In 2017, the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania released their traditional survey on American civics knowledge for Constitution Day. Out of just over one thousand respondents, 37 percent were unable to name a single right protected by the First Amendment. Nearly four hundred adults were unable to recall religion, speech, press, assembly, or petition. Out of those that were able to name specific rights protected by the First Amendment, the ability to name all five was limited.
Our decline in civics knowledge does not begin when we cross the arbitrary line from childhood to adulthood, but rather in childhood itself from a general lack of education on the topic. Putting it in incredibly distressing terms in 2011, Charlies Quigley of the Center for Civics Education pointed out that,
only 4 percent of all 12th graders … (are at) a level we would hope our future leaders would attain.
Out of all fifty states, forty offer civics as a subject, but only 29 offer a “full curriculum,” which “includes course materials that cover ‘Explanation/Comparison of Democracy,’ ‘Constitution and Bill of Rights,’ and ‘Public Participation,’ as well as information on state and local voting laws.” As such, the responsibility of preserving liberty through the next generation falls to us.
Introducing Liberty to Children
In a previous article, I told a story regarding my own experience as a teenager in which I was stopped and questioned with a voluntary search. I cooperated fully. Following the incident, I was lectured by my mother on the importance of asserting my rights when confronted by the authorities.
By ensuring that our children begin learning these ideas early on we impart the protection of the law, strength, and responsibility.
While opinion was split among readers as to whether or not my mother was correct in giving me such a civics lesson in the car, most readers seemed consistent in their surprise that, at sixteen, I did not know the Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Amendments. I did not know the laws that were intended to protect me from overreaching authority. I was a distressing statistic.
In November of 2018, I released the first in a new children’s book series: I Know My Rights: A Children’s Guide to the Bill of Rights and Individual Liberty, to introduce kids to the Bill of Rights in the context of law, rather than just history, as well as the foundational principles of liberty, including voluntaryism and self-ownership. By ensuring that our children begin learning these ideas at an early age, we not only impart the protection of the law, but also a sense of civility, strength, and responsibility.
Protection of Law
Just as their parents, children are fallible and thus susceptible to the law. As such, it is paramount that children learn their rights under the law at an early age in order to protect themselves from authority in the absence of their parents or legal guardians. Many states are more than willing to try children as adults for crimes and several still impose capital punishment on minors as young as 16 years old, though their execution will take years to proceed. With implicit trust placed in authority figures by children, particularly in law enforcement and educators, the legal boundaries of those relationships must be understood and asserted.
The ability to speak freely, share and explore different ideas, and even protest, are all critical aspects of growth and development.
With growing tension in the political atmosphere over the past several years—and even several decades—the nation’s youth have displayed a desire to have their opinions heard, for better or for worse, from both the Left and Right. This is something that must be embraced and encouraged, no matter our personal opinions. However, most children spend the majority of their time in school and their voices are occasionally stifled, particularly in public schools.
While the Supreme Court has stated that schools have the ability to discipline students for disruptions, the First Amendment still applies. The ability to speak freely, share and explore different ideas, and even protest, are all critical aspects of growth and development.
Civics Facilitates Civility
In a recent National Review article, Alexander Khan wrote of the longstanding rivalry between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams; both patriots who differed greatly in opinion on the role of government and the powers that it should be granted. Despite this, there remained a strong friendship and a great level of respect. Khan says,
Intellectual disagreement for Jefferson and Adams was not a barrier to friendship, but rather an opportunity to jointly investigate ideas and grow closer to the truth. When students learn in this way, it leads them to think together. Willingness to be challenged and openness to learning encourages bold intellectual explorations of new worlds and ideas. Above all, each student’s primary goal becomes the improvement of themselves and each other.
Over the last few years, civil discourse has declined as the First Amendment has been called into question. The marketplace of ideas has faced rejection as an increase in censorship on public speakers invited by college students has brought out the worst in our young students. When censorship from college administrations has failed to come through, some students have even resorted to violence and intimidation to block controversial speakers or even to force professors to resign or be terminated. Instilling a foundation of civics and an understanding of free speech, and the necessary respect that comes with it, will eliminate future “safe spaces” and misguided calls to limit one of our most crucial freedoms.
Strength through Liberty
From the Constitution, we can conceive of the kind of government that our Founders envisioned and set into action nearly 250 years ago. We are also able to conceive of its intended limitations, though we have failed thus far to maintain them. It is the limitations purposely applied to our relatively young government that we discover that liberty requires a necessary level of personal responsibility.
The strength that comes with liberty creates young men and women who are prepared and willing to change the world.
Even with public welfare, government programs, subsidies, and endless spending, nothing will have such a positive effect on a young person as self-sufficiency. Perhaps not the level of self-sufficiency of Grizzly Adams or Ron Swanson, but a strong sense of personal duty to ourselves, grounded in a respect for the rights of others and a willingness to defend our own. Strong individuals who are able to provide for themselves are then able to provide for their families and communities. As Brittany Hunter pointed out earlier this year,
No one is coming to help you, so you might as well stop waiting and start fixing your own life today.
The strength that comes with liberty, imparted at a young age, creates young men and women who are prepared and willing to change the world, not with a sharp tweet nor at the point of a gun, but through the voluntary use of their own gifts and skills, knowing that they may improve the world through their own continued self-improvement.
Liberty Survives through Education
Whether it is in opposition to authority or the free choice to live one’s life as desired, liberty may only survive through education. As our understanding of civics declines, so do our freedoms with each passing generation. While we may not see its full degradation, our legacy may become one of passivity. As Thomas Jefferson said,
I know no safe depository 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. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power.
In that spirit, we must take control of the future of liberty and safeguard its survival through parental patriotism and the continued effort to educate the next generation.