Trustees | General Education

Americans Can Never Be Both Ignorant and Free

THE PILOT   |  April 4, 2010 by David Azerrad

In 1952, President Harry S. Truman spoke at the dedication of the National Archives in Washington, D.C., where the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were displayed together for the first time.

In a solemn speech, he reminded Americans that our cherished liberty is anchored in these founding documents.

“We find it hard to believe that liberty could ever be lost in this country,” said the president. “But it can be lost, and it will be, if the time ever comes when these documents are regarded not as the supreme expression of our profound belief, but merely as curiosities in glass cases.”

The Constitution and the Declaration of Independence can live only as long as they are enshrined in our hearts and minds, Truman said.

“If they are not so enshrined,” he said, “they would be no better than mummies in their glass cases, and they could in time become idols whose worship would be a grim mockery of the true faith. Only as these documents are reflected in the thoughts and acts of Americans can they remain symbols of a power that can move the world.”

As we celebrate our independence this Fourth of July, President Truman’s warning merits our attention. The evidence pointing to widespread civic and historical illiteracy continues to mount and raises the question of whether we are not losing touch with the roots of our independence.

What Jay Leno humorously illustrated in his Jaywalking segments, study after study has confirmed.

Only 65 percent of Americans can place the beginning of our revolution in the correct century, according to a recent survey by the American Revolution Center. An earlier survey of college graduates found that a third could not name the three branches of government.

Particularly worrisome is the abdication, at our colleges and universities, of the responsibility to educate the next generation of citizens. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni has been surveying core requirements for our college guide website. The results so far are alarming.

Nationally, less than 15 percent of the colleges and universities we examined require their students to take a survey class in American history or government. Regrettably, none of the schools we looked at in North Carolina have such a requirement. The picture is particularly bleak at the top: You can graduate from any of the top 20 national universities, as ranked by U.S. News & World Report, without having taken a single broad course in American history or government.

Many colleges claim they do have an American requirement, but close inspection shows it can be met with exceedingly narrow, if not frivolous, courses. At Stanford, students can take a class on a Japanese drum—”Perspectives in North American Taiko”—to fulfill their American cultures requirement. At the University of Colorado, “America Through Baseball” counts toward the United States Context requirement.

As for those who would put their trust in our high schools, the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress Report Card found that only 27 percent of high school seniors are “proficient” in civics, a number which drops to 13 percent for American history. This makes college-level attention to these subjects even more essential.

More important, even if our high schools were doing their job, universities should shoulder the responsibility to strengthen what has already been learned and build upon it. A high school classroom, after all, is no substitute for a college lecture hall.

If our institutions of higher learning do not require real college-level work in American history or government, the next generation of citizens and leaders who graduate from them will be in danger of losing that common frame of reference that has sustained our free society for so many generations.

Indeed, a democratic republic such as ours is not self-perpetuating. It requires the understanding, commitment and support of its citizens for its long-term health and survival. It requires each generation of citizens to receive an adequate grounding in the history of America’s free institutions and the principles which anchor them.

If we are to preserve our republic and keep faith with those who established it, each one of us must understand our rights and responsibilities. As we commemorate Independence Day, let us heed the advice of another president.

“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free,” wrote Thomas Jefferson, “it expects what never was and what never will be.”

David Azerrad is a senior researcher at the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, an independent nonprofit in Washington, D.C. which oversees the free college guide website


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