On April 19, 1836, sixty years after the Battle of Lexington and Concord, the first battle of the American Revolutionary War, local citizens gathered together to dedicate a monument to remember what the brave Minutemen did at Lexington Green and the Concord North Bridge. The voices of the local citizens and a few aging patriots rang out as they sang the “Concord Hymn,” a poem composed by Ralph Waldo Emerson:
By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.
As the Redcoats advanced, the Minutemen decided at that moment to, with their crude muskets in hand, throw off the chains of being British subjects and instead assert their inalienable rights as Americans to form their own government and to become citizens with the power to direct their own destiny. To win Independence, they had to use muskets. They were fighting enslavement. But, as the Founding Fathers knew, to create and maintain a stable and strong Republic, a representative democracy that would not be crushed by demagoguery and tyranny, we had to have knowledgeable citizens. John Adams said, “Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people.” Similarly, James Madison wrote, “a people who mean to be their own governors, must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives.”
But are we, as citizens of the American Republic, more than227 years after that fateful “shot heard round the world” was fired at Lexington and Concord, doing everything we can to arm ourselves “with the power knowledge gives?” I read with dismay the recently issued test results from a 2001 U.S. history assessment of fourth, eighth, and twelfth-grad students conducted by the U.S. Department of Education. The test results found that fewer than 15% of these students were rated as “proficient” in history.
Large numbers of these students did not know that the Boston Tea Party was a seminal event that led to the American Revolution, that the Bill of Rights was added to the U.S. Constitution to prevent the federal government from taking away some of our precious civil liberties and that differing views about slavery in the North and South was the cause of the Civil War.
Diane Ravitch, a professor at New York University and noted author, said “since the seniors are very close to voting age or already have reached it, one can only feel alarm that they know so little about their nation’s history and express so little capacity to reflect on its meaning.” Secretary of Education Rod Paige was startled that the test questions had “stumped so many students involve the most fundamental concepts of our democracy.”
One glimmer of hope was found by the fact that students who read biographies and who used primary historical documents such as letters, diaries, and essays written by historical figures achieved higher test results. This result makes sense. No one will learn our history with any passion if it is taught as a mere recitation of dull facts and dates. Telling the great story of our country through the lives of our heroes, heroines, and hard-working citizens may be an important pathway to building a knowledgeable and participatory citizenry.
And as we work with the next generation to improve their knowledge of our history and institutions, we should also train them to actively participate in our representative democracy. Being able to influence our elected representatives to advance good public policy is a “civic skill” and the mere passage of a civics course or the High School Exit Exam will not tell us whether a high school senior has obtained these important skills. Our Republic will only work if citizens have both a civic education and the civic skills to make our views known.
I believe that by time every high school senior graduates, he or she should be able, with the assistance of a civics or history teacher, to research a public policy problem, understand the responsibilities of differing levels of government and the private sector, write a persuasive letter that advances a particular point of view, and make a concise and logical presentation to a governing body. The frequent meetings of the Auburn City Council and the Placer County Board of Supervisors provide excellent forums and opportunities for every high school student in our area to obtain these critical civic skills and influence how public policy is made. In my view, the members of these governing bodies would welcome the input of high school students.
Thomas Jefferson wrote, “I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of 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.” Jefferson was right. We, as parents, teachers and citizens of the American Republic, need to ensure that the next generation is armed with knowledge about our representative democracy, our nation’s history, and the necessary civic skills to participate in the public policy process. If anyone grumbles and cynically says that this is “too hard,” tell them what the Minutemen did at Lexington and Concord.
March 30, 2002