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Jewish World Review March 27, 2003 / 23 Adar II, 5763

Nat Hentoff

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Teaching why we are Americans


http://www.NewsandOpinion.com | I've long admired Lynne Cheney of the American Enterprise Institute for her scorn of political correctness and her insistence that American history be more thoroughly taught in our schools. Knowing how we gained our freedom, she wrote in Education Week last Sept. 11, "helps us understand that were we to lose it, liberty might not come our way again."

A crucial part of that history is how our Constitution -- very much including the Bill of Rights (the first 10 amendments) -- defines why we are Americans and why a number of nations that have escaped from Communism have created their new constitutions by learning from ours.

Yet the compelling story of how we won -- and fought to retain -- our individual liberties is one of the worst-taught subjects throughout our schools. Having spoken to classes from elementary to graduate level, I have seen, with some exceptions, a dismaying unfamiliarity with the freedoms we are fighting to preserve during this war against terrorism.

"The Civic Mission of Schools," a revealing study from the Carnegie Corp. of New York and the University of Maryland's Center for Information and research on Civic Learning and Engagement, reveals that "most formal civic education today comprises only a single course on government," with little emphasis on "the rights and responsibilities of citizens and ways that they could work together and relate to government."

However, the report cites research that "children start to develop social responsibility and interest in politics before the age of 9." Some of the most astute questions I've had to answer on how the Bill of Rights has evolved throughout our history came from a fifth-grade class in a New York public school. "Why," said one young man, "is G-d not mentioned in the Constitution?"

In Miami, before I spoke to a large audience of mostly black and Hispanic students on why we have the First, Fourth and other amendments, teachers cautioned me to expect indifference. By the end, students eagerly wanted to know much more, because they had discovered why they are Americans.

Since the war on the tyrant of Iraq has been looming, there have been more class discussions and debates in some schools on the justification for forcibly disarming Saddam Hussein. A number of principals have had to warn teachers to make sure all sides are free to be heard. Despite this, the teaching of our constitutional history has been sorely lacking.

As Dr. Charles Haynes, a senior scholar at the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center who spends much of his time in schools around the country, says: "this generation is called to defend freedom at home and around the world. Our task is to ensure that they understand what they are defending, and why."

Fulfilling that task, there is no more important book for Americans of all ages -- including students throughout the school system -- than Linda Monk's "The Words We Live By: Your Annotated Guide to the Constitution" (Hyperion, 2003).

I have never before seen so clear and lively an account of what's in the Constitution and why. There are also vivid historical vignettes that dramatize some of the pivotal events in our common heritage. For example: "the first written protection of free speech in America was the Massachusetts Body of Liberties in 1641. This document was a great step forward ... because neither the Magna Carta in 1215, nor the English Bill of Rights in 1689 included freedom of speech or the press."

She tells the story of Boston lawyer James Otis, who, in 1761, resigned a position with the crown to argue for hours in a court against the limitless "writs of assistance" that allowed British customs officials to search colonists' homes and businesses at will for goods on which import taxes hadn't been paid.

Early Americans were infuriated by these crudely disruptive invasions of their privacy. So powerful was Otis' closing defense of that basic right that a young lawyer, John Adams, in the audience, later wrote: "then and there the child Independence was born." And so was the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution. Among the many illustrations, prints and cartoons, there is a photograph of James Otis.

Monk, a graduate of Harvard Law School, and winner of two American Bar Association awards for her illumination of the Constitution, has provided a service to the nation that should earn her a presidential Liberty Medal.

She has brought our foundation document to life.

As the delegates were signing the Constitution, she writes, Benjamin Franklin, who "had wondered whether the sun carved on the back of George Washington's chair was rising and setting," said: "Now I have the happiness to know that it is a rising, not setting sun."

But now, Attorney General John Ashcroft and his so-called USA Patriot acts are casting a blotting cloud over that sun.


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JWR contributor Nat Hentoff is a First Amendment authority and author of numerous books. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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