law, with its remorseless focus on boosting reading and math test scores, has crowded out many other subjects, including history, geography, and the arts.
Bad as No Child Left Behind may be, however, the nation’s civics deficit predates it: The 2006 NAEP civics results were essentially unchanged from a decade earlier. Three-quarters of 12th graders rated below proficient in 1998. U.S. high school seniors, the NAEP analysis concluded, had a “basic knowledge” of our system of government but “limited understanding” of how it works.
Self-government requires an educated public. “Limited understanding” fosters unlimited government. “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free,” said Thomas Jefferson, the Declaration’s author, “it expects what never was and never will be.”
You can’t defend your rights if you don’t know what they are.
A few states have taken up O’Connor’s challenge to devote more class time to civics. Florida in May enacted the Sandra Day O’Connor Civics Education Act, requiring middle school students to take a civics course and pass a statewide-standardized test in order to be promoted to high school, beginning in 2012.
New state curriculum requirements are laudable, but our nation’s foundations shouldn’t be a dry subject confined to the classroom. Our ideals should be celebrated throughout the culture.
In 1858 Lincoln explained that we mark July 4 to “remind ourselves of all the good done in this process of time. … We feel more attached the one to the other, and more firmly bound to the country we inhabit.” The Declaration, he said, links every American—native-born and newcomer alike—to the same set of self-evident truths.
“That is the electric cord in the Declaration that links the hearts of patriotic and liberty-loving men together,” Lincoln said.
On this Independence Day, when not downing hot dogs or watching fireworks, let’s take a moment to admire the Declaration of Independence, the document that establishes our fundamental freedoms, and let’s think about the ideals of those who protected it and defended it in the ensuing decades.
Think of it less as a civics lesson than as a stirring reminder of why we celebrate July 4. Ben Boychuk (email@example.com) is managing editor of The Heartland Institute’s School Reform News. (Visit on the web at www.schoolreform-news.com or follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/schoolreform.