Here's the huge problem:
Three out of five eighth graders tested in a nationwide survey did not know that the 1803 Marbury v. Madison case established the Supreme Court’s power to decide whether a federal law is constitutional. Half of them could not attribute the phrase “We hold these truths to be self-evident” to the Declaration of Independence.... Only about a third of American eighth-graders can correctly separate which presidential powers are set forth in the Constitution from those not specified in the Constitution.
I know that all of you, like me, periodically quiz other Americans you care about to see how many of the amendments in the Bill of Rights they can explain. In general my experience is that people can identify three or four of the five freedoms specified in the First, know the Second, and are fuzzy on the rest of it.


E Hines said...

Disappointingly, Chris Wallace in an interview with Dr Carson tried to tell Carson that Marbury let the judiciary make law.

Also disappointingly, Carson didn't correct him.

Eric Hines

Grim said...

Tried it on Sovay tonight, for those of you who remember her (maybe Eric B). She got 8/10 right, but flubbed the 4th and 10th. I get the 10th because she's a hardcore liberal and they seem to have trouble believing it exists, but the 4th is usually one of their (and my) key concerns.

RonF said...

"... the drive for cultural literacy ought to be endorsed by Americans of all political ideologies."

If you have one political ideology that wants to preserve our culture and one that wishes to radically change it, to whose advantage is it to destroy cultural literacy?

Anonymous said...

Er.... who cares? Do you know that they don't actually do a year of history until 8th grade, and that they do it again in high school?

I know what Marbury is. I'm a lawyer in the USA.

But I see absolutely no reason why an 8th grader would know (or care) about Marbury's case name, rather than the more generic fact that the USSC is the final arbiter of constitutionality. Frankly nobody cares except lawyers: if you were going to memorize things, there are surely better things to memorize.

Similarly, I expect 8th graders to know what the Declaration of Independence was. But I certainly don't expect them to memorize it. Nor, for that matter, do I expect them to be error-free on recalling which parts of the non-binding preamble were (for example) from the Dec of Independence, Federalist Papers, Constitution, or an Amendment.

There's only limited time to learn things. Would you rather have 8th graders be able to recite the preamble?

Grim said...

I'm unsympathetic to the idea that limited time is the issue here. This is of the utmost importance. Aristotle got this right in Politics book 5:

But of all the things which I have mentioned that which most contributes to the permanence of constitutions is the adaptation of education to the form of government, and yet in our own day this principle is universally neglected. The best laws, though sanctioned by every citizen of the state, will be of no avail unless the young are trained by habit and education in the spirit of the constitution, if the laws are democratical, democratically.... For two principles are characteristic of democracy, the government of the majority and freedom. Men think that what is just is equal; and that equality is the supremacy of the popular will; and that freedom means the doing what a man likes. In such democracies every one lives as he pleases, or in the words of Euripides, 'according to his fancy.' But this is all wrong; men should not think it slavery to live according to the rule of the constitution; for it is their salvation.

Whatever has to give way to make this a priority ought to give way.

Texan99 said...

I think I have to take Anonymous's view here. Eighth-graders are pretty young. I'd be happy to know they had a general grasp of what the S. Ct. is; certainly there are plenty of adult voters who seem a trifle vague on the subject. Perhaps because I tend to this day to mix up key phrases between the Const. and the DOI, I don't find that error serious in young students. I'd be happy to hear they found the phrase familiar and had some idea why it was important. If they knew anything at all about the limitation of federal power I'd be ecstatic.

In fact, I'd hate to have to answer for what I knew about civics at the age of 14. I might have been pretty good at spelling and even quadratic equations, but those are things that can be understood in isolation, without any experience of the difficult field of how people live together in peace and prosperity. I still thought money grew on trees, I suppose, and that most people could be trusted to leave one alone.

We've probably all seen the "man on the street" interviews in which a surprising number of people are unclear on the fact that the U.S. won its independence from England--and I don't mean confusion about England/Great Britain/UK, but a basic ignorance of whether it might have been Mexico or China instead.

E Hines said...

