Some years ago, a national study asked fourth-graders what they knew about the Fourth of July. Most knew that the holiday celebrates the Declaration of Independence, but there were some who confused it with the end of the Civil War, the arrival of the pilgrims or voting rights for women.
With similar surveys showing abysmal ignorance of American history among students of all ages, it's no wonder there's a national debate about the causes and consequences of civic illiteracy. And given the concern, it was surprising last month when, in a cost-cutting move, the state Board of Regents decided to do away with fifth- and eighth-grade social studies exams.
No doubt, some students were relieved, but their social studies teachers were appalled.
The Long Island Council for the Social Studies wrote the Regents to complain, arguing that without such statewide testing in elementary grades, schools wouldn't be held accountable for teaching American history and sharpening the analytical skills required for citizenship. The social studies teachers argue that citizen education is being neglected - public schools focus too narrowly on reading, math and science to comply with the federal testing requirements of No Child Left Behind.
So does the elimination of two tests justify all this angst - particularly when teachers often complain about too much testing? Well, yes, if it demonstrates that New York State isn't holding its public schools accountable for educating tomorrow's voters about civics and American history.
Such concerns range far beyond New York. Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor became so concerned about schools neglecting civic literacy that last year she established a company to educate young people through computer games on a website, iCivics. More kids can identify the judges on "American Idol," she noted at the time, than the justices of the Supreme Court.
But the Supreme Court shouldn't be the only forum where the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution or any of its 27 amendments are debated. Our national DNA belongs to all of us. As Sanford Levinson, a law professor at the University of Texas, says, "Anybody in a bar can get into a shouting argument over what equal protection means, or the right to free speech." And we seem to be doing it more now, thanks to tea party activists who are reviving an important tradition. In times of great national stress - the Civil War, the Great Depression and the civil rights movement - what the Constitution means moves to the center of our discourse.
So regardless of the tea party's often narrow and rigid interpretation that the Constitution means the federal government should stay out of our lives, its overall message is an important one: We have a sacred and venerated text that all should embrace.
The late Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), who until his death last week was the longest serving member of Congress, always carried a well-worn copy of the Constitution in his breast pocket. He often brandished it during debate to make a point.
Six years ago, Byrd successfully pushed for legislation establishing Sept. 17 as Constitution Day, mandating that all federally funded schools - from the elementary grades up to college - teach their students about the U.S. Constitution in some form on that day. Teachers grumbled about one more federal mandate, but at least that vital document is given a day to remember at school.
But what of the Fourth of July? What about the Declaration of Independence? How many students can identify William Floyd as Long Island's only signer of the Declaration of Independence - or do they think he's just some guy whose name is on a parkway?
And what do they know of the courage and sacrifice of signers such as Floyd, whose signatures proclaimed to King George III that they were leaders of a rebellion? As Benjamin Franklin famously warned his fellow signers, "We must all hang together, or, most assuredly, we will hang separately."
Without knowledge of American history, our traditions and our deepest values, how can tomorrow's voters know - much less, understand, or defend - those unalienable rights that Thomas Jefferson called self-evident?
The fifth- and eighth-grade social studies Regents exams may be gone. Federal education policy may not rank history up there with reading, math and science. But teaching civic literacy is in our national interest. On this most special of holidays, our pursuit of happiness will include individual and collective celebrations. But we should know why we are celebrating. hN