by Roman Martinez
July 8, 1999
|"An expression of the
American mind." These are the words Thomas Jefferson used to describe the
self-evident truths he wrote into the Declaration of Independence 223 years ago. From the
struggle for independence and Civil War through the fight against Hitler and the Cold War,
the heroes of American history have stood firm in their commitment to those core
principles of universal human rights and equality. Indeed, the Declaration stands as the
first article of faith in the American creed.
But a look at our country's educational institutions suggests that the Declaration's truths are no longer as self-evident as they once were. In fits of multicultural and secular liberal excess, schools and universities have largely abdicated their responsibility to pass down the wisdom of our Founding Fathers to subsequent generations. And so the American mind might slowly be changing.
Consider the recent controversy over the Declaration of Independence in New Jersey. On June 10, the State Assembly passed a law requiring schoolchildren to recite the Declaration's preamble along with the Pledge of Allegiance every morning. "We hold these truths to be self-evident," the required passage begins, "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."
The bill mustered strong bipartisan support in the legislature, but the real story has been the response of its opponents, who have demonized the Declaration and, in the process, have highlighted a wavering public confidence faith in American ideals. Apparently, universal assertions don't work for multiculturalist educators -- too "jingoistic," says the head of the New Jersey Education Association, the largest state teachers union. Pro-choice advocates question the emphasis on the right to life, and ACLU types worry that any mention of a "Creator" is just a sly means of introducing school prayer. For today's secular liberals, the liberty bells of 1776 no longer ring true.
More worrisome, however, is the reaction of some feminists and minorities, who have objected to the Declarations language as racist and sexist. Ironically, these groups now appropriate the arguments of John C. Calhoun and Stephen Douglas, antebellum defenders of slavery who mistakenly claimed -- against the Founding Fathers and Abraham Lincoln -- that the Declaration's doctrine of human equality was reserved for whites only. These objections have been used to bury the proposed law in the New Jersey Senate's Educational Committee.
Sadly, the historical misunderstanding exhibited by these state legislators is not atypical. High schools and colleges today barely even pretend to teach America's contributions to the cause of liberty throughout the world. Still less attention is paid to the philosophic underpinnings of American government as explained in the Declaration of Independence. This denigration of political history in our schools has combined with multicultural and relativist educational philosophies, and the effect has been to produce citizens with little understanding or appreciation of American ideals.
Take, for example, the basic textbooks currently used in primary and secondary schools across the country. According to Harvard education researcher Sarah Stotsky, most elementary readers emphasize "victim theory -- the belief that all women and non-Western people have been nothing but victims of Western patriarchy or cultural imperialism." The result, Stotsky writes, is to "make white children feel ashamed of their country." It seems the only acceptable version of American exceptionalism is one portraying our nation as exceptionally oppressive.
At the university level attacks on traditional American values and institutions also abound. Postmodern literary criticism and social thought have obviated the quest for objective truth: Universal moral laws, such as those found in the Declaration of Independence, are currently out of fashion in academic circles. Elite institutions such as Princeton and MIT have no qualms hiring and tenuring scholars like Steven Pinker and Peter Singer, both of whom have publicly defended infanticide. Cornel West reigns as Harvard's most popular professor, despite his repeated attacks upon the foundations of Western learning, "white churches," and American capitalism. In the law schools, Alan Dershowitz defines masturbation as "the core of liberty" and Lani Guinier calls for race-based proportional representation to supplant ordinary democracy. Even free speech has been silenced; as Alan Kors and Harvey Silverglate have recently noted in The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America's Campuses, speech codes enforce political correctness on campuses nationwide.
Unsurprisingly, the educational establishment's hostility to the American ideal is leaving its mark on the rising generation. While holidays like Memorial Day and (in Massachusetts) Patriot's Day pass by unobserved, students enthusiastically celebrate Earth Day, National Affirmative Action Week, and "Gaypril." They busy themselves protesting the military's ROTC program for its "homophobia" and holding candlelight vigils to condemn the "patriarchy" of American society. Avid multiculturalists one and all, undergraduates encourage the expression of every ethnic and religious tradition, with a single exception: our own.
It's a shame New Jersey's proposal to celebrate the Declaration of Independence has thus far been stymied. The rich diversity of American society requires that citizens unite in, if nothing else, their devotion to the principles of liberty and equality articulated in the words of the Founding Fathers. And as Thomas Jefferson himself argued, the schools must take responsibility for fostering the civic morality and national self-confidence necessary for the American experiment to survive. Only thus will the American creed remain an expression of the American mind.
Copyright © 1999 The American Spectator.
12 July 1999