I think I have to take Grim's view here. I was taught the Declaration of Independence in grade school and the Constitution (at a high level) in 7th grade history. I don't think I've turned out so badly.

If we don't know who we are and how we got that way, we don't know anything at all useful. As to mixing up key phrases, we all do that; it's a trivial error. But a grade schooler ought to be able to recognize and understand such a minor error when it's pointed out to him. A grade schooler ought to be able to describe, albeit in a child's terms, why we have a such a Declaration and why it was necessary. Recite the 30-something offenses in it? Maybe not so much.

Recite the Preamble of the Constitution? Is that less important than The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere? I had to write that from memory for a test....

I've deprecated citing old, dead guys on occasion but regarding politics and the political animals that we are, Pericles and Plato were right. And it's never too soon to start learning, or too old to continue it.

Eric Hines

Anonymous said...

I remember my high school civics class. I'm not sure I got any concrete teaching about our form of government before then. And what I did learn was very disjointed and confusing.

I remember seeing the cartoon about "I'm a Bill" and having no clear idea of the process of legislation, afterward.

While our youngsters do need some introduction into the workings of our form of government, I submit that the real process of education on this topic cannot begin until a person has an understanding of how ordinary authority works in business and civic organizations, which absolutely requires some minimal level of adult experience.

In my view, the US Constitution resembles calculus with its level of difficulty and requirement for a certain amount of intellectual maturity.

The words are easy enough, but the interplay of different kinds of authority is not so easily grasped. George W. Bush educated me on this point, with his few, crisp summations of the different roles played by different people in public office at different times.

As for the argument over memorizing, the capacity of our children for memory work is unchallenged in our schools. I know this, because all their memory work is devoted to popular song lyrics. A kid who can memorize "Poppin' Tags" can handle the Preamble to the Declaration just fine.


Anonymous said...

Here. Like this.


E Hines said...

Valerie, you're describing a disappointing failure of your school system.

...the real process of education on this topic cannot begin until a person has an understanding of how ordinary authority works in business and civic organizations, which absolutely requires some minimal level of adult experience.

The order of subjects isn't far off. No, it doesn't require a minimal level of adult experience in business and civic organizations, as Junior Achievement programs and other kids' businesses amply demonstrate.

the US Constitution resembles calculus with its level of difficulty and requirement for a certain amount of intellectual maturity.

Leaving aside that I disagree with you on the Constitution and calculus as comparable levels of difficulty, I had calculus as a junior in high school. The daughter of a friend of mine had calculus a few short years ago in her high school.

the interplay of different kinds of authority is not so easily grasped.

Certainly that's true when the material is as poorly taught as you've described your high school doing. But none of that has anything to do with the age at which this stuff ought be taught; it only points up the need for actual teaching, regardless of the student's age.

Eric Hines

Anonymous said...


I admit that having teachers, who actually understand the subject matter they are supposed to convey, is always a help.


raven said...

Maybe we should just teach them to read, using Kenneth Roberts historical fiction for material. Probably work as well as anything else, and be more fun.
The real problem is the educational system has been taken over by a bunch of commies. I call them that, although they would vigorously deny it, because their goals and desires seem to be indistinguishable from Communism. Walks like a duck, etc.

Cass said...

When I was growing up, we moved all over the US and I don't recall ever learning any specifics about the Bill of Rights until high school.

There's an argument for teaching kids earlier: what one learns early in life (and what is repeated) is often retained better than things learned later. But would knowledge of the Bill of Rights solve the problems we face today?

I don't think so. People care more about their rights when they look around them in the every day world and see them being violated - often, and egregiously. So, if soldiers are being quartered in your home, you're quite likely to care deeply about that right right. Or if you're being persecuted on religious grounds (really persecuted, not just ordinary social pressures which may well be actionable in law, but which are also part of living with other people), then those rights will be uppermost in your mind.

If you live in a neighborhood where police regularly burst in without warrants and seize your personal property, you'll be very sensitive to search/seizure rights. We're not talking about hearing a few outrageous stories on the news in a nation of 300+ million people, but close, regular experience with egregious violations of the 4th Amendment.

