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Jewish World Review Sept. 27, 1999 /17 Tishrei, 5760

Nat Hentoff

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Our 'Americanism'-ignorant generation -- I OFTEN SPEAK at high schools and colleges around the country as well as at elementary schools. Nearly everywhere, I find an alarming, pervasive failure in American education. Most young people have only the dimmest knowledge of the rights and liberties guaranteed to every American under the Constitution.

They do not know -- as Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson emphasized in West Virginia State Board of Education vs. Barnette -- that:

"One's right to life, liberty and property, to free speech, a free press, freedom of worship and assembly, and other fundamental rights may not be submitted to vote; they depend on the outcome of no election."

These rights cannot be taken away by a majority of the people, or Congress, or state and local legislatures. When you are born an American -- or obtain citizenship -- these basic liberties, more extensive than in any other country in the world, become yours by the authority of the Constitution.

Yet only rarely do I come across a student -- from elementary school to graduate school -- who knows, for example, that the Fourth Amendment to our Bill of Rights states plainly that his or her home or office cannot be searched by any law-enforcement agency unless the officers have a warrant from a judge stating that the police have probable cause to believe that a crime has been committed or will soon be committed by you.

Most young Americans -- and, for that matter, most of their elders -- don't know anything about the constitutional right to habeas corpus that goes back to the Magna Carta in 1215. If you have been convicted of a crime, including a crime which carries a sentence of death, by a state court, you have a right -- after exhausting all your appeals in the state courts -- to have a federal judge review your case. Was the trial fair? Did the prosecutor hide evidence that could, and should, have acquitted you?

Recently, I spoke at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and its counterpart at New York University. These bright, earnest young journalists only knew one small part of the Bill of Rights (the first 10 amendments to the Constitution). They only knew the clause in the First Amendment that speaks of "freedom of the press."

As journalists, they will, therefore, be of little help in informing the rest of the citizenry about their rights. If you don't know your own rights, you will be indifferent to the rights of other Americans when they are violated by the police, by legislatures, by the president, or by school boards.

In our country there are many places where there is a shortage of teachers, but there is also a growing concern about the fact that teachers can be hired without expertise in the subjects they are assigned to teach. This is a valid worry, but nobody involved in education -- school boards, superintendents, legislators, or the president and Congress -- seems to be at all concerned about how much teachers know about teaching the essence of Americanism, the Constitution.

I know from considerable experience that youngsters are open to learning about their legacy of freedom. John Merrow, whose valuable "Merrow Report" on the subject of education is seen on public television, makes the same point that kids are open to challenging ideas and history if their teachers are.

Youngsters are ready and willing to learn their constitutional rights if teachers tell them where those rights came from, and how hard it has been to win them.

Once, in Miami, I was asked to speak about the Bill of Rights to two large groups of high-school students. It was a very multicultural audience. Their teachers warned me: "Don't be disappointed if they get bored. All they're really interested in is music and clothes."

I told them stories about our freedoms. How, for example, the colonists suffered and were humiliated by British customs officers, who had the power to search their homes and persons at will -- without any court approval.

And I told them that was one of the main reasons for the American Revolution. And that's why the Fourth Amendment to the Bill of Rights specifically guarantees our privacy from illegal police searches.

I told the youngsters other stories about our history of freedom. At the end of the hour, the youngsters stood up and cheered. They weren't cheering me. They had discovered America! They were cheering their great good fortune in being Americans.

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


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