Policymakers | General Education

We should “tenderly and kindly cherish” our civic heritage

SUN HERALD   |  July 3, 2010

After “A Declaration by the Representatives of the United Colonies of North-America, Now Met in Congress at Philadelphia, Setting Forth the Causes and Necessity of Their Taking Up Arms” was finally adopted in 1776, John Adams wrote his wife Abigail: “I believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be celebrated by pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other.”

Not that Adams was unmindful of what lay ahead. “I am well aware of the toil and blood and treasure it will cost us to maintain this declaration, and support and defend these states. Yet through all the gloom I see the rays of ravishing light and glory. I can see that the end is worth all the means. This is our day of deliverance.”

But it was not until 1952 that the original Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were finally placed in more secure surroundings at the National Achieves. At the dedication ceremony, President Harry S. Truman warned his fellow Americans: “The Constitution and the Declaration of Independence can live only as long as they are enshrined in our hearts and minds. If they are not so enshrined, 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.”

Fifty-eight years later, Truman’s warning is even more timely.

The decline in civics classes in the nation’s schools is so alarming to former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor that she is part of a growing effort to help children learn and appreciate the meaning of the Declaration and the Constitution.

Civic literacy is also not being instilled at the college level. According to The American Council of Trustees and Alumni:

Nationally, less than 15% of the colleges and universities surveyed require their students to take a survey class in American history or government.

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.

As the council notes: “America is united—not by blood or ethnicity like other countries—but by the ideas expressed in our Founding Documents. It is these ideas that have shaped and guided this country over the course of more than two centuries. We cannot afford to forget them.”

Adams would certainly agree. “Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people, who have a right…and a desire to know,” he once wrote. “But besides this, they have a right, an indisputable, unalienable, indefeasible, divine right to that most dreaded and envied kind of knowledge, I mean of the characters and conduct of their rulers.”

The nation’s second president wanted Americans to “tenderly and kindly cherish…the means of knowledge.”

That must surely include instruction in the civic heritage of this nation and the civic obligations of its citizens.


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