Because the vast majority of people do *not* have that kind of close, personal experience, they're not up in arms. There's always a tipping point.

I'm not saying there is nothing to worry about here - just that, in the ordinary experience of most people, these concerns don't rank very high because nothing in their experience leads them to feel personally threatened. And that's not an irrational assessment.

Some people feel threatened more easily than others. Some people's experiences cause them to weigh stories in the news more heavily than others. But in 56 years of living in many different states, I can't name a single person who has had a big run-in with Bill of Rights violations. Opinions will vary on how much weight I should give to that (and I won't argue).

But it ain't nothin' :p

So, would having memorized the Bill of Rights change my personal threat assessment? I'm not sure it would, because I'm not sure ignorance is the problem (but I'll gladly stipulate it's not a good thing).

Part of early education serves an indoctrination function - it reinforces what society thinks matters most or is fundamental. The indoctrination our kids get nowadays has a "First World problems" air to it, because rightly or wrongly, people feel relatively secure and thus worry about things farther down the food chain.

Cass said...

The above comment notwithstanding, you can put me firmly in the camp of those who believe that a little more indoctrination early in life would be a good thing :p

I'm just not sure it would trump complacency or human nature.

Cass said...

While our youngsters do need some introduction into the workings of our form of government, I submit that the real process of education on this topic cannot begin until a person has an understanding of how ordinary authority works in business and civic organizations, which absolutely requires some minimal level of adult experience.

Boy howdy, do I agree with this comment.

One more thing children and teens lack is any understanding of human nature (they're very naïve about it). And human nature is the context that makes laws and rights make sense.

My Dad used to love to tell me that boys all wanted to "get into my knickers" when I started dating. I'm sure he was right, but I didn't believe him because I had absolutely no understanding of what it was like to be a teenaged boy. Thus, his warnings made zero sense to me and I discounted them.

Can't transplant experience, though parenting and education would be far easier if we could.

Anonymous said...

In the district and private schools I am familiar with, 4th and 6th grade are state history, 5th and 8th and 9th are world history, 7th, 10th and 11th are US history, and 12th is govt/econ. That said, having looked at the new AP standards are heavily anti-Constitution and anti-Founders. If, Lord willing, in a few years I get to teach US history again, I'll have a real mess trying to get the kids up to passing the AP while also getting the better interpretation as well.


Anonymous said...

Poster #4, back again.

Grim, you aren't considering reality here.

Aristotle lived in a time where (a) the educated folks were relatively elite compared to most school kids; and (b) the scope of what was considered relevant history was much, much, smaller.

My third graders spent three weeks learning about Australia. They even understand it's on a tectonic plate. Aristotle didn't know that there WAS an Australia (or a U.S., for that matter.) My kids spend time learning about the U.S. system--and how it differs from the many other political systems. Aristotle didn't have that to think about, since there were very few competing systems to discuss--and, obviously, no U.S. system.

My 7th grade daughter can tell you more about world history than the Greeks ever knew. She can also speak both English and Spanish, write cogent essays; explain basic biology and earth science; do algebra; and so on.

12 year old Greeks could not do that. absolutely 12 year old Greek GIRLS could not do that, since schooling was generally reserved to the rich and male.

So if she mixes up the DOI and Amendments, by memory, I don't especially give a shit.

Certainly you can make a cogent argument for favoring depth over breadth. But it's hard to make that argument as applied to something so broad as "history;" and it is especially difficult when you're talking about people who are 13-14 years old.

What do you consider "unimportant enough" that people shouldn't learn? perhaps, Australia?

Grim said...

I'm not rejecting the idea that priorities have to be set, or that there's a lot we'd like people to know. However, since you mention it, in terms of producing citizens capable of maintaining a republic that functions well and avoids tyranny, plate tectonics would seem to me to be less important than civics. Citizens really need to understand the workings of their government and their duties. They need to know what the government's bounds are, so they can recognize when those bounds are being exceeded.

