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Why Aren't Schools Teaching Our Children Their Rights and Freedoms? PDF Print E-mail
Commentary/Politics - Guest Commentaries
Written by John W. Whitehead   
Thursday, 22 October 2009 08:44

"Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government." -- Thomas Jefferson

According to President Barack Obama, making school days longer and extending the academic school year will increase learning and raise test scores among American children. However, it's not the length of the school year that is the problem so much as the quality of education being imparted to young people, especially when it comes to knowing American history and their rights -- what we used to call civics.

Clearly, the public schools are fostering civic ignorance. For example, a recent study of 1,000 Oklahoma high-school students found that only 3 percent would be able to pass the U.S. Immigration Services' citizenship exam, while incredibly 93 percent of those from foreign countries who took the same test passed. Only 28 percent of Oklahoma students could name the "supreme law of the land" (the Constitution), while even less could identify Thomas Jefferson as the author of the Declaration of Independence. Barely one out of every four students knew that George Washington was the nation's first president. None of the students correctly answered eight or more of the 10 questions, and 97 percent scored 50 percent or less.

This problem is not limited to Oklahoma students; it's a national problem. For example, a similar study in Arizona found that only 3.5 percent of public-high-school students would be able to pass the citizenship test, a figure not significantly exceeded by the passing rates of charter- and private-school students, at 7 and 14 percent, respectively.

A survey of American adults by the American Civic Literacy Program resulted in some equally disheartening findings. Seventy-one percent failed the test. Moreover, having a college education does very little to increase civic knowledge, as demonstrated by the abysmal 32 percent pass rate of people holding not just a bachelor's degree but some sort of graduate-level degree.

Those who drafted the U.S. Constitution understood that the only way to guarantee that freedom would survive in the new republic was through an informed citizenry -- one educated on basic rights and freedoms. As Thomas Jefferson wrote, "I know no safe depositary of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education." Jefferson also recognized that the people "are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty."

Unfortunately, as the aforementioned surveys indicate, most Americans are constitutionally illiterate, and our young people are not much better. Despite the millions of taxpayer dollars spent on education, our schools do a poor job of teaching the basic freedoms guaranteed in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Indeed, the major emphasis in public education today is on math and science. Yet even in those subjects, American students lag far behind when compared to students in other countries.

We would do well to heed Jefferson's advice on the subject of public education. He believed that pre-university education was to "instruct the mass of our citizens in ... their rights, interests, and duties as men and citizens." As for university education, Jefferson said it was "to form the statesmen, legislators, and judges on whom public prosperity and individual happiness are so much to depend."

Clearly, the ramifications of raising up untold generations of young people who are constitutionally illiterate are serious and far-reaching. These young people will be our future voters and political leaders. By failing to educate them, educators have not only done us a disservice but our nation as well.

So what's the solution?

Instead of forcing children to become part of the machinery of society by an excessive emphasis on math and science in the schools, they should be prepared to experience the beauty of becoming responsible citizens. This will mean teaching them their rights and urging them to exercise their freedoms to the fullest.

Some critics are advocating that students pass the United States citizenship exam in order to graduate from high school. Others recommend that it must be a prerequisite for attending college. I'd go so far as to argue that students should have to pass the citizenship exam before graduating from grade school. In fact, the goal of civic literacy is far from impossible. To pass the examination, one must only correctly answer six out of ten questions. To see how simple the test is, check it out at

The federal bureaucracy lodged in Washington, DC, is out of control. Increasingly, under George W. Bush, the federal government disregarded the Constitution and systematically violated the civil liberties of American citizens on a mass scale. Unfortunately, Barack Obama is continuing a similar pattern.

And whose fault is it? When I was a child going to school, I was taught American history and how radical the so-called Founding Fathers were. I was required to take civics courses, and I knew the Bill of Rights. And by the time I had entered college, I was protesting government encroachment on our freedoms and liberties.

I was also taught that if students didn't learn, it's because teachers didn't teach. The unfortunate danger we now face is a government no longer controlled by the people and which no longer feels responsible toward them. This is a problem created by the educational system, but it is one that could be remedied by it as well.

Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. His book The Change Manifesto is available in bookstores and online. He can be contacted at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it . Information about The Rutherford Institute is available at

Comments (2)Add Comment
They don't go by the Constitution anyway . . .
written by wants to be free, October 22, 2009
All the things I was taught in civics class were just patriotic drivel told to us to make us feel superior to other countries and use the illusion of freedom to make us docile.

I was taught that we fought WWII for freedom from oppression. We were given specific examples that the Nazis would set up roadblocks and demand papers. We didn't do that in America because we were free. We have that now, of course they are called safety checks. You can see them many weekends at the foot of the Centennial Bridge in Rock Island or on the one ways by Riverside Park in Moline.

We are supposed to be free from unreasonable searches but you can see how that plays out by watching the police search people for having a license plate light out on any episode of cops. Even better you can take Interstate 80 through Henry County right now and count all the cars with their possessions laying on the road with the Henry County Sherrifs help. All day every day any day. How about ninjas with automatic weapons using flash bombs and breaking every window and door to enter a premisis with automatic weapons, threatening to kill people in front of their screaming children because the homes occupant my have some unauthorized plant matter. Does that sound like an unreasonable search and seizure?

Does a 20 year sentence for having plant matter seem cruel and unusual?

The 9th and 10th ammendment reserve the powers not given to the federal government for the states and individuals. There was a constitutional ammendment to make alcohol illegal, where is the constitutional amendment to make marijuana illegal? I guess we just reinterpret the constitution to fit our needs. Heck, we can even change the definition of words if it works to our favor.

The only thing that a student needs to know about government today is that might makes right and they are mighty so just do as you are told and no one will get hurt. If you think you can change the way it is they will just sign an international treaty that supercedes the constitution and then claim that it can't be changed because a treaty is more powerful than the constitution.
It's sad
written by Nation Of Dolls, October 25, 2009
Why are any of us surprised by these findings? First rule of keeping a subservient country starts with keeping the majority of the people ignorant. This is no longer limited to minorities, but to most who attend public schools regardless of race, religion or creed.

I hate to seem like a conspiracy type person but considering most laws in this country are made in order to please big corporations not the people.

Which brings up the question why educate those who essential will be used for corporate gains later? Why teach people there rights when they can be scared by lies told by police and government?

Why teach people that laws and bills with fancy names like "patriot act" are nothing more than clever marketing to hide what is really in these bills.

The government has no interest in education. Because education would lead to the public realizing they hold absolutely no power in this country anymore and that corruption is a fact of our government not just a theory made by crazy people.

And to address the post Above I agree. Marijuana laws should have been the first sign to people that the interest of our government isn't in facts, or science. It's about big industry and lobbyist. Seeing as it was made illegal to protect timber interests and then demonized to justify such when the effects of marijuana are far less than alcohol.

This has nothing to do with democrats and republicans. Any system that is made to divide people is wrong. So is any system that accepts money from corporations to influence law. It has to do with the misleading laws and bills that obviously the common person doesn't understand.

But in the end what average person wants to read a 2000 page bill when it has such a fancy and nice name slapped on it.

In the end I believe a large part of the public education system is made to fail. There is no other answer unless you believe all public school teachers are either unqualified or the curriculum allowed is intentionally made to leave important information out.

I love this country, however like the original idea of this country there is something better and there is much to be improved on. However when all forms of government become tainted by human nature which is corruption for money, power, personal gains how can we ever expect things to change?

And I apologize in advance for the lengthy post however this is an issue very dear to me with a young daughter that will have to grow up and survive in a broken system that will only get worse with time unless bigger steps are taken.

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