Teaching Civic Virtue


Today, we have in our society a crisis.  I’m not talking about the debt crisis, though that certainly qualifies, but a crisis in our very attitudes as Americans.  We used to believe in ourselves and in our founding principles but those values have slowly eroded to the point of nonexistence.

George Washington reminded us in his famous Farewell Address in 1796 that “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.”

Washington was right but sadly, we seem to have lost the battle over our local schools, particularly the right to teach what we want, especially the Ten Commandments.  We can’t even post them in the halls without out the threat of a lawsuit and a court rebuke.  Though we can fight to win them back, the process will take years, if not decades.

But I think we should look at the immediate problem another way.  Instead of getting in a big, ugly fight over religion, complete with a host of costly federal lawsuits that we are unlikely to win, we should begin the reclamation process by simply teaching civic virtue, that is certain behaviors and attitudes that are essential for the success of any free nation, values that we once possessed in great abundance.

For instance, rather than teach “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” we can simply instruct students in junior high and in high school on the Declaration of Independence and what it really means – “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.”  This phrase should be written on the hearts of all Americans.

Rather than have students learn only the Constitution’s preamble, as we all did in junior high, we should have them learn the Bill of Rights and recite those in addition.  Our children need to learn that there are sacred rights enshrined in the Constitution.

We don’t have to teach “Thou Shalt Not Steal,” but the simple fact that you have no right to take what does not belong to you.  Every person in this country is entitled to his or her property and no one, not even the government, has a right to take it from you.  If you steal, there will be legal consequences.  Our nation is one of laws, not men, and the law must be respected.

Kids today should learn that these quintessential American values are the backbone of our great nation.

If they could learn, from an early age, that they have no legal right to harm another person, to take their property, or to deny them any rights, then it might just begin a monumental change in our society.

As my great-grandfather used to say, “Your rights stop at the end of your nose.”  Anything past that point is not yours to take or yours to demand.

Teaching civic virtue could also begin to diminish what has become an “Entitlement Society.”  Many people today believe they are entitled to property that is not theirs.  And I’m not talking about personal theft here, but another form of robbery, government assistance programs.

When the government taxes its productive citizens and gives that money to non-productive citizens, it violates the sacred principles embodied in the Declaration and the values the nation was founded upon, as well as the protections in the Bill of Rights.

Until the New Deal in the 1930s, such government action was always held to be unconstitutional.  The government could not directly take a person’s property, in this case money, without due process, then hand it to the man down the street.  It was not right then and it is not right now.

Sadly many of our unproductive citizens believe they have a right to government aid for the entirety of their lives.  But students should learn that there is very little that the Constitution entitles you to, except your life, your liberty, and your property.  You are not entitled to the life of another, to the liberty of another, or to the property of another.

You are also entitled to the right to pursue happiness.  You do not have the right to demand it.  You are not promised happiness but the right to pursue it, as long as you don’t harm another.

But it remains a sad truth that many Americans do not possess even a basic understanding of these essential values or even a rudimentary knowledge of our governmental system.

Under the headline, “How Dumb Are We?”, Newsweek reported its recent finding from a survey of 1,000 U.S. citizens, in which the magazine asked the participants to take the nation’s official citizenship test.  The results were shocking, that is shockingly bad.

Thirty-eight percent failed the exam outright.  Twenty-nine percent could not name the current vice president.  Seventy-three percent were unable to correctly say why the United States fought the Cold War.  Forty-four percent failed to define the Bill of Rights.  Six percent couldn’t circle Independence Day on a calendar.

Thomas Jefferson would be horrified.  A civilized society, Jefferson believed, could not remain both ignorant and free.  So true.

We must correct this outrageous state of ignorance.  No student should be awarded a high school diploma if they can’t pass a basic citizenship test.

By dumbing down our schools, all for political reasons, we have only hurt ourselves.  And if we don’t get our schools out of the realm of social engineering and turn them back into centers of learning, then we will fail as a nation.  That does not take an Ivy League degree to figure out.

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