The way the continents move about the earth is interesting and worthy of knowing, but public education is provided at taxpayer expense because we recognize the value of having our fellow citizens in possession of a proper basic education. Whatever the priority structure is in public education, civics should be among the class with top priority.

Grim said...

Oh, by the way:

Aristotle didn't have that to think about, since there were very few competing systems to discuss...

Not true! Aristotle wrote at a time when there was a huge profusion of different political systems. A large part of the Politics is devoted to examining different constitutions, and then building out a typology of different possible systems of government.

The strength of his point about the failure of civics education might be seen best this way: in his lifetime, all that flourishing democratic political experimentation ceased to exist. His own student, Alexander the Great, extinguished it. Alexander's conquests began with the Greek city states that had once defeated the Persian empire.

So when he said "of all the things which I have mentioned that which most contributes to the permanence of constitutions is the adaptation of education to the form of government, and yet in our own day this principle is universally neglected," don't read that as a kind of gruffy-old-man comment about 'kids today.'

Read it as a warning from the very last hour of freedom.

Cass said...

I don't believe that having the mass of citizens being indoctrinated/educated in accordance with the Constitution is likely to be the primary determinant (or the secondary, or the tertiary one) of whether or not people, states, or government entities allow the Constitution to be violated or not.

It has been, throughout our history, because people don't always follow rules. That's why we have rules in the first place: to allow a mechanism (more often than not, after the fact) for redress: a cause of action or complaint that may be acted upon.

It is hard to imagine a more egregious violation of Constitutional rights than FDR's internment camps (at least where US citizens were involved). I can't imagine that happening today.

So... where they at "the very last hour of freedom" back then? Have things gotten worse, or better?

Those are some pretty basic rights that were violated. On a massive scale.

E Hines said...

What do you consider "unimportant enough" that people shouldn't learn?

This is a red herring. In addition to what Grim said in response to this, I offer this: you said in your earlier comment a far more relevant thing, There's only limited time to learn things. Indeed. American children's school days are both appallingly short and in any year appallingly few.

Eric Hines

Grim said...

So... where they at "the very last hour of freedom" back then?

It's pretty likely that they were, isn't it? That was the hour when the Nazis and the Soviets were dividing up the world with Imperial Japan.

It took a robustly virtuous citizenry making tremendous sacrifices to roll that back, even if they had to do some tough things to get there. So when I look at 'Old Glory' from 1939, I see something of what made it possible for them to do it. That's the kind of thing I'd like to see us teaching children today.

Cass said...

And yet freedom continued, to the point where the US was still (and is still, to much of the world) a beacon of liberty and prosperity.

If we define every setback or failure in apocalyptic terms, it sort of loses its punch. I don't think the US was in all that much danger (directly) from the Nazis, the Soviets, or Japan. They might have been, some day. But I'm pretty sure that didn't require full American citizens to give up their Constitutional rights, their property, their liberty.

Does the Bill of Rights mean anything? Or can those basic rights be waived by third parties?

Grim said...

If we define every setback or failure in apocalyptic terms, it sort of loses its punch.

Alexander the Great actually did exterminate Greek democracy. You mentioned the threat from Imperial Japan, which I think was more serious than you realize even by itself -- but also allied with the Nazis who were, for a while, in a pact with the Soviets.

Democracy vanished from the world in one of those two cases. It almost did the second time, too, except for the tremendous courage of a few who were devoted to it. It's true that they didn't really believe that the rights they strove to protect applied to the Japanese, no more than they really believed those rights applied to blacks. They were still in the grip of racism, the biggest error of the Modern world.

When the 'Why we fight' reels came along, or Norman Rockwell's paintings, they where stirring and effective because the seeds had been planted. Rhetoric always works in part by pointing to things you already agree with. Education ought to be about planting those seeds, so that violations of our principles outrage and defense of our principles resonates.

douglas said...

Our schools today teach our kids more about recycling and 'green' practices than they do about their government and what it was based on. We need to teach them early not because memorizing this or learning about that will make certain they'll be good citizens, but because, as Grim said, the seed will have been planted, and we will have also indicated that which we deem of most importance. What we leave to later must not be as important- at least, that's how it will be perceived.

