I’m warning of an eradication of the American memory that could result, ultimately, in an erosion of the American spirit. Let’s start with some basics: more attention to American history and a greater emphasis on civic ritual.
---Ronald Reagan, Farewell Address, 1989
Not only has President Reagan’s advice gone unheeded, our collective ignorance of American history and civics has apparently grown worse in the years since he spoke those words.
In 2002, the National Assessment of Education Progress found that high school students’ understanding of American history was abysmal. In addition, of the 106,866 high school students in the class of 2005 who took the Michigan high school social studies statewide assessment test, 70,715 students (66 percent) failed to meet or exceed state standards — and 39,770 students (37 percent) were in the lowest category of assessment. Only 1,331 students (1 percent) tested in the highest category of assessment. Meanwhile, only 30 percent of eighth-graders and 26 percent of fifth-graders met or exceeded state standards.
Forgetting and ignoring our history and principles is a clear and present danger to the long-term survival of America. Unlike any other country in world history, America was founded on a set of ideals set forth in our Declaration of Independence and embodied in our Constitution. These first principles are the rule of law; the recognition of, and respect for, the rights of individuals; the equality of individuals before the law; a social compact in which government is based on the authority of the people; and the protection of unalienable rights as the legitimate purpose and limit of government.
As a constitutional republic, we depend on a well-informed, engaged citizenry to preserve these first principles and our freedom. U.S. Chief Justice Earl Warren remarked: "Liberty is not necessarily our permanent possession. Both external and internal pressures constantly assail it. It is axiomatic that every generation, to keep its freedom, must earn it through understanding the past, vigilance in the present and determination for the future." We are fools to think that we can maintain our liberties when we do not understand their origins and the principles that support them.
The Michigan Department of Education’s efforts to improve social studies led to a short-lived attempt last year to delete the words "America" and "American" from the classroom. Michigan’s proposed history and civics content standards were so glaringly flawed and flavored with anti-American bias that they were revoked by the state superintendent of public instruction and sent back to the drawing board for another year of study.
No wonder we are losing our ability to have significant political dialogue based on our history or founding principles. Apparently mimicking the appalling ignorance of our students and the general public regarding American history and civics, our political class almost never refers to the philosophical and historical origins of our Constitution. Such was not always the case. The Founding Fathers almost always framed their arguments and campaigns by history and principle. The antebellum period and the debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas were consumed by political principle, as were the policy positions as recently as a generation ago.
Only in the last generation has the political dialogue become such an empty gesture. Today’s elections, campaigns and media coverage are a morass of name-calling, emotional appeals, evasion, micro-targeting, lying, misdirection, meaningless rhetoric and empty promises.
A free press was once viewed as a force for enlightening the common citizen on the key issues of the day. It was to be a jealous guardian of the rights of the people. Thomas Jefferson wrote, "The basis of our government being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."
Perhaps this romantic view of the Fourth Estate has always been more of an aspiration than a reality, but today it appears to be nothing more than an afterthought. Indeed, the dominant media appears almost institutionally incapable of evaluating the issues of the day through the prism of our history or our constitutional principles. Unless an issue or position is captured on titillating video or packaged into a 10 second sound bite, it is likely to be ignored or distorted.
We cannot maintain our liberties if we ignore and denigrate the country’s first principles and their generating philosophy and history. If we are unable to discern when policy positions strengthen or undermine our Constitution and its ideals, and if we care not to ask the question, the further erosion of our freedom is almost certain.
We need to heed Reagan’s call and reinvigorate American history and civics education. To do otherwise will all but ensure that our freedoms will not survive.
Oakland County Circuit Court Judge Michael Warren serves as a member of the board of directors of the Michigan Center for Civic Education and is a former member of the Michigan State Board of Education. He also is the author of the upcoming book, "America's Survival Guide: How to Stop America's Impending Suicide by Embracing Our First Principles."