My fourth grader doesn’t like Social Studies very much this year. Given that the curriculum this year consists of little more than simple rote memorization for the Standards of Learning test, I can understand that. To compensate, in our family we read excerpts from books about American history we think our kids would like at the dinner table, and sometimes I tell stories about events in history that I suspect she’s never heard about before. It’s our way of rescuing our children from the curriculum.
The other night she and I enjoyed taking a rather challenging quiz about our knowledge of the US Constitution together. (I’d highly recommend this to anyone, here’s the link.) Working through some of the questions, we reasoned aloud about what the correct answer might be and she seemed surprised about how I might be able to fit things together to work out an answer. That clued me in that maybe it would be a good idea to back up a bit and pick up the beginning of the narrative with a talk about the fundamental ideas that underpin the Constitution. It’s kind of difficult to understand what the Constitution actually is without some comprehension of the philosophical foundation upon which it is built.
If John 3:16 is a one sentence summary of the meaning of the Bible, this single sentence in the Declaration of Independence rather neatly summarizes the philosophy that ultimately bore us the United States Constitution:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
I don’t believe the parallel here was completely unintentional.
Anyways, digging through what this sentence means, and where the ideas within it came from turned out to be a rather engaging discussion for a fourth grader and prompted plenty of questions about why she wasn’t learning this and instead being bored by extensive discussions about tennis players who were “spokesmen for social change.”
“What does that mean, sweetheart?”
“I have no idea, Daddy, but they made us memorize it.”
“Why would they do that?” I asked, incredulous.
“Because it’s on the test.”
Arthur Ashe has pretty much supplanted any substantive discussion about why Thomas Jefferson and George Mason did what they did as our children are spoon-fed vacuous generalities that sound like they were crafted by Organizing For America. She has a thin grasp of who Lynwood Holton and Douglas Wilder are because of their connections with the Civil Rights movement, but has never before heard of Patrick Henry (our first Governor of Virginia) or the cry of “give me Liberty, or give me death!” Spoon fed little but unsatisfying droplets of politically acceptable pablum, she has concluded that history as a discipline within the schools is utterly boring and largely meaningless.
I can certainly understand that conclusion.
Taxpayers spent about $10,000 this year so my child could mindlessly repeat “Arthur Ashe was a spokesman for social change.” If I pressed her a bit about Ashe, she could relate how this Virginian broke through a racial barrier in professional sports, and that’s a good thing for her to know. Is that in any way more important for her to know than that our founders believed that Liberty is a gift from God and not government, and that government’s role is to protect the rights He gave us? Certainly not.
The Civil Rights movement is in many ways meaningless trivia if utterly divorced from the underlying foundational principles from our founding that made the argument of racial equality intellectually significant. We didn’t at long last enact the Civil Rights Act or the Voting Rights Act because they’d be nice things to do, but because they related directly to our founding principles as they were so well described in the Declaration of Independence. ”…that all men are created equal, and that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights…” We as a nation were violating our national creed, an argument Martin Luther King frequently made with great eloqunce in such a way it shamed us to either stand for the principles we founded this nation on, or abandon them altogether and stand for nothing at all. We didn’t fix this because it was “nice” we did it because our founding principles clearly demanded we do so.
Instead our children memorize this specific and meaningless phrase: “social change.” Such dumbing-down, presumably under the premise that fourth graders can’t possibly understand basic political philosophy, conditions future voters to be responsive to vague, poll-tested political slogans and completely incapable of evaluating any idea in a logical manner and relating it to our founding principles. Slap the “social change” label on gay marriage and the empty heads start nodding in agreement as they emotionally equate Jackie Robinson with enshrining the act of sodomy as a federally protected right.
If the design of our Standards of Learning is such that students have no idea where their rights come from, but can reel off the names of the four language groups of Virginia’s Native American cultures like I can blast through the ingredients list of a Big Mac, we got a problem, Houston. A big one. What is the point of the SOLs then? To ensure equal incompetence among our students, much like Marxism guarantees equal misery among all the proletariat?
I don’t expect Bastiat to show up on the required reading list in the fourth grade, nor figure there’s much value in memorizing a list of all the Governors of Virgina. I do expect however that before we start asking students to memorize history trivia we give them some point of reference so they can at least put that trivia into some sort of context. Facts are good things, but facts without understanding yield little more than impressive sounding idiots.
The right place to start here is that one sentence in the Declaration of Independence, just like the first thing you learned in Bible study was John 3:16. It’s not much to ask, I think, but without that core our thoroughly SOL tested future public school system graduates will be entirely incapable of shouldering the burdens of citizenship, despite the ability to have the phrase “pass advanced” smoothly roll off their tongues.
The opinions expressed here are solely the views of the author, and not representative of the position of any organization, political party, doughnut shop, knitting guild, or waste recycling facility, but may be correctly attributed to the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy. If anything in the above article has offended you, please click here to receive an immediate apology.
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