Thank God the Bicentennial of the Declaration of Independence came during my formative years, as that made a real and lastin impact, I think, that we as a nation valued that document and those ideas. Do our kids get anything like that kind of indoctrination from the schools today? I think not, and there is where you can see how we have a society where now 1/3 of the people think socialism is o.k. and the Constitution is just an outdated document that doesn't even consider social media....

Cass said...

Democracy vanished from the world in one of those two cases. It almost did the second time, too, except for the tremendous courage of a few who were devoted to it.

Grim, you're running a bunch of things together that I happen to believe matter, but which don't really apply to a discussion of the Constitution of the United States.

I may happen to believe the US has a role to play in spreading democracy (that's a view that's distinctly out of vogue right now). But I don't think that view is supported by our Constitution or by the Bill of Rights, which is what we're discussing.

The only way in which the Japanese can reasonably be said to have threatened the Bill of Rights is by scaring us into violating our own supreme law. And I very much doubt that was one of their aims.

Grim said...

I think the Japanese intended to use that plague bomb on the West Coast, having tested it (successfully) in villages in China. The war ended with them having an immediate capacity to reduce America to submission via that weapon, and their experience in China suggests that the rule of whatever puppet state the Empire of Japan controlled would not have been in accord with the Constitution.

The point is that a defense of liberty requires a virtuous citizenry. Education is a critical part of creating the civic virtues, and defending them against dangers. Those dangers can be external or internal, but where no inculcation of the virtues has been made, no defense is likely to succeed.

Cass said...

Grim, I'm not saying it couldn't have happened, but a tiny island nation taking and - far more important - holding onto/occupying a nation the size of the US.... well, let's just say I'm a skeptic.

History is replete with conquering armies biting off more than they could hold on to.

Our schools today teach our kids more about recycling and 'green' practices than they do about their government and what it was based on.

Is this really true?

In 12 years of schooling, how many courses do students take in either of those things (recycling, or green practices)?

I had several years of American history, one government class and one civics class (both lasting 1 year). So did my kids.

I haven't seen anything even near similar coverage of recycling/environmental stuff in K-12, nor are there AP exams in either of those topics (to my knowledge, at least).

I understand the frustrations.

I agree that these topics are important.

But I can't agree that any of them are the sina qua non, without which liberty dies. When I look at the average young Marine who defends our liberty, I'm pretty sure most of them haven't memorized the Bill of Rights either.

Grim said...

... a tiny island nation taking and - far more important - holding onto/occupying a nation the size of the US.... well, let's just say I'm a skeptic.

Well, OK, although Great Britain did a pretty good job in India (and, for that matter, provided most of the population that conquered and ruled over this continent).

Japan had already done a pretty good job in China, for that matter. It's a small island nation, but one that was quite densely populated. I think outright conquest was unlikely, but had they succeeded in their plan to wipe out San Diego (their plague bomb test in China killed, estimates vary, between 200,000-600,000 people)... well, they might have been as dominant over US history as we have been over Japanese.

In any event, alternate history aside, education really does matter. I don't actually care if you memorize the Bill of Rights, but you should be able to say just what rights an American citizen is supposed to have. You should be able to recognize when rights are being violated, or when the government is out of line.

douglas said...

Okay, Cass- I was really referring to up to the seventh grade, as that's where my son is. The amount of US history and civics they've had is paltry. They don't have classes in recycling or green practices, but believe me, they work it into everything, it seems. Keep in mind that I live in Los Angeles- so perhaps it's a more localized phenomenon.

Just as an example, I'm sure I taught my sons Cub Scout Den more about US history and principles then they got in school through the 5th grade- I say this without exaggeration.

Cass said...

I believe you, Douglas.

My brother in law, who is 4 years older than the Spousal One and I (IOW, he's 60) is visiting and I posed this question to them last night over a pre-prandial beverage or two.

He did remember taking some form of civics in 3-4th grade, and he memorized the preamble to the Constitution. The Spousal One, like me, didn't study the bill of rights in any depth until HS and then then only in the context of general civics/govt.

I'm a big fan of being required to memorize something (a famous speech, a poem or two, etc) in school: it's a skill we're losing in the Internet age, and it's valuable.

I couldn't begin to tie all the rights to the correct BOR amendments, but if you name one of those rights, I know that it's in the Bill of Rights (IOW, I know that right is guaranteed by the BOR). So I would probably fail this test, and yet I think I know them in the sense that's needed by ordinary citizens (do you understand that the Constitution protects this set of rights? Yep. Can you list them off the top of your head? Probably not - for instance I bunched several together under "due process", but if you named the individual rights, I could have said "Yes that's covered" or "no, that's not covered").

Cass said...

Grim, England was a world power and India was (and in some ways, still is) an impoverished, technologically backward nation.

I don't think one can say, "As England was to India, so is Japan to the US" - whether you're looking at the level of government, trade, national wealth, or military strength, Japan simply didn't have any kind of overwhelming advantage over the US. During the 100 or so years of the Raj, India slowly gained ground as the British built a civil service, national infrastructure, etc in India that had been lacking before, and in many ways it was this infrastructure that allowed India to finally throw off British rule (but only after 2 world wars, during which England managed to hold on to power even while engaged in global warfare on their home turf).

My point was that even a somewhat remote threat was apparently enough to justify violating the Constitutional rights of US citizens - depriving them of liberty, property, unjustly confining them with no real process or evidence of wrongdoing (or even probable cause to suspect such). After 9/11, we did not round up Muslims here legally and put them in camps, or cause them to lose their businesses or homes or personal property.

And there are other quite severe violations of Constitutional rights throughout US history. This is why I predictably raise this issue when it is suggested that things are categorically worse now than in our past. I'm not convinced this is actually true.

I'm open to argument, but it's far from a slam dunk case. The Alien and Sedition Acts were another such gross violation, and were used to justify the WWII internment camps. So the seeds were sowed very early on.

Grim said...

I think Ronald Reagan put it well when he said:

“Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn't pass it 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 was once like in the United States where men were free.”

I take that to be very closely allied to Aristotle's point. Freedom isn't passed in the bloodstream, which means that it has to be brought into actuality and kept actual by art. Arts have to be taught. Education, and not by bloodstreams, is how we convey freedom to our children.

That you can point to deadly threats at various points in American history only strengthens Reagan's argument, and I think Aristotle's (and mine). This work has to be done, and done with intensity and intention, in every generation if freedom is not to pass away.

Cass said...

Fought for by violating our own Constitution and Bill of Rights? I'm pretty sure that's not what Reagan was talking about.

Who is going to enforce the kind of uniform education you want to see? The States aren't going to do it - there's no mechanism for ensuring they do unless we want to add yet more power to the federal government.

If all your point is to say, "Well, people (the states, local school districts, etc) *ought* to teach civics", I won't argue the point.

If your point is, "If they did this, that would radically change the status quo", I'd say that's an assertion that would require something more before I'd be convinced it's valid.

That said, this may interest you:

Nationally, more than 72,000 teachers have created accounts with iCivics, giving digital civic education to more than 7.5 million students. It is now used by more than half the nation’s middle-school social-studies teachers, and that is cause for celebration. The question is how to reach the other half.

This month we are launching iCivics Ohio, a partnership between the John Glenn College at Ohio State University, the Capitol Square Foundation and Justice O’Connor’s iCivics. The partnership could give to every student in Ohio access to state-of-the-art digital civic-education experiences—from and other resources—that include state-specific curricula and lesson plans specifically for Ohio teachers. We hope that every other state will consider similar opportunities.

Though this made me wince a bit:

For example, fewer than one-third of students tested knew that “the government of the United States should be a democracy” is a political belief shared by most people in this country.

And here I thought we were a Republic :p Silly me.

Grim said...

The local Middle School 'social studies' teacher is a 20 year Navy vet. I'll have to ask him if he uses that program.