2011-04-15 / Columnists

It’s My Turn

Into the Darkness: Where Constitutional Illiteracy Is Leading Us (Part II)
By John Whitehead

Those who gave us the Constitution and the Bill of Rights believed that all citizens had rights that no government could violate — such as the right to free speech, the right to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures by government agents, the right to an attorney, the right to be free from cruel and unusual punishments, etc. And if any of these rights were violated, the Founders (as we call them) believed that the American people had the right and the authority to resist government encroachment of their rights. Abraham Lincoln’s famous declaration in the Emancipation Proclamation that we are a “government of the people, by the people, for the people” means exactly what it says. The government exists at the behest of its citizens. It is there to protect, defend and even enhance our freedoms, not violate them.

It was with those ideas in mind that our forefathers gave us the Constitution. As the Preamble proclaims:

We, the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this CONSTITUTION for the United States of America.

It was no idle happenstance that the Constitution opens with these three powerful words: “We the people…” This, in effect, makes “the people” the guardians of America’s future.

Thomas Jefferson recognized that an educated citizenry is the only real assurance that freedom will survive— a citizenry educated on the basic freedoms. Jefferson wrote: “I know of no safe repository of the ultimate powers of our 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 wrote 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.” Furthermore, “The People are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.” But that’s where the problem arises for us today. Most citizens have little, if any, knowledge about their basic rights. And our educational system does a poor job of teaching the basic freedoms guaranteed in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

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.

Anyone taking public office should have a working knowledge of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and should be held accountable for upholding their precepts. One way to ensure this would be to require government leaders to take a course on the Constitution and pass a thorough examination thereof before being allowed to take office.

If this constitutional illiteracy is not remedied, and soon, I agree with Richard Dreyfuss that the miracle that was America will become a “fable.” And the darkness of an authoritarian government will be inevitable. In fact, we have already travelled far down that road.

Thus, ignorant of the very basis of citizenship and overwhelmed by the informational glut of modernity, it is little wonder that many, ostrich-like, are allowing an out-of-control government to move forward unimpeded. Yet while most may feel snug and secure in their technological wombs, they are only temporarily keeping the wolf at bay. Hiding from reality is not the solution. In fact, non-participation by the citizenry only makes matters worse. “Bad officials are elected by good citizens who do not vote,” the drama critic George Jean Nathan once remarked. I would add that bad officials will run roughshod over citizens who are clueless.

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