Excerpted in today’s edition of the New York Daily News
Each year during one of America’s favorite holiday seasons, Thanksgiving, we anticipate the chance to gather with family and friends to reflect on the blessings we enjoy in this country. But frankly, another holiday should rank equally as high for its significance to our great land of opportunity and freedom: Constitution Day, on September 17.
On this day, we commemorate the signing of the U.S. Constitution in 1787 in Philadelphia. After months of deliberation and debates, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention signed this landmark document that remains the oldest written national constitution still in use today.
Yet, ask many Americans what happened on September 17, and they return blank stares. Even fewer will know that since 2004, Constitution Day has been an official national observance.
Yet to us — and to each succeeding generation — belongs the duty to preserve our system of free and limited government. How can we fulfill this charge if we fail to recognize, understand, and appreciate the foundational legal document of this system? Indeed, we cannot.
Therefore, teaching the principles of our democratic republic—both its structure and the reasons behind it—should be an important goal for all levels of American education. But American education has failed in this respect. Too many people who proudly call America home do not understand the reasons for that pride. What are the benefits of the rule of law, enumerated powers, federalism, checks and balances, and due process? What truly is a “right”?
Consider these findings of a 2017 survey of adults by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania:
- More than one in three people (37%) could not name a single right protected by the First Amendment.
- Only one in four (26%) can name all three branches of the government. (In 2011, 38% could name all three branches.)
- One in three (33%) can’t name any branch of government.
Coming to the same conclusion was the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, which surveyed adults to determine their understanding of basic American principles: 71 percent of Americans failed the survey, with an overall average score of 49 percent. Lack of understanding reached across the ideological spectrum, with liberals scoring 49 percent and conservatives 48 percent.
In our Constitution’s preamble, our founders declared liberty for future generations when they wrote their intent to “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” But a nation will never secure what it does not teach—and therefore, does not understand. It is up to us to fulfill this charge.
Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, a moderate on the bench, described the crisis in pointed terms: “Knowledge about the ideas embodied in the Constitution and the ways in which it shapes our lives is not passed down from generation to generation through the gene pool….”
Justice O’Connor is right. We must deliberately pass on these ideas — through education, both at home and in school — or else we lose the very things we hold dear: freedom and opportunity.
Currently, fifteen states require high school students to pass a citizenship test to graduate. This means graduating seniors must have the same basic civics knowledge as those applying to become naturalized U.S. citizens. It’s encouraging that more than a dozen states have implemented this threshold. But why not all 50?
Young people must be taught the principles of liberty, the importance of understanding it, the reasons for loving it, and the necessity—and means—of preserving it. Schoolhouses across the country should embrace Constitution Day as an opportunity to deliberate on the original meaning behind the preamble’s words of “union,” “justice,” “tranquility,” “common defense,” “general welfare,” and “liberty”.
President Ronald Reagan summed up the matter accurately when he said, “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it on to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it once was like in the United States when men were free.”
Reagan was right. For only by understanding our freedoms—and the constitutional, limited government that protects them—can we defend them. And only by defending them can we preserve them and pass them on to future generations. Let’s not forget